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Citizen's Book Club: What Romney Could Learn From George Washington

09/20/2012 03:45 pm ET | Updated Nov 20, 2012

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Why are we over there?

After a week which saw American public servants killed brutally in Benghazi, a black Islamist flag hoisted above our embassy in Tunis, our diplomats and civil servants menaced by gasoline bombs and furious mobs from Sanaa to Sudan, we might step back and ask: why?

Mitt Romney blamed the unrest on President Obama's weakness, and said his administration was "apologizing for American values" to those who hate us. The Republican nominee promises an "American Century," secured by an expanded military budget and decisive action against our foes.

Whether or not Romney "shoots first and aims later," as the President quipped, the better question might be not, is America too weak, but are we too strong?

Consider a few facts. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost America 6,500 of its soldiers and $4 trillion of its treasury. This year our government will spend $646 billion on defense, about 48 percent of the entire world's military budget.

We have over 1,000 soldiers each in 13 countries, from Bahrain to South Korea, Djibouti to Belgium, and oversee military facilities in 25 more. Overall, America has at least one soldier on the ground in 148 nations of the world.

And non-military aid? As a percentage of our gross national income, America is only 19th most-generous in the developed world -- at 0.2 percent, we lag behind not only the British and Germans but Portugal, New Zealand and Austria as well. The Swedes and Norwegians give at a rate five times higher than America. Nevertheless, in absolute terms it's not even close: America provided $30.7 billion in foreign aid last year, more than the No. 2 (Germany) and No. 3 (Britain) put together.

This was not what America's first president had in mind.

By 1796, the final year of his second term, George Washington was an embattled and exhausted man. A new war was raging between the armies of Great Britain and revolutionary France. Divisions abroad had amplified divisions at home, as pro-British and pro-French factions dueled on America's streets, in its newspapers, and in Washington's own cabinet.

Washington had prepared a farewell letter to the American people four years earlier, but reluctantly accepted a second term out of concern for the already-furious rivalry between his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, and his longtime aide and Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton. (Their respective 'teams' were soon to become the Democratic-Republican and Federalist parties, America's first.)

Now, as he neared his third and final retirement after 45 years of service, Washington drafted the letter we know as his "Farewell Address," a letter from which Mitt Romney could take two important lessons.

First, at a time when Americans seemed divided into two irreconcilable camps, our eight-year-old Constitution already looking shaky, Washington reminded us that American unity isn't a vain hope but a historical fact. "You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together," he writes, "the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes."

To this reminder, Washington adds a warning, equally astute in 2012 as in 1796: beware of parties. Political parties, he wrote, thrive not on revealing truths but on "misrepresent[ing] the opinions and aims" of the other side; they "agitate the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindle the animosity of one part against another, foment occasionally riot and insurrection."

Washington does not argue for the abolition of political parties; he even concedes that in free societies, parties may be "useful checks upon the administration of the government." It was not parties themselves, but the spirit of party -- that competitive lust for power, justifying all the petty crimes of political life -- that while "inseparable from our nature," must never win out over our reason and shared humanity.

Modern presidential campaigns, grasping at every headline and syllable to tar their opponents, do violence to the virtues George Washington recognized in his country and reflected in himself.

Second, in his foreign policy ideal, Washington was less "American Century" than American sense.

Our nation, he writes, has been blessed with extraordinary gifts: not just a free Constitution, but great oceans which separate us from squabbling foreign powers. "Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation?," Washington asks. "Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?"

Read Washington's "Farewell Address," on activism in foreign policy.

As with the spirit of party, Washington recognizes that permanent attachments abroad inevitably strip Americans of good judgment: we judge events based only on what they mean for "our team," wasting resources and inventing conflicts which distract us from our real interests. (As a thought experiment, does anyone think Washington would have sent troops here?)

One of America's certifiably important interests? Free trade. "The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations," Washington states, "is in extending our commercial relations, [and] to have with them as little political connection as possible." As the old general knew well, trade builds bridges; wars can only destroy them.

Romney, for his part, trumpets the enriching possibilities of free trade, yet his tone -- calling for aggressive confrontation with China -- shows the same triumphalist attitude at work.

Contrary to how it is often portrayed, Washington's vision is not of an America in isolation. He exhorts America to "cultivate peace and harmony" with all nations, not ignore them. Nevertheless, our first President's core insight is that America will shape the course of the world not by intervention, but by example. Success spreads ideas quicker than guns and tanks.

If America preserves its unity, and carry our fragile experiment in self-government to success, we will earn "the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it." Build a free and prosperous society, and the rest of the world will want one too.

George Washington's highest hope for his fellow citizens was "that your union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the free Constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained." For Washington, humility and prudence, not swagger, were America's safest bet.