“You have a bunch of bad hombres down there. You aren’t doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it.”
—Donald Trump, January 27, 2017
“Look, look, she speaks so badly of Putin, nuclear country, she speaks so badly. I say and she uses it to try and get votes. I said to myself, you know, how do you speak so badly of somebody? I mean, how are they ever going to get along? Wouldn’t it be great if we actually got along with Russia and other countries? And we together went after ISIS and knocked the hell out of them, wouldn’t that be a good thing?”
—Donald Trump, October 27, 2016
Americans had almost adjusted to Trump’s threat to invade Mexico when that delicate process was interrupted by the need to adjust to his hanging up the phone on the prime minister of Australia. Meanwhile, he refuses to say an unkind word about Putin, an actual enemy and acknowledged “killer.” Rage-based desk chair diplomacy lathered in naivete looks like what we can expect when a commander in chief with a personality disorder sidelines the CIA and compels whole reporting lines in the state department to commit harakiri.
We don’t know what the results of this bluster/credulity will be, but even if they’re as bad as we fear, Trump will be a fat thumb on a presidential scale already weighed down with foreign policy failures. James Madison, father of the Constitution, is to Trump what “Federalist No. 10” is to The Art of the Deal. But his greatness doesn’t change the fact that as a diplomat he careened between arrogance, gullibility, and recklessness. He started a war based on his deranged understanding of the world; then he blundered his way through it. Despite what we learned in school, America didn’t win the War of 1812. Our victory is an alternative fact that has survived for more than 200 years.
'The question most people have about [Madison's] presidency is this: Why did it fall below the level of excellence reached in other areas of his life?' Garry Wills
Madison’s foreign policy materialized in the crucible of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. In 1806, when Madison served as Jefferson’s secretary of state, Napoleon issued a decree saying any ships suspected of trading with Britain would be seized by the French navy. The British answered with an order that said basically the same thing in reverse. To top it off, the British navy kept boarding American ships and kidnapping, or “pressing,” sailors to crew their massive fleet.
Enter Madison’s terrible idea: the Embargo of 1807. If Britain and France were going to tell us who we could and couldn’t trade with, we were going to show them where to shove their temerity by not trading with anyone! Madison was certain that depriving the world’s greatest powers of the trade of a single fledgling nation would force them to fold like one of the opulent European fans Americans would no longer be buying. Jefferson assured a friend, “Our commerce is so valuable to them that they will be glad to purchase it when the only price we ask is to do us justice.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but this was crazy—something akin to the CEO of Oberto threatening to bring Wal-Mart to its knees by refusing to supply it with beef jerky.
Somehow, England and France survived the ordeal. Without the benefit of foreign trade, though, the American economy almost collapsed. So many merchants were violating the embargo that Jefferson had to mobilize the army to catch smugglers.
Congress repealed the embargo on Jefferson’s last day in office, but Madison kept trying to replace it with variations on the theme. As a Founding Father, he suffered from a psychological elephantiasis about America’s role in the world, and he just couldn’t confront the reality of our geopolitical insignificance. The dumbest of the dumb policies said that the United States would trade with both Britain and France until one of them did what we wanted, at which point we’d stop trading with the other. One historian described this as a “weird form of reverse blackmail.” Madison wasted five years on this string of fanciful approaches.
As much as he was twisting himself into a pretzel to avoid war, he kept bringing it closer with displays of diplomatic incompetence. He lacked the emotional intelligence and the skepticism necessary to thrive at international negotiating tables; he insisted on trusting everything that confirmed his theories, not verifying, and being put, in the end, in compromising positions.
In 1809, for example, the British representative in Washington told Madison his government was ready to respect American neutrality. Feeling validated, Madison taunted the king, re-opened trade with Britain, and visited his plantation for a relaxing vacation spent amid his 100 slaves (though, as a creator of the three-fifths compromise, he may have regarded them as only 60). Jefferson, his neighbor, gloated that the British had capitulated due to “their unsteadiness under severe trial.” The only glitch was that the British had not in fact capitulated. Their representative had exceeded his instructions, which Madison should have known. To add insult to injury, the next British representative called Dolley Madison “fat and forty and not fair.”
'He is not fit for the rough and rude blasts which the conflicts of nations generate.' Henry Clay
In 1810, it was France’s turn to sucker Madison. Napoleon promised to revoke two decrees against neutral trade if the United States would embargo Britain. Madison got right on it. Napoleon reneged. The offer wasn’t just a falsehood but a downright lie designed to trick Madison into provoking Britain.
When these humiliations and mistakes finally led Madison to give up and declare war, he convinced himself that winning would be a piece of cake. The obvious strategy was to take Canada real fast before Britain could send reinforcements, and then trade the colony back for concessions. It was going to be so easy that Jefferson called it “a mere matter of marching.” Unfortunately, the United States wasn’t prepared even for mere marching. The army was underfunded and understaffed. The militias that were supposed to fill the gap refused to respect the chain of command. In the first major battle of the war, the American commander, drunk and frightened at the prospect of being scalped by the Indians allied with the British, surrendered to a smaller force without firing a shot.
Eventually, the United States won some battles, took some Canadian territory, and performed admirably against the best navy on the planet. In short, we got better at war, although not good enough to prevent the British from burning Washington in 1814. (Admiral George Cockburn toasted a victory with wine from Madison’s White House liquor cabinet.)
When the War of 1812 ended in 1815, it wasn’t because either side had gained the upper hand but rather because both sides recognized they had nothing to gain from continuing. Napoleon had abdicated, ending the Napoleonic Wars and rendering the question of neutrality moot. America’s merchant vessels were no longer subject to frequent attack, its seamen no longer subject to routine impressment. So what was the point? The treaty restored the status quo ante bellum—that is, the parties agreed to pretend as if the War of 1812 never happened. The United States won nothing, and lost nothing, unless you count years of prosperity and the lives of 16,000 citizens.
Even so, Americans managed to find glory in the war. They called it the Second War of Independence. They especially celebrated General Andrew Jackson’s stunning victory in the Battle of New Orleans, as if that defeat finally brought the British to their knees. The truth is that the treaty ending the war had already been agreed to and was making its way across the Atlantic when Jackson’s troops took the field.
Three weeks in, Trump has yet to declare a war. If he does, it will probably resemble Madison’s in being poorly conceived, incompetently executed, and propagandized into a victory after the fact. Unfortunately for us, there are mostly differences between the two men. It’s not just that Madison, you know, wrote the Bill of Rights. He also deplored war and tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to avoid it; Trump, on the other hand, is a maniac who seems to relish the opportunity to use his power to knock the hell out Mexico, Australia, ISIS, or anyone else besides Russia.
When it comes to Madison, there’s too much to read—from serious historians (Jack Rakove) to popularizers (Lynne Cheney) to a little bit of both (Joseph Ellis). Almost none of it focuses on his disappointing presidency. Garry Wills’s entry in the American Presidents Series is an obvious exception, plus he’s is great. If you feel like reading some primary sources, the Federalist Papers are easy to find for free on the Internet. For the War of 1812, start with Donald Hickey’s The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. I relied on Drew McCoy’s classic The Elusive Republic, which explains the ideological underpinnings of the conflict from Madison’s point of view.