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Dr. Christopher Burkett describes elements of the Founders’ philosophy on foreign policy

The Founders’ Philosophy of Foreign Policy

On September 16th, 2021, The Institute of World Politics hosted a webinar entitled The Founders’ Philosophy of Foreign Policy, led by Dr. Christopher Burkett. This lecture was presented in honor of Constitution Day. Dr. Burkett explained the Founders’ foreign policy ideals, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the changing of these ideas considering the progressivism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The lecture was co-sponsored by the Jack Miller Center.

About the Speaker

Dr. Christopher Burkett is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Ashbrook Scholar Program for undergraduate students at Ashland University. He is the editor of Ashbrook’s 50 Core American Documents and has written on the American founding, progressivism, and American foreign policy.

Four Maxims of the Founders’ Foreign Policy

Dr. Burkett began by emphasizing the importance of the U.S. founding documents and their purpose of informing future statemen about the means of promoting justice in domestic and foreign policy. He then introduced the four maxims or moral principles laid out by these documents.

  • First, all peoples reserve the right to be politically independent of outside actors and to defend their right to self-determination.
  • Second, the United States must also recognize the self-determination of other peoples and nations.
  • Third, the sole duty of the American government is to guarantee the rights of American citizens.
  • Fourth, the government must make efforts to protect its own political independence.

Burkett then introduced the competition between the first two and last two maxims that have defined American foreign policy throughout history. Dr. Burkett explained that the United States has often been required to balance its moral duty not to intervene in the affairs of other nations and simultaneously to perform actions to provide security to its citizens. This balance shaped U.S. foreign policy throughout the 19th century.

The Role of Progressivism

Dr. Burkett continued by discussing the effect of progressivism on the four maxims. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, progressive ideology, in part promoted by President Woodrow Wilson, began to re-evaluate the four maxims. Progressives emphasized the immorality of serving self-interest. As a result, they opposed the first two maxims and promoted more involvement by the U.S. government abroad, with altruistic intentions.

The Maxims and the Constitution Today

In response to a question about whether the Constitution is still applicable and can accommodate the maxims today, Dr. Burkett stated his belief that the maxims are both broad and universal enough to apply today. While conceding that the world has changed since the founding of the United States, the maxims’ central concerns of security and justice are still applicable. Dr. Burkett added that the modern presidency may have stretched the Constitution, but the document is flexible enough to allow the executive branch to identify threats and formulate responses to those threats.

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