Call them the Founding Squabblers. America's Founders disagreed -- a lot. All of them, including George Washington, picked sides.

Our first president's farewell address was a high-water mark of partisanship. The top issue of the day was how protect the nation's newly won freedoms. Washington signaled he wanted his countrymen to support the party that would "steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world."

Washington's dictum is often wrongly regarded as a permanent principle of foreign policy. In practice, he had no problem with making alliances when they suited. Washington signed several treaties -- with Great Britain, Algeria and Spain.

But as he was leaving office, he knew it wasn't the right time to be making binding commitments. War was brewing among the great European powers. Signing up with one side or the other would inevitably drag the young American republic into a global conflict. His farewell statement was just prudential policymaking.

When it comes to foreign policy and national security, George Washington was America's first conservative president. What marks Washington as a conservative was his constant self-imposed struggle to maintain the right balance of prudence and principle, matching the demand to protect the nation's vital interests above all else with the republic's desire to be both a symbol of and a force for good in the world. Even his principled desire to work for the good was tempered with a utilitarian rationale: A family of nations that shared a commitment to freedom would be, he believed, the best bulwark against the spread of tyranny.

If conservatives bounce back into national leadership, that bounce will start, in part, with national security and foreign policies that are true to conservative principles. But those policies, like Washington's, must also be the most practical for the time.

The greatest threats to our security today are those that diminish our greatness. To counter them, the United States needs a foreign policy that puts economic freedom out front.

A few years ago, the U.S. fell out of the ranks of countries rated as having "free" economies in the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal's Index of Economic Freedom. That lack of freedom undermines our capacity to grow and prosper.

To regain our lost economic freedom, we must first put our nation's fiscal house in order. As for our foreign policy, we must promote not just "free trade" but freer economies -- particularly in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, where lack of economic freedom is at the root of so many problems.

Next, conservatives need to remain vigilant protectors of American sovereignty. There are many in the U.S. and around the world who would like to hand over the management of our affairs to others. But once sacrificed through binding treaties or outsourced to international organizations, sovereign power is very difficult to reclaim. Every time the U.S. shares its sovereignty, it diminishes its capacity to determine its own future.

Finally, no serious foreign policy can stand without the means to enforce it. In his first State of the Union address, Washington advised Congress to consider as one of its highest priorities the matter of providing for the common defense: "To be prepared for war," Washington said, "is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace." It makes no more sense to weaken our defense forces in today's much smaller world than it did then.

These three cornerstones of foreign policy are essential to providing America the capacity to chart its own course to the future. Without them, a revival of American greatness is impossible.

Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.