New York: Encounter Books, 2022
288 pp. $30.99 (hardcover)

Plainly spoken truth characterized American foreign policy until the early 20th century. John Quincy Adams—James Monroe’s secretary of state, later president of the United States from 1825 to 1829—exemplified diplomacy rooted in truth, and his principles guided American diplomats until “Progressive” fantasies tempted them away. This is the crux of the late Angelo Codevilla’s final book, America’s Rise and Fall among Nations: Lessons in Statecraft from John Quincy Adams, lessons from which today’s politicians—and tomorrow’s statesmen—could learn much about proper foreign policy.1 It describes the foundations of Adams’s approach, recounts his era and legacy, explains the gradual degradation of America’s foreign relations, and offers much sound advice for restoring the nation’s stature and influence.

Codevilla points to founding documents such as The Federalist Papers, showing that minding one’s own business was a guiding principle behind America’s relations with foreign powers. The young country’s statesmen, steeped in an ethos of mutual noninterference and an international system of separate-but-equal sovereignties, sought to refrain from interfering in foreign conflicts but also were prepared to punish foreign interference in America’s interests. This idea reflected the character of America’s people, mostly immigrants who came to escape the ancient quarrels of the old world and pursue their happiness in the new world. They wanted peace, yet they had no illusions about the force required to preserve it.

These ideas are illustrated, for instance, in Adams’s correspondence with Russia’s envoy Baron de Tuyll, who conveyed messages from the tsar. The tsar sought America’s continued neutrality in Spain’s war with its South American colonies, and he gratuitously proclaimed the superiority of monarchy over other forms of government. Adams was silent on the remark about the supposed superiority of monarchy, but he made clear that although America wanted peace with Russia, it would not submit to a possible Russian occupation of the recently emancipated South American colonies. To Adams, America’s greatness and safety depended on preserving the “political character” of the hemisphere, so he warned the tsar against intrusion. However, he refrained from any mention of Russia’s considerations of acquiring land on America’s northwest coast, a matter that was of interest to America. Why stay silent on the latter? Because, Codevilla observes, Adams saw that recent Russian disarmaments, such as the sale of its battleships to Holland, indicated that it was unlikely that Russia could execute such plans. Note the contrast between the tsar’s needling and Adams’s combination of assertiveness and restraint.

Adams thought that taking sides in foreign conflicts with no bearing on American interests could needlessly justify strife against and among Americans. So, when Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun proposed issuing statements regarding the independence of Greece, Adams rebuked them for attempting to burden America with a stance on a matter in which it had no interest. Similarly, when President Monroe wanted to commit to defending recently freed Latin American colonies against an alliance of Russia, Prussia, Austria, and France, Adams urged against it. Why? He determined that the weakness of the alliance made invasion unrealistic, and even if it did invade, the conflicting interests of its members would doom the endeavor. America’s Rise provides a more contemporary example as well—a 20th-century transgression of this principle: Codevilla argues that American interference in the Middle East inflamed Islamic terrorism, which prompted the U.S. government to impose stringent security measures, which ultimately targeted average Americans more than terrorists. . . .

America’s Rise and Fall among Nations provides a broad perspective of the course of American statecraft over the centuries, showing its arc from humble, inward-looking beginnings to grandiose ambitions after the 19th century.
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1. Note that though “statecraft” can refer to foreign and domestic affairs, the term as used in this book is confined to the former.

2. Erick Trickey, “Why Teddy Roosevelt Tried to Bully His Way onto the WWI Battlefield,” Smithsonian Magazine, April 10, 2017,

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