Alliances, Coalitions, and Ententes - In england's wake: the nineteenth century

The United States eventually became involved in the Napoleonic wars. Logic demanded that the nation choose one side or the other, but tradition, past experience, and the intense national division over the foreign policies of Jefferson and his successor, James Madison, made the decision difficult. George Washington had already become the nation's father figure, and no leader could ignore such pronouncements as the Farewell Address with impunity. Moreover, the unhappy experience with the French alliance made both politicians and the public cautious. More important, however, was the domestic political tug-of-war regarding foreign policy. Although President Madison and his supporters had strong sympathies for France, to have suggested an alliance with Napoleon would have confirmed the accusations of the Federalists, who claimed that the president had called for war to aid France, not to defend American interests. Since French violations of neutral rights had been as flagrant as those committed by England, that argument seemed plausible. So the United States entered the war against Britain, but without any alliance with France—a technique that the nation followed again in World War I a hundred years later.

The combination of luck and domestic politics that kept the United States out of a formal alliance with France in 1812 also made it possible for war-weary England to extend remarkably generous peace terms to the Americans. Despite an almost unbroken string of military defeats, the American public viewed the war as a great victory, thus adding to the tradition and myth that the United States need not and should not enter into alliances.

In the years immediately after the Treaty of Ghent (1815), the United States followed a foreign policy that took advantage of the European political situation. Designed and implemented primarily by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, the policy took shrewd advantage of Europe's economic and psychological exhaustion following the defeat of Napoleon, of the Latin American revolts against Spain, of geography, and of the British desire to keep European power politics restricted to Europe. When the Latin American colonies revolted against Spain, the threat of intervention by the Holy Alliance (Russia, Prussia, Austria, and France) made Adams reconsider his earlier rejection of a British offer of an alliance. Nevertheless, Adams finally concluded, correctly, that England would act to keep other European countries out of the Western Hemisphere with or without an alliance with the United States, and he again spurned the offer. The British obtained a commitment from the French that they would not permit their fleet to be used for any transfer of Holy Alliance troops to Latin America. Once again American leaders had examined the possibility of entering into an alliance but had rejected that move; not because of tradition, but because a careful appraisal of the situation convinced them that such an alliance was simply unnecessary.

But it is out of such stuff that traditions are made. President James Monroe's Doctrine for the Western Hemisphere (1823) made British policy appear to be a function of American diplomacy. John Quincy Adams knew full well the emptiness of any threat from the Holy Alliance, but the American public treated the entire episode as proof of their nation's ability to solve its international problems without help. And so the United States proceeded through the nineteenth century armed with Washington's advice and a conviction that there was no need to play balance-of-power politics with the European nations.

British foreign policy continued to make such beliefs come true. Great Britain, busy in Europe and Asia, hoped to see the United States restricted in size and power, but never did the potential gains of such desires warrant the use of military force to ensure that they materialized. British leaders encouraged the Texans to remain independent after 1836, tried to hold onto the Oregon country, and hoped for a Confederate victory during the American Civil War, but whenever the U.S. government threatened to respond with force, the British backed away from the confrontation. Unwilling to fight the Americans, British statesmen repeatedly, if reluctantly, chose policies designed to make a friend of the United States.

At the same time two events served to fortify America's opposition to alliance diplomacy. The bloody and inconclusive Crimean War during the late 1850s seemed to demonstrate the bankruptcy of the European alliances, and the withdrawal of French troops from Mexico in 1867 indicated once again that the United States could itself deal with the "untrustworthy" European powers. The alliance system developed after 1871 by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck only led American statesmen to condemn further such power politics.

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