The origin and formation of the US foreign policy came in the period of the acute form of the old regime crisis in European countries. The exhaustion of absolutism, whose epoch spanned 1660-1789, was not only a historical background, but a systemic factor in the genesis of the first sovereign state of the Western Hemisphere. This transformation covered not only the “Old World” states but also their overseas possessions — the so-called “New Europe”, among which were the British possessions in North America. They became a vivid example of a radical transition of a European-type society to a new ground. Here, as well as in other regions of the world related to Europe, the general mechanism of transformation worked. The most vulnerable point of the old regimes was where the resistance of the past and the new coincided. There were separatist movements in remote or poorly controlled provinces or colonies. The development of the economy, the growth of settlements, and the confrontations faced by the reforms of enlightened absolutism led to an increase in conflicts in the 1770s and 1780s. The current state of the US foreign policy was shaped by several historical events in both North America and Europe.
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At the same time, one should not mistakenly think that the United States was a liberal state by the time it was proclaimed in 1776. On the contrary, the North American colonies were neither democratic, nor progressive, nor egalitarian in their characteristics (Hendrickson 323). The colonial societies acted as carriers of the old regime itself: the British colonists were not alien to the hierarchy, the patriarchy, their communities had a vertical, not horizontal organization. Nevertheless, the given section of the European “legacy” coexisted with modernization. It also had a European origin, which predetermined the vector of the US development during the 18th-19th centuries as an illustration of the social and economic shifts in the old regime.
From the middle of the 18th century, Europe was gripped by a wave of protests directed against the search for their benefit institutions associated with the mercantilist old regime, which was entirely discredited by the 1760s. During this period, the political role of the economic elites changed, and the influence of liberal ideology increased. In the new historical conditions, it was not the aristocratic origin, but the capital that opened the door to power. The British colonies of North America were an example of these changes as well: social mobility and political freedom created a specific atmosphere that was markedly different from the passive obedience of the ordinary masses to the power of bureaucracy, oligarchs, and clergy in Latin America and French Canada.
In addition, in the 1700-the 1890s, there was a weakening of Christian denominations, unable to resist the separation of the Church from the state. It is important to note that it was this European idea that received the most substantial impetus to the development of British North America. In the 18th century, Calvinism, taking the teachings of John Locke, laid the philosophical basis of the American experiment, which derived the given ideas from the concepts of democracy (“Resolve Book of the Office of Foreign Affairs”). In turn, this led to the fact that the religious factor was reduced to the minimum impact on the process of formation and implementation of US foreign policy.
Many immigrant groups were radical, descended from disgruntled sections of society: they were impatient with the archaic limitations of the individual. This state gave them ease for social experiments on discarding old institutions, norms, technologies, and preferences. Since the 1760s, rhetoric, and struggle in social and political discourse for introducing the principle of broader representation have intensified in European states, especially in Britain and France (Hendrickson 339). There was an increase of interest groups that participated in or influenced the foreign policy process.
The proclamation of independence and further state-building in the United States fell on the historical period, which in historiography was called the “era of the Republican revolution”. Throughout the 18th century, Republican values eroded monarchism in Europe, gradually transforming, but not crowding it out, as a form of government. None of the European societies have experienced so much influence of republicanism as the United Kingdom and its colonies in North America. The British colonies were at the forefront of the spread of republicanism. The North American states shared common cultures and languages, which suggested relatively quick and effortless transfer of new political and economic doctrines originating in Western Europe. The success of the revolt of the thirteen colonies in the late 1770s and the beginning of the French Revolution in the late 1780s could not have had its powerful influence (Hendrickson 337). Nothing confirms this cultural revolution more than the all-pervasive republicanism of the newly formed independent communities.
The assertion that the Americans seemed to have started a general cleaning of obsolete institutions to create a reasonable system of government is entirely legitimate. This aspect of the old regime crisis was expressed in the institutional development of the United States, in which the representative body of government was the Continental Congress, the Confederative Congress, and the bicameral Congress. They acted as critical institutions in the process of shaping the foreign policy, which was directly influenced by the progressive forces of the New Age: traders, manufacturers, financiers, landowners. The ideas of the Enlightenment about the balance of the branches of power found their concrete embodiment in the foreign policy mechanism based on both the “Articles of Confederation” and the “Constitution” of 1787 (“Resolve Book of the Office of Foreign Affairs”). Now the United States differed from European states not only because they had a constitution but also because they lacked an entrenched aristocratic elite and hereditary power structures.
The crisis of the old regime also had an international dimension. Throughout the 16th and 18th centuries, a political transformation took the form of a confrontation between the “old absolutist regimes”, such as France and Prussia, and the “new constitutional regimes”, which included England and Holland. In this confrontation, the search for the most effective form of a centralized state that met the requirements of modernity was carried out. The result was the predominance of the modern state as the dominant unit of the system of international relations. The colonial experience followed the fear of the American founding fathers about the danger for the USA to be involved in the destructive maelstrom of European conflicts.
In conclusion, the crisis of the old regime in Europe was of direct importance for the genesis of US foreign policy. Under the influence of a prolonged transformation of sociopolitical and economic relations in European states, the United States “inherited” advanced, progressive tendencies that influenced the historical advancement of North America. The significant change was the maximum reduction of the influence of the religious factor on the foreign policy process and an increase in the number of interested parties involved in making decisions on foreign policy issues. In addition, the changes included the institutionalization of the foreign policy process with the help of representative bodies and the perception of international relations in the context of an aggressive environment with a critical threat.
Hendrickson, David C. “American Diplomatic History and International Thought: A Constitutional Perspective.” International Relations, vol. 31, no. 3, 2017, pp. 322-340.
Resolve Book of the Office of Foreign Affairs. 1787. Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, New York. Record Group 360, Web.