Recent Posts

George Washington and the Birth of American Realism

Written By:
Editor’s Note: February marked George Washington’s 291st birthday. As we edge closer to celebrating the tricentennial of America’s first president, the increasingly multipolar world in which we find ourselves is similar to Washington’s world in crucial respects. And in this time of Great Transition, Washington’s wisdom is as timely and needed as ever. In fact, IPD recently launched its Washington Fellowship program in this very spirit.

In this short monograph, IPD’s Research Director Arta Moeini and Washington Fellow Christopher Mott provide an overview of Washingtonian Realism, making the case for its enduring significance for our time.

Despite the romanticism through which the first generation of American leaders—the “Founding Fathers”—are often viewed, the thought and foreign policy of George Washington, the first president of the United States,  demands particular attention, not least to dispel the sentimentalism and idealism that have come to characterize the current political and foreign policy establishment often called the Beltway consensus.

Long before the ascent of academic international relations and its supposed realist school in the 20th century, George Washington embodied an aristocratic view of diplomacy and statecraft premised on both a tragic realism about human nature and a sensible pragmatism that paid heed to the distinctive historical, geographical, and cultural contexts in policymaking. In the words of one major biographer, Washington was a “thoroughgoing realist. Though he embraced republican ideals, he believed that the behavior of nations was not driven by ideals but by interests.”1Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency George Washington, Knopf, 2004, p. 209.

This observation is borne out by Washington’s presidential conduct, and indeed much of his military career. It is therefore worthwhile to examine the origins of his “thoroughgoing” realism, as well as how Washington’s philosophy may be of continuing relevance for U.S. elites today, even if most among them remain oblivious to the true legacy of America’s founding president.

The Formative Years: The Role of Particularity in Geopolitics

Washington’s personal journey, his path toward becoming a prominent statesman in North America, was foundational in his worldview. He was fully aware that just as one’s particular circumstances shape one’s vision and practices, so too does a country’s unique situation inform its policies.

Born to an up-and-coming but hardly ruling-class family of planters in Virginia, Washington spent much of his youth as a social climber, attempting to move up the socio-political hierarchy of colonial-era America and generally succeeding in doing so. The right connections and a fortuitous marriage to Martha Custis—the young widow of a well-known family of Virginian plantation owners—may have provided him a platform to begin his political ascent, but what made him stand out was the combination of his innate charisma and the uncanny ability to make himself indispensable to those of a higher station.

Importantly, during this time he worked as a land surveyor, proving himself to have a keen eye for topography. His growing investments in land speculation eventually attracted him to the Appalachian region—then the colonial frontier. Given the contested nature of this territory, he developed a practical interest in security and military affairs and thus began a military career.

But it was his experience as a military man fighting against both the Native Americans and the French under the British during the French and Indian War that proved to be a watershed moment for the young Washington. First, it taught him valuable lessons about the uniqueness of American geography and its distinctive security environment. Second, the experience increasingly convinced him that the European worldview and ways of warfare did not easily translate to the circumstances of North America.2Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life, Penguin Press, 2010, p. 62. Third, he saw firsthand how Europeans are prone to bringing their age-old conflicts to the New World—A part of the Seven Years’ War,3Jennifer Monroe McCutchen, “The French and Indian War”, George Washington’s Mount Vernon: the conflict had turned then-remote North America into a theater for global competition between European great powers.4Wayne E. Lee, The Cutting-Off Way: Indigenous Warfare in Eastern North America, 1500-1800, University of North Carolina Press, 2023, p. 19.

Having identified the diverging interests of London and the Colonies, Washington viewed various British policies as examples of imperial overreach that was entirely out of touch with the concerns of the Colonies, if not actively opposing them.

This conviction over the fundamental differences between North American and British approaches to warfare would soon expand from its basis in military strategy and evolve into a general political discontent toward British conduct in general, including on trade, taxes, and colonial politics. Having identified the diverging interests of London and the Colonies, Washington viewed various British policies as examples of imperial overreach that was entirely out of touch with the concerns of the Colonies, if not actively opposing them. This drove him to become one of the first people in Virginia to engage in public protest against the British after the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763.5Chernow., p. 144-5. Washington’s public hostility to London’s imperial policies, coupled with his record of leadership in combat and his growing relationships in the burgeoning independence movement across the Colonies, led the Continental Congress to appoint him as one of their primary generals once the American War of Independence broke out in 1775.6Ibid., p. 189.

Washington’s command during the war revealed his nous for military strategy. His intimate knowledge of America’s unique terrain and manpower challenges allowed him to prioritize asymmetric warfare designed to control space, cut off the British supply lines, and isolate them in major coastal population centers. His understanding of European great power rivalries and his sophisticated spy network enabled him to use the French legions to misdirect and overpower the British in key battles, especially Yorktown in 1781. His success was made possible due to his intuitive grasp of the strategic opportunities presented by the North American theater and the prudential manner in which he routinely turned America’s spatial and material challenges into opportunities.7John A. Nagy, George Washington’s Secret Spy War, St. Martin’s Press, 2016, p. 273.

The Revolutionary War was also immensely instructive for Washington, informing some of the core principles that would guide his future political career. Forged in the fires of real combat, he came to see the dangers of protracted conventional warfare, the importance of land and terrain for logistics, and the pivotal role that access to information and particularity (as well as being properly positioned to leverage one’s home-field advantage in geography and manpower) play in victory and defeat. He further recognized that national solidarity, a unified state, strategic flexibility, and a healthy skepticism about commitments and attachments to external actors were all essential to maintaining the fledgling republic’s sovereignty against truculent foreign powers (specifically the European powerhouses of his time: Britain, France, and Spain). After all, the bickering of State governments had undermined the war effort, and France’s assistance, though vital, was ultimately self-interested, aimed primarily at recapturing its lost Caribbean possessions.

The Revolution and its practical realities also changed Washington’s views on a host of critical issues. Although himself a Southern plantation owner, he went from being a critic to an admirer of New England’s economic culture and its diverse, non-agrarian, and more specialized economy. Even as he remained a slave owner, he found the practice outdated and reactionary, especially having recruited and commanded free Black troops. Finally, despite then-prevailing attitudes about the tyranny of state power (cf. The Anti-Federalists), Washington understood that, given the special context of a fledgling republic, greater centralization and armed deterrence were both necessary for peace and to establish America’s autonomy from European power politics.

In Washington’s anti-universalist view, it was neither wise nor desirable to compete with European powers globally; America had to ground its interests and power in its particular realm... This restrained and regionally-based approach to foreign policy became the cornerstone of Washingtonian Realism.

Above all, Washington embodied pragmatism and statesmanship in his career. It was not that he held a deep-seated animosity against the British or a sentimental idealism for the French, as later President Thomas Jefferson did. Rather, he understood that Britain and France—like all sovereign states—would pursue their interests and that their unchecked pursuit of global ambitions in the New World would inevitably hinder America’s interests in its region. In Washington’s anti-universalist view, it was neither wise nor desirable to compete with European powers globally; America had to ground its interests and power in its particular realm. The order of the New World had to be centered on the United States safeguarding North America from foreign interference by Old World powers. This restrained and regionally-based approach to foreign policy became the cornerstone of Washingtonian Realism, finding its full articulation when Washington became the first president of the newly-born United States.8Chernow, pp. 442-3.

Presidential Years: Washingtonian Geopolitics and Non-alignment

Washington’s experiences in both war and peacetime America had convinced him of two things. First, the geopolitical approach of his new nation had to be independent of Europe’s, especially Britain’s. Second, to fully realize its potential, the country had to be unified around a common civic identity that would prevent outside powers from meddling in and manipulating its internal political, regional, and sectional rivalries.

Achieving the strong communal bond on which America’s autonomy would depend required fostering economic self-sufficiency and industrial development, making the strengthening of a unitary state a priority. In turn, maintaining the gains from any industrial development and a strong economy required avoiding permanent entanglements in foreign commitments and faraway regions as well as rebuffing endless wars that would deplete the nation’s riches. The newly-formed federal government thus needed to coordinate America’s development while investing in its deterrence potential to help it proclaim neutrality yet be powerful enough to have its stance upheld and respected by others.

Non-alignment would be America’s default international posture. Yet Washington was far from an isolationist: he saw international commerce as necessary for economic growth but insisted that America’s geostrategic course deliberately eschew entanglement in the strategic competition of others. The United States would enter into alliances only when they were vital for its own physical security, and even then only as temporary arrangements.

While he was not an aristocrat in the customary sense of the term, Washington nonetheless embodied a self-cultivated nobility through self-discipline that set an ethos for the nation’s statesmen to aspire to and for the new republic to pursue in its diplomatic conduct with other nations. His aristocratic republicanism disdained empires—representing a golden mean between the hereditary monarchy of the British and the democratic republicanism of the French favored by Jeffersonian democratists (anticipating Wilsonianism).9Emily B. Finley, “Thomas Jefferson and an Empire of Liberty, The Ideology of Democratism, Oxford University Press, 2022, pp. 37-58: Shunning both traditionalism and utopianism, Washington’s ethos reflected an entrenched realism, prudential moderation, and disinterested statesmanship based on the classical virtues, honor, and excellence that would put America’s interests above private passions and prejudices. That such a non-partisan outlook may sound naive to us today is only a testament to just how far our contemporary elites have strayed from the original spirit and vision of the founders as articulated in the Federalist Papers and personified by George Washington himself.

Washington was conscious of the dangers that political parties and partisanship posed to the young republic by amplifying private interests and passions.

As such, Washington was conscious of the dangers that political parties and partisanship posed to the young republic by amplifying private interests and passions. Already in his time, the “party” was becoming a vanguard for ideology, supplanting and disembodying statesmanship and erasing or instrumentalizing the ideal of the common interest. He thus never officially joined a faction or endorsed a political party.

Nevertheless, it became apparent early on that his views on the importance of national unity for a non-aligned, sovereign republic mostly reflected the positions of the new Federalist Party—most often associated with his Secretary of the Treasury and former wartime aide and artillery captain, Alexander Hamilton. The Federalists saw a permanent and professional army and navy as prerequisites of independence, and strongly defended a robust economy that promoted both manufacturing and international trade to minimize dependence on European powers for manufactured goods.

These policies, acting in tandem, were aimed at creating the conditions of peace and stability that would enable a new and weak nation to thrive.10Richard Norton Smith, Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993, pp. 19-20, 187. Despite growing opposition from anti-Federalists, these centralizing policies helped the nation navigate the chaos surrounding the ratification of the Constitution and establish a credit and banking system as robust as any long-established European nation by the mid-way point of Washington’s second term in office.11Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, Penguin Press, 2004, p. 481.

In his communications with the Sultan of Morocco, which set up one of the first new peacetime diplomatic relationships of the United States, Washington reiterated both the importance of peaceful commerce and economic development for the nation, along with his belief that a policy of neutrality toward foreign states in terms of their domestic politics, political structure, or religious denomination would further this objective. He particularly emphasized how the American republic would conduct diplomacy differently from the European empires of the time, focusing on friendship rather than hostility:

Within our Territories there are no Mines, either of Gold, or Silver, and this young Nation, just recovering from the Waste and Desolation of a long War, have not, as yet, had Time to acquire Riches by Agriculture and Commerce. But our Soil is bountiful, and our People industrious; and we have Reason to flatter ourselves, that we shall gradually become useful to our Friends.12George Washington, From George Washington to Sidi Mohammed, 1 December 1789 (National Archives, Founders Online stable link:

Given America’s massive defeat against British-armed Native American tribes at the Battle of the Wabash in Ohio Country in 1791, however, Washington knew that only by developing its armed forces could the country exercise true non-alignment. This led to the founding of a professional army, which would eventually achieve victory in the Northwest Indian War.13Wiley Sword, President Washington’s Indian War: The Struggle for the Old Northwest, University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. Washington also put in motion the first building blocks for creating a navy, a project that would be completed under Washington’s successor John Adams (which the latter would regard as his greatest achievement).14David McCullough. John Adams, Simon & Schuster, 2001), p. 499. This proved prescient as Franco-American relations, once so close, began to rapidly deteriorate as a succession of governments in Revolutionary France rose to power and enacted a series of erratic policies that threatened the stability of U.S. maritime trade with both Europe and the Caribbean.15Ian W. Toll, Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy, W.W. Norton and Company, 2006, pp. 458, 491, and 602.

While this breakdown in relations with Revolutionary France vindicated Federalist trepidations about the overly close relationship with France, the rifts it caused between those Americans who identified with Paris and those who favored closer ties with London also highlighted the danger of a close association (whether in amity or enmity) with a foreign nation tearing apart one’s own social and political fabric. These divisions were sharpened when Washington’s Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, sought to use his influence to imbue U.S. foreign policy with a sense of revolutionary idealism. Declaring the French Revolution to be the cause of all mankind, Jefferson argued that one revolutionary republic must, by default, support another.

According to Jefferson, the United States had a “Providential Mission” to break from the corrupt ancien régime and help realize the ordained direction of History. The Jeffersonians hence downplayed the importance of local differences and concrete historical experience, claiming instead that both the United States and now France had embarked upon a universal path toward the progress of mankind.

The American exercise in self-government was fundamentally at odds with dreams of world transformation. According to the more restrained Federalist view, harboring global ambitions and revolutionary projects would weaken and eventually destroy self-government at home.

This highly idealistic, universalist, and revolutionary view of the founding was strongly contested by the Federalists, for whom the American exercise in self-government was fundamentally at odds with dreams of world transformation.16Ibid., 27. According to the more restrained Federalist view, harboring global ambitions and revolutionary projects would weaken and eventually destroy self-government at home. As contemporary British philosopher John Gray puts it, idealist philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Paine—while helpful sources of inspiration and rhetoric for the American Revolutionaries during their war for independence—lost their usefulness outside that revolutionary context and would even become increasingly harmful when applied in the context of foreign policy between sovereign states, which requires sobriety and realism.17John Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, Penguin Books, 2007, p. 154.

Recognizing this, the Federalists began to adopt a more pragmatic approach once the Revolution succeeded. Still, considering that such utopian ideas both originated from and empowered America’s Puritan colonial heritage, they found their numbers increasingly dwindling and failed to take hold of the American zeitgeist:

The Federalists belong in an American anti-utopian tradition that has persisted through many vicissitudes, but is a tradition that has never displaced the sense of universal mission with which the American colony was founded.18Ibid, p. 155.

In fact, the faction that coalesced around Jefferson—known as the Democratic-Republicans—was incensed by this pragmatism. This was rather ironic, as they represented the slave-owning Southern plantations while advocating for liberatory crusades on behalf of humanity.

The Federalists, for their part, were not absolute non-interventionists but sought to tie foreign intervention to geographical and geopolitical proximity. They tended to empathize with the Haitian Revolution over that of the French because the former was located in the Western Hemisphere, and thus provided an opportunity to drive European colonial influence further away from the United States.

For Washington specifically, the making of foreign policy had to be rooted in geographic proximity and pragmatic interests, not ideals. Due to the overzealous climate of the time, however, this stance was viewed as kowtowing to Britain, with the Republicans denigrating the Federalists as “Anglomen”. Yet Washington’s primary motivation stemmed from his fear of British power, which he deemed the greatest threat to the United States at the time.19Smith, p. 229. It is worth noting as well that the most influential people in his cabinet—Alexander Hamilton and Henry Knox—were Federalists who had faced Britain on the battlefield. As alluded to above, in advancing his Liberation theology and dreaming of an “Empire of Liberty”, it was Jefferson who unwittingly channeled an Anglo-Protestant mentality born in the British Empire.

For Washington specifically, the making of foreign policy had to be rooted in geographic proximity and pragmatic interests, not ideals.

During their time in office, Washington and Hamilton, joined by John Jay, increasingly feared the deleterious effects of war on the young country. They realized that the likelihood of war increased by entanglement in permanent alliances, pushing the country to place a partner’s interests above its own. The Neutrality Proclamation of 1793 was an explicit attempt to keep the United States out of growing European warfare.20George Washington. Neutrality Proclamation, April 22, 1793 (National Archives, Founders Online stable link:

Vindicating Hamilton’s skepticism about values-based alliances and his defense of material capability, America engaged in a limited (and unofficial) sea war against France during the Adams administration. During this conflict, the United States was finally able to achieve true distance and autonomy from its erstwhile ally through the use of its new navy. Contrary to contemporary notions about democratic peace theory, the first two Enlightenment-inclined republics fought a war over trade access and privateering. Ironically, it was the rise of the decidedly undemocratic Napoleon that would finally put an end to the crisis and restore normality to the Franco-American relationship.21Arta Moeini and Christopher Mott, “The ‘Liberal International Order’ is Neither Universal nor Exceptional”, The National Interest, June 2021:

As this bitter divide between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans intensified, those opposed to Washingtonian Realism began to target diplomacy itself. The Jay Treaty was one such diplomatic effort that was pilloried in the press: although it had succeeded in removing British forces from frontier forts in the Old Northwest (which were part of U.S. territory) and opened some parts of the British Empire to American commerce, it failed to realize all of its intended aims and was thus denigrated as yet another instance of capitulation to the British.

Regardless of his disappointment at the failure of Jay’s deal to accomplish all its objectives, Washington, a pragmatic realist, recognized that diplomacy is an art of compromise, especially given the challenging nature of negotiations with a much stronger power. Its success had to be judged based on whether it advanced a nation’s most important strategic goals. From Washington’s perspective, America’s overarching objective was to find a balance against the most powerful imperial powers of the time: to secure a breathing space from both France and Britain. The removal of British troops and smuggling networks from U.S. territory in exchange for America not siding with Revolutionary France had accomplished a major part of that strategy. This, together with charting an independent course from France, was vital to keeping America out of war and its peaceful development on course. If Britain had to be fought one day, it would be better to do it after first husbanding strength. The government in Philadelphia did not even know that many in the British government saw the Jay Treaty as overly generous to the United States, and thought they had given up many advantages just to gain U.S. neutrality in the ongoing European war.22Smith, p. 233.

Washington demonstrated how a geographic and spatial understanding of geopolitics that privileges America’s location in North America is preferable to a sentimental and ideological conception of foreign policy.
What’s more, freed from the specter of looming war and uplifted by the resumption of trade with Britain, the Washington administration was finally able to secure an incredibly favorable treaty with Spain over trade and navigation rights in the Mississippi River.23Chernow, p. 740. Here again Washington demonstrated how a geographic and spatial understanding of geopolitics that privileges America’s location in North America is preferable to a sentimental and ideological conception of foreign policy. Exhausted by the rancor and factionalism that only grew during his tenure, Washington decided not to seek a third term, convinced that, even if he were to win, no Democratic-Republican would vote for him, resulting in a polarized country. He left with a final concise statement, capturing both his vision of governance and the ills he recognized to be plaguing the new nation already. Known today as the “Farewell Address”, the speech has a section entirely devoted to foreign policy which is worth quoting at length to grasp the tenors of Washington’s worldview:

The nation which indulges towards another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest…

…A passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. …And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation) facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country without odium, sometimes even with popularity, gilding with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation…

…Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. But that jealousy, to be useful, must be impartial, else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it. Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people to surrender their interests.

The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.

Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people, under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.

Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?

It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world…let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But in my opinion it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.

Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.24George Washington, Farewell Address, September 17, 1796 (The American Presidency Project:

Investigating Washington’s evolution as a statesman and his actions as president, it is clear that the above sentiments do not reflect romantic attachment to abstract principles, but emerge out of the practical reason of an experienced statesman. Two basic tenets loom large: 1) that the world is in a constant state of flux requiring both material preparedness and a willingness to adapt to the unexpected, and 2) that permanent alliances present very real dangers to a nation that seeks to be strong and sovereign. Sentimental favoritism, “artificial ties”, and never-ending attachment to overseas alliances not only undermine the strategic autonomy and independence of a nation but also induce both the ideological partisans of a foreign cause and the demos at large to internalize and project the political and strategic struggles of distant lands as existential battles for their nation and in their own lives.25Arta Moeini, “Gaza, Ukraine, and Our Quest for Catharsis”, UnHerd, November 2023:
Sentimental favoritism, “artificial ties”, and never-ending attachment to overseas alliances not only undermine the strategic autonomy and independence of a nation but also induce both the ideological partisans of a foreign cause and the demos at large to internalize and project the political and strategic struggles of distant lands as existential battles.

As we observed in an earlier IPD monograph on the causes of U.S. fixation with permanent alliances, the true vanguards of America—such as Washington and John Quincy Adams—were prescient to recognize “how a globalist, internationalist, and activist mindset could irreparably damage a republic by transforming it into an empire that routinely disregards the interests of its own citizenry for the aggrandizement of its courtier class.”26Arta Moeini, David Polansky, and Coleman Hopkins, “Towards a Phenomenology of the U.S. Alliance System: Boon or a Scourge on America’s National Interest?”, The Institute for Peace and Diplomacy, September 2022:

After Washington: Washingtonian Realism as Blueprint for U.S. Grand Strategy

Washington’s pragmatic view of geopolitics is premised on three core ideas: national unity, a robust economic policy that focuses on production and manufacturing, and global non-interference—highlighting the nexus between domestic and foreign policy. His chief concern was to safeguard the autonomy of the emergent United States. As he wrote in a private letter to Hamilton: “We will not be dictated to by the politics of any nation under heaven farther than treaties require of us… If we are to be told by a foreign power…what we shall do, and what we shall not do, we have independence yet to seek.27Chernow, p. 744.

In sum, Washingtonian Realism is the understanding that a country’s long-term interests are intrinsically bound to cultivating political stability and securing peace and prosperity for its citizens by leveraging its natural potential and comparative advantages. This means that while war is sometimes necessary and inevitable, military confrontation should be an option of last resort and exercised only when it concretely enhances or defends one’s national interests. A nation must focus on its own region and avoid unnecessary conflicts outside of its immediate sphere of interest through prudence and restraint. Moreover, it must carefully select and prioritize its foreign engagements according to geographic distance without sentimental or romantic attachments and resist the temptation to turn contingent temporary arrangements into permanent sacred cows.

To put Washingtonian Realism in the language of contemporary international relations and apply it in the post-unipolar, polycentric world that is upon us, the United States must pursue a grand strategy of balancing to prevent the rise of another global hegemon that could challenge it in North America but to temper and restrain its ambitions according to material, spatial, and regional realities.

One might be inclined to dismiss Washingtonian Realism as purely historical and theoretical. Much has changed after all since the end of the 18th century both in terms of the balance of power and global diplomatic arrangements, not to mention the spectacular improvement in America’s material fortunes and geopolitical circumstances in ways the Founders could only dream. The United States today stretches across the entire expanse of the North American continent, linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific and beyond, and its capacity for military projection is truly planetary and global in scale in ways unmatched by any previous power or empire in history. America is now prone to think globally about the balance of power simply because it has the luxury to do so, and its decisions and policies have truly global stakes with implications far beyond America itself.

Nevertheless, the world in the 2020s is far more similar to the multipolar era of Washington’s own time than it was at the end of the last century, defined by the so-called Pax Americana. Washington’s key observation—that America is sui generis because of the unique space it occupies and that its geography and distance from potential rivals cushion and protect it—remains true today. It is also a fact that the United States’ ability to comprehend its own interests is often compromised by its involvement in alliance networks that tend to become permanent. Therefore, America’s participation in these arrangements must be continually justified with new rationalities outside of national interest. This has also led to significant lobbying efforts on behalf of foreign nations to influence American lawmakers, along with initiatives in the foreign policy establishment and mainstream media advocating sentimental attachments to certain nations over others.28Arta Moeini et al., “Towards a Phenomenology of the U.S. Alliance System”. This is especially costly and increasingly reckless and untenable in a multipolar world.

We can draw practical lessons from Washington’s example… not only should we try to avoid entering into permanent alliances or offering security guarantees to distant countries overseas, but also any Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) or a treaty with a foreign nation that involves or could potentially lead to the American use of force needs constitutional guardrails.

Indeed, we can draw practical lessons from Washington’s example. For instance, not only should we try to avoid entering into permanent alliances or offering security guarantees to distant countries overseas, but also any Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) or a treaty with a foreign nation that involves or could potentially lead to the American use of force needs constitutional guardrails. They must possess a lucid rationale and objective, apply to clearly defined geographic limits, and have sunset clauses to guard against open-ended commitments.

Perhaps most importantly, the unipolarity that seemed to consign Washingtonian Realism to antiquity has proven to be an aberration, giving way to the return of realpolitik and normal geopolitics in a more polycentric and civilizational world. While no period perfectly matches another, Washingtonian Realism provides an excellent foil for thinking critically about our future and the challenges we face today in a shifting world that is far more regionally and culturally anchored and resists global hegemony and universal aspirations. It invites us to carefully consider our special relationships with a select group of favored nations, our hundreds of military bases around the world, our permanent and ever-expanding global alliance structure, and our forward posture in distant regions in light of Washington’s warnings about entanglement and escalation.

Our regionally-based world today extracts such a high price from global overextension and overreach that they cannot but become unsustainable. Our new strategic environment thus demands a realism that prioritizes sovereignty and national interests and shuns the utopian globalism of the likes of Jefferson as debilitative to American power. Such a realism defines American exceptionalism in terms of the country’s geography and particular location rather than some transcendental and missionary force leading us to the “end of history”. It also recognizes that a sound foreign policy begins at home, prioritizing America’s domestic politics and economic prosperity. It calls for policies that invest in infrastructure and strengthen America’s industrial and technological capacity to allow it to continue to compete with other great powers.

Our new strategic environment thus demands a realism that prioritizes sovereignty and national interests and shuns the utopian globalism of the likes of Jefferson as debilitative to American power. Such a realism defines American exceptionalism in terms of the country’s geography and particular location rather than some transcendental and missionary force leading us to the “end of history”.

The security calculus has changed in the new polycentric world of regional cultural complexes. To be credible, any new grand strategy must account for the rise of civilizational middle powers that are serious about defending their sovereignty and sphere of interest in their respective regions.29Arta Moeini, Christopher Mott, Zachry Paikin, and David Polansky, “Middle Powers in the Multipolar World”, The Institute for Peace and Diplomacy, March 2022: In this context, there is little to be gained from intervening in the faraway regions in which regional powers have historical advantages and embedded cultural influence. Such interventions by outside powers could only lead to war and global instability. Ultimately, it is the powers that overreach globally but lack the staying power that stand to lose in the long term, not to mention deplete their critical resources and face the most backlash in these contested parts of the world.

Here it is wise to remember the international coalition that arose to combat Britain in the late 18th century, of which Washington was an integral part. If we refuse to adapt to the new geopolitical realities and the dynamic security conditions they engender, we risk experiencing Britain’s fate.

The authors thank IPD associate Washington Fellow Carlos Roa for his helpful comments and careful review, improving the quality and clarity of the final manuscript.

Arta Moeini
Arta Moeini
Dr. Arta Moeini is Director of Research at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy.
headshot chris mott
Christopher Mott
Dr. Christopher Mott is a Washington Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy and a former researcher and desk officer at the U.S. Department of State.
Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor