This column is part of an ongoing series of essays examining and applying the timeless principles and truths of the Federalist Papers to the political events of our day.To read more from Matthew Parks and David Corbin, check out their website The Federalist Today.

The American foreign policy establishment is divided over whether a nation $17 trillion in debt should give the $1.5 billion it promised to an Egypt governed by democratically-elected Islamists to an Egypt now governed by unelected military secularists.  Convinced that their studies, contacts, and inside sources give them the keenest understanding of the parties involved, those on both sides will continue to lobby the Administration and Congress to choose the lesser of two evils–or the better of two goods.

A better debate would focus on why establishment academics, journalists, and policymakers are so confident in their (contradictory) judgments–and why the United States continues to grow less and less able to defend its interests.

Of course, statecraft is about choices. Yet what often differentiates good choices from bad ones in foreign relations are the foundational premises upon which nation-states make their choices. Those nations that think they can pick and choose friends and enemies by intuiting another’s intentions are often fooled.  Therefore understanding what we can and cannot know about other human beings is the key to operating successfully in the international arena.

In Federalist 6, Alexander Hamilton turns to the subject of human nature. His point is not subtle: “Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?” This conclusion follows the most extensive citation of historical evidence to be found in the Federalist essays. Ancients and moderns, monarchs and republicans, agrarian societies and commercial ones have fought war after war over petty differences, personal ambitions, and economic rivalries–despite the fact that it is their universal interest “to cultivate…[a] benevolent and philosophic spirit.”

Why? Hamilton replies: “Has it not…invariably been found that momentary passions, and immediate interest, have a more active and imperious control over human conduct than general or remote considerations of policy, utility or justice?” The applications of this observation are many, but consider the caution it counsels before we presume to know what this Oxford-educated leader or that Twitter-and-Facebook-using youth movement will do with real political power–especially in a regime too little restrained by constitutional limitations and a culture too little committed to honoring them.

This point is well illustrated in the life of one of Hamilton’s most distinguished brothers-in-arms. As a Major General under George Washington during the American war for independence, the Marquis de Lafayette organized the colonial retreat at the battle of Brandywine, resolved tensions between American and French interests after the Battle of Rhode Island, and returned home to France to organize and outfit a French force that later played a vital role in the British defeat at the decisive Battle of Yorktown. No foreign national was more deserving of the praise Congress bestowed on him than Lafayette as he departed for his native France in December, 1784: “That as his uniform and unceasing attachment to this country has resembled that of a patriotic citizen, the United States regard him with particular affection, and will not cease to feel an interest in whatever may concern his honor and prosperity, and that their best and kindest wishes will always attend him.”

Lafayette in turn wished the best for his adopted country: “May this immense temple of freedom ever stand a lesson to oppressors, an example to the oppressed, a sanctuary for the rights of mankind”–hoping that its principles and success would inspire his countrymen to bring about a similar political reformation, establishing a healthy constitutional monarchy that built upon the best in the French political tradition.

Sunday July 14 was the anniversary of Bastille Day, at least symbolically the beginning of the 1789 French Revolution. The day after the storming of the French prison, Lafayette was appointed commander-in-chief of the French National Guard. The week before, he had proposed a draft Declaration of the Rights of Man that seemed to promise a responsible and moderate course for the Revolution.

Ye Shall Know Them By Their Fruits: Egypt and Federalist 6

Prise de la Bastille by Jean-Pierre-Louis-Laurent Houel (Wiki Commons)

We know the rest of the story. The “French Spring” turned into a stormy winter–and three years later, Lafayette was, himself, an enemy of the state, imprisoned in Austria as he fled the French radicals. He spent the rest of his life navigating, as best he could, very murky political waters as France went through one revolutionary convulsion after another. His final service to his country was also a powerful tribute to his son’s namesake, George Washington: refusing to accept the dictatorship offered him during the July (1830) Revolution. He was, in essence, the exception that proves Hamilton’s rule: the rare leader to keep justice in view while passion and interest drives all around him.

Would, for the sake of the people of Egypt, that there were a Lafayette to lead them through their own revolutionary convulsions. But even if there were, how confident could we be of good results? As Madison argued in Federalist 55, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” Democracy, apart from a deeply-embedded commitment to the rule of law and the institutional apparatus to support it, is only one more version of “might makes right”–a warning for Americans too in our days of arbitrary judicial rulings and bureaucratic pronouncements. And, Hamilton observes, “There have been…almost as many popular as royal wars,” so don’t expect democracies to always be good neighbors either.

Dreams of perpetual democratic peace abroad and democratic justice at home die hard, in part because we want very badly to have a simple rule to guide us in dividing the good guys from the bad. Unfortunately, the democratic rule fails, because we don’t really know the character of would-be popular leaders, and we put too much trust in the forms of popular government apart from their moral substance.

The founders show us a different way. In classic statements like Washington’s Farewell Address or James Monroe’s “Monroe Doctrine” speech, they argued that the United States had no need to judge the internal matters of different regimes. This was not hard-hearted realpolitik, but a modest response to the limits of their own understanding of the politics and culture of another nation and their ability to secure for others the free government they had secured for themselves (with the aid of Lafayette and his countrymen). Rather, they would judge nations based on their behavior toward the United States–free, as much as possible, from ideological blinders or utopian fantasies.

As Monroe put it: “Our policy in regard to Europe…is, not to interfere in the internal concerns of any of its powers; to consider the government de facto as the legitimate government for us; to cultivate friendly relations with it, and to preserve those relations by a frank, firm, and manly policy, meeting in all instances the just claims of every power, submitting to injuries from none.” This is not amoralism, but a deep moralism that reflects the admonition of Paul in Romans 12: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (ESV).

This principle has equal application in our own day in settings far beyond its original boundaries. The American people ought to have–and, throughout our history, have had–a natural sympathy for peoples oppressed by unjust governments.

But, having rightly established the American government to protect their natural rights, they ought to order their relations with foreign powers to best accomplish this purpose and to be willing to treat with all on just and equal terms. Not all authoritarian regimes threaten American rights; not all democratic regimes support them. And, returning to Federalist 4, we will have many more friends and many fewer enemies if, once again, we have a free people, a flourishing economy, and a well-administered government, showing the world our republic by its fruits.

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