Britain's 18th Century Faux Pas Offer A Warning For America

In the 21st century, American policies more closely resembles its colonial overlord than an upstart— a precarious position in an increasingly connected world.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

The United States may have declared independence on July 4, 1776, but joined the international community in 1778 with a little help from France. Traditional narratives of the American Revolutionary War often dismiss French support of the then fledgling republic as another chapter in an interminable cultural conflict between Britons and Gauls. However, that interpretation disregards the British government’s isolationist view and missteps that helped spark the Franco-American friendship.

Drunk on its success in the Seven Years War and ruler of a vast and nearly uncontested global empire, Britain pulled away from Europe. George III’s government believed the nation’s future lay overseas and planned to minimize its European footprint, opening opportunities to focus on its trading empire. Flush with cash from imperial assets Britain would be able to dictate policy in the region, wielding its economic prowess and sizable naval presence as cudgels.

The flawed strategy ignored the reality that strength invites contest and discounted the possibility that even traditional rivals would ally against a new common threat.

In 1763 French ministers began laying the groundwork to check Britain’s continued growth. They ingratiated themselves in foreign courts. They had their espionage services monitor public opinion in Britain and her colonies. Their military officers drew up plans for supporting a myriad of scenarios, from amphibious attacks on Britain itself to how France might support insurrectionary activities abroad.

Meanwhile, Britain played its part of arrogant global bully to perfection, weakening its domestic support and standing abroad. It cut off aid to traditional European allies, chose quick military solutions to problems over slower diplomacy, and alienated its colonies. By 1778, the table was set and the French were ready to feast on its neighbor’s diplomatic faux pas. And so, on the cold Parisian night of February 6, 1778, Benjamin Franklin led the American delegation in signing two treaties in which France recognized the United States as a sovereign nation and pledged military support.

Aligning with the French, the United States made Britain pay for a risky foreign policy that emphasized unilateral action and ignored the benefits of international cooperation. By 1783, Britain found itself in conflict with the United States, France, Spain, the Netherlands, and an entire League of Armed Neutrality that grew to include most of Europe. Great Britain may have had sizable financial and military assets, but its political actions pitted it against nearly the entire Western world. 

In the 21st century, the United States more closely resembles its colonial overlord than an upstart— a precarious position in an increasingly connected world. American policy makers would be well served to examine Britain’s mistakes more than the Continental Congress’ successes when studying the American Revolution.

The United States has threatened to dramatically reduce its foreign aid budget, ending direct contributions to other nations and aid to federally administered foreign assistance programs. Both are vital to preserving regional stability and opening markets for American manufacturers. It has increasingly devalued slower multilateral approaches to problem solving, instead favoring quick-hitting short-term military solutions that result in strategic overextension. And its actions have encouraged state governments to develop independent relationships with foreign powers on issues such as climate change, undermining the federal government’s domestic position and international legitimacy.

Giving opportunistic foreign adversaries a chance to highlight America as the embodiment of its worst stereotypes and alienate traditional allies could prove disastrous. We know this can happen because 240 years ago, the United States took advantage of such an opportunity at a Parisian hotel just off the Place de la Concorde.

Joseph Stoltz is a historian at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon. The views expressed here are his own.