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    God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America.
        -Attributed to Otto von Bismarck

    [America] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.

    She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.

    She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.
        -Monsters to Destroy, John Quincy Adams (1821)

Walter Russell Mead had the great good fortune to have his fresh look at geopolitics and America's relations with the world come out right at the time of the 9/11 attacks, but the misfortune that his is very much an Atlanticist's view of the world, at a time when our concerns have at long last turned to Asia, Minor and Major.  The arguments he develops here remain useful despite this shift in our focus--indeed they help us to understand much about our own reaction to recent events--but the several shortcomings of his analysis appear all the more glaring in this new light.

Mr. Mead makes the case that there are four basic schools of foreign policy thought in the United States, each of long duration, and that the rough and tumble of representative democracy has served us well by elevating the different schools as they are needed and shunting them to the side when the policies they advocate seem inappropriate.  He believes, and offers some evidence for the notion, that this flexibility has made America far more successful in its foreign policy than anyone realizes.  In this compelling, and perhaps overly flattering, scenario America is not a mere beneficiary of special providence but is guided instead by the wisdom of her people and the genius of her uniquely responsive political system.

Several years ago, Walter McDougall wrote a terrific book, Promised Land, Crusader State, in which he identified two main impulses that influenced American foreign policy.  The first was relatively isolationist, emphasizing America's privileged position as a "promised land", which could serve as an example to all mankind, a "shining city on a hill", but would only be contaminated if it were to have too much contact with the rest of the world.  Over against this was set an interventionist belief in America as a force for bettering the world, a "crusader state", with a mission to bring democracy, freedom, and human rights to less fortunate nations.  Mr. Mead more or less subdivides these two impulses :

    Americans through the centuries seem to have had four basic ways of looking at foreign policy, which have reflected contrasting
    and sometimes complementary ways of looking at domestic policy as well. Hamiltonians regard a strong alliance between the national
    government and big business as the key both to domestic stability and to effective action abroad, and they have long focused on the nation's
    need to be integrated into the global economy on favorable terms.  Wilsonians believe that the United States has both a moral obligation
    and an important national interest in spreading American democratic and social values throughout the world, creating a peaceful international
    community that accepts the rule of law.  Jeffersonians hold that American foreign policy should be less concerned about spreading democracy
    abroad than about safeguarding it at home; they have historically been skeptical about Hamiltonian and Wilsonian policies that involve
    the United States with unsavory allies abroad or that increase the risks of war.  Finally, a large populist school I call Jacksonian believes
    that the most important goal of the U.S. government in both foreign and domestic should be the physical security and the economic well-being
    of the American people.

These classifications effectively split isolationism into a conservative, or at least muscular, form (Jacksonianism) and a liberal form (Jeffersonianism), one more concerned with domestic social policies. They also separate interventionism or internationalism into a mostly pro-business form (Hamiltonianism) and a more philanthropic form (Wilsonianism).  This seems a useful way of viewing our politics, as it provides outlets for internationalists and isolationists within each political party, with Jacksonians and Hamiltonians, broadly speaking, making up the Republicans and the Democrats consisting, again broadly, of Wilsonians and Jeffersonians (though as we'll see later, he stacks the deck in favor of Jeffersonians to such a degree that you'd have to say that many Republicans are Jeffersonian too).

Having established these four worldviews--he calls them a new paradigm for understanding American foreign policy--Mr. Mead contends that each is valuable in its own way and that their greatest value may come from how they play off of one another :

    Alternating among four different approaches, each capable of combining with and complimenting the others, American foreign policy
    benefits from both flexibility in the short term and, in the long run, strong continuities of purpose.  If the four schools are rooted in
    and speak for different interests--regional, economic, cultural, social--in the United States, their competition for political influence provides
    an environment within which the national interest can be more or less defined and expressed.  The rising or falling strength of the different
    schools in the foreign policy discourse generally reflects the rising or falling importance of the special interests for which each school speaks.

    From this perspective it appears that over time the competition of the four schools for influence yields a foreign policy that is better than
    the product of a single individual mind, however great--just as the operation of market forces over time tends to produce an outcome that
    is superior to the results of a single plan, however wise.  The representative nature of American political society means that there is at least
    rough equivalence between the political strength of the given schools and their weight in the nation--and the invisible hand takes care of the rest.

Here he seems overly impartial, almost absurdly so, as it would be difficult to argue, for instance, that a purely Hamiltonian approach to Nazi Germany, that is a business as usual approach, could have had anything to recommend it.  Similarly, it is possible to honor the good intentions in Wilsonianism without conceding that it is often a good thing for America to intervene in the internal affairs of other nations.  It may be the case that these schools in particular serve us best by giving voice to the views they represent and providing a consistent pressure on national policy, but seldom being given free reign over that policy.

It does seem to be the case though that the dominant foreign policy posture of the United States has been something of a hybrid of these various schools.  For Mr. Mead, the defining moment in the history of American foreign policy came with the adoption of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 and, at least as he presents it, the doctrine has defined our basic vision of our role in the world in perpetuity :

    The Monroe Doctrine was not only not isolationist, it was anti-isolationist.  It amounted to the recognition that American safety depended
    on the balance of power in Europe.  With that doctrine's promulgation, the first era in American foreign policy came to a close.  The strategic
    principles of the Monroe Doctrine have continued without interruption to shape American foreign policy from that day to this.  American
    interventions in the world wars as well as the Cold War were not a series of revolutionary departures from Monroe's statecraft; they were
    examples of the same thinking that led Monroe to proclaim it.  Just as Monroe and his talented secretary of state, John Quincy Adams,
    were prepared in the last analysis to help Britain prevent the French or the Spanish from reestablishing dynastic empires in the Americas
    in 1823, twentieth-century American presidents were prepared to step in to keep Germany and the Soviet Union from overturning the European
    power balance and spreading their power through the rest of the world.  If another antidemocratic power should threaten to unite all Europe
    under its dominion tomorrow, we would step in and resist again.  We would do the same thing in Asia, and for the same reason.  Our policies
    have changed over the decades and centuries to reflect changing circumstances; our basic strategic posture has not changed since 1823.

If we accept the idea that there was an implicit deal involved in the Monroe Doctrine, that Britain would butt out of the Western Hemisphere in exchange for an understanding that we would help the English to maintain the balance of power in Europe, then all subsequent history becomes easily explicable, perhaps too easily.  One has to wonder if this view doesn't give events more coherence than they really deserve and if this understanding doesn't impose a framework after the fact that none of the actors would have acknowledged before the fact.  It makes our entry into the three world wars look inevitable and a part of an overarching strategic plan, but doesn't it do so at the expense of the truth?  For it is difficult to escape the fact that America tried very hard to stay out of WWI and WWII, that the presidents who drew us into each actually ran on the promise that they'd keep us out, and it is certainly true that President Roosevelt expected the Soviet Union to be an ally even after WWII.  Looking backwards, we see that the US defeated the Kaiser, the Nazis, and the Communists and it may appear to us that this represented a determination to let no anti-democratic power that could present a serious challenge to Britain rise up in Europe.  But we sure let one hell of a lot Europeans die before we stepped in to face any of these powers and it is very easy to envision scenarios under which we'd never have gotten involved--had German U-boats left American shipping alone, had Japan and Hitler coordinated their efforts against the Soviets instead of against us, and had a Democrat less hawkish than Truman been vice-president when FDR died.

The other problem with this pat view of the past is that for us to accept Mr. Mead's opinion that American foreign policy has been uniquely successful, we must accept that our need to fight three world wars in one century was a good thing and that we unambiguously won them and their aftermaths.  It would be little use to try to argue alternative histories, and since we stand the world's unchallenged superpower at the end of that century it is almost impossible to argue that our foreign policy was a failure, or even that it was unsuccessful, but we have to at least consider the possibility, even the likelihood, that we would have been better off staying out of at least one if not all three of those world wars.  In his fine book The Pity of War, Niall Ferguson has made an effective case that even Britain should have taken a pass on World War I.  Pat Buchanan, in his unjustly derided A Republic, Not An Empire, has presented a well-reasoned and as yet unanswered argument for the isolationist vision of America--a sort of pure Jacksonianism.  George Kennan, who Mr. Mead obviously respects greatly, has frequently argued that the policy of "containment" that he advocated for dealing with the Soviet Union was intended to be far less confrontational and interventionist that the version which was ultimately adopted, and that had we just been patient we could have achieved the demise of the USSR at far lesser cost in men and materiel.  Paul Kennedy, who had the great misfortune to write his declinist history, Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, at the very moment that America was winning the Cold War, nonetheless showed how devastating it is to a national economy to maintain an aggressive global posture for a long period of time.  If estimates that we spent about $10 Trillion on the US military during the Cold War are accurate, imagine what else might have been done with the money?  Even if we assume that all of these men can't be right, and that all of the counterarguments they offer can't be true, don't we have to in turn assume that they may not all be wrong?  Isn't it in fact at least a possibility that American foreign policy began to go badly wrong at the moment we intervened in WWI and that it has been off track since?

Part of the difficulty with our accepting this idea, and it is a difficulty that Mr. Mead has in spades, is that it requires us to ponder whether the balance of power in Europe really mattered once America became a strong enough nation to defend its own interests in this Hemisphere.  To put it in the most brutal terms possible, why was it important to us to stop Europeans from slaughtering each other in these wars?  Never mind WWI, we'll start with WWII--suppose that Hitler and Stalin had ground each other to bloody bits for decades on the Eastern Front and even that Hitler had fed most of Western Europe, not just the Jews and gypsies, into his furnaces, in absolutely realistic terms, how would this have been bad for our national security?  Don't we have to face the possibility that we have a romantic regard for our victories in the World Wars that is based largely on our emotional attachment to Europe, from which most of us came, rather than a cold clear understanding of whether these "victories" were even worthwhile?

This romanticization of Europe continues to plague our foreign policy even today, even at a moment when it should be overwhelmingly obvious that Europe no longer matters, is in fact dying, and that our vital interests, to the extent they lie overseas, now lie in Asia, not Europe.  As the great critics of democracy always warned--de Tocqueville, Jose Ortega y Gasset, Albert Jay Nock, etc.--the citizens of Europe's democracies are strangling their own societies to death with the noose of the social welfare state.  Combined with the plummeting birth rates, massive immigration, and decline of religion, and therefore of Western cultural values, that are endemic in Europe now, we face the bitter irony that we may have "saved Europe" just in time for it to commit suicide.  Given the current rise to power of anti-immigrant parties across the continent, one must ask what was the point of stopping Nazism in the first place.  Given the rise of the authoritarian and transnational European Union, what was the point of stopping Communism?  And if Europe is to be ruled by German bureaucrats, why did we fight the Kaiser?

All of these questions are particularly important when we get to the point where Mr. Mead applies his theory of our past to our future :

    Given the need for Wilsonian and Hamiltonian global policies, and given also the real constraints, internal and external, political and
    economic, on American power, the United States needs "strategic elegance"--a grand national strategy that distinguishes between the vital
    and the secondary interests of the country, and secures all of the vital interests and as many of the secondary interests as can reasonably be
    achieved with the fewest risks and costs.

    Strategic elegance was the mark of the Monroe Doctrine; it permeates Walter Lippman's best work and it profoundly informs the concept
    of containment as proposed by George Kennan.  Strategic elegance is the highest quality of the Jeffersonian mind and the supreme gift of the
    Jeffersonian tradition.  It is perhaps the single most-needed quality now in American foreign policy.

    It is this approach that can best bring about a basic strategic consensus for the United States.  A clear statement of national interests and
    elegant grand strategy, plainly expressed and clearly reasoned, will in good time win the support of the American people.  Jeffersonian grand
    strategists can and should harness sometimes inflated Hamiltonian and Wilsonian eagerness for new world orders and grand legal and political
    structures, while persuading Jacksonians of the real importance of pared-down, simplified, and streamlined forms of American international
    engagement.  That job has to be done in the light of the commonsense approach to American security and sovereingty, and to the very real
    linkages and dependencies that engage Americans, whether we like it or not, with the destinies of all the other people on the planet.

To begin with, this is what I meant earlier about stacking the deck in favor of the Jeffersonian school.  Take a look at what Mr. Mead calls for and then tell me that there's any American who wouldn't support it.  Is someone going to say : "No, I want to fight for our tertiary interests first!"?  Is someone going to plump for an unclear statement of national interests, obscurely reasoned?  Mr. Mead's description of his chosen school reminds one of Herbert Butterfield's devastating dismissal of the "realist" school of foreign policy, that it's not a philosophy but a boast.  This iteration of the Jeffersonian policy seems to likewise be a case of claiming all things good for your own beliefs.   Unfortunately, in addition to being overly generous to his own school of thought, Mr. Mead leaves unanswered all the important questions about what specific form this grand elegant strategy should take.

Here he might have done well to consider the visions of Francis Fukuyama, who has proposed that we are at The End of History, to the degree that there can no longer be any real debate over the best form of government for mankind--it is liberal capitalist democracy--and of Samuel Huntington, that we are in for a Clash of Civilizations, during which various cultures, including the West, Islam, the Japanese, the Orthodox, etc, will all engage in a monumental struggle for supremacy.  He even could have brought in two additional metaphors--Benjamin Barber's Jihad vs. McWorld and Thomas Friedman's Lexus and the Olive Tree--both of which concern themselves with the friction between the traditional cultures of the developing world and the modern culture being imposed by the forces of globalization.  Though these various understandings of the world may seem contradictory, and they are in places, they are united by two common themes that are vitally important to US foreign policy.  The first is that fundamental change is coming to much of the world.  People have misunderstood Mr. Fukuyama's argument to mean that things will stoop happening now, but if you consider how few people live in the type of relatively free regime that he's describing, it is obvious that a massive transformation will have to sweep the globe before everyone else arrives at "the end".  It seems to me that Mr. Huntington is really describing what may occur during this process, as certain cultures, or civilizations, hold out violently against such change.  And what Mr. Barber and Mr. Friedman describe is the somewhat duller but inexorable way in which that change will come no matter the resistance.  At any rate, taking all of these views into consideration it seems obvious that the real action on the world stage over the next few years must come not in the West (which has, by definition, already been Westernized) but in those regions that are least modern and least Westernized, and among those regions, the greatest challenge will come from the civilization that offers the most coherent and unified rejection of Western values : Islam.

The grand strategy that we need right now is one which first of all safeguards our own domestic freedoms, but second of all seeks to contain the violence of this potentially violent transformation in the rest of the world, and seeks to protect friends who have either already Westernized their nations or are working from within to Westernize the civilizations that are still in transition.  This will appeal to both interventionist schools.  It will appeal Hamiltonians because it will open markets and it will appeal to Wilsonians--though they'll never be happy about the slow pace of change--because it will involve the extension of human rights to every corner of the globe.  It will be a tougher sell to Jeffersonians and Jacksonians because of the degree of engagement it will require with the world, but they can serve as an important tether to keep us from getting carried away on a crusade.  At least temporarily, both of these relatively isolationist schools are on board because, in the wake of September 11th, radical Islam seems to offer a concrete threat to domestic security.   But policy makers will have to strike while the iron's hot, to lay out an elegant strategy, one that serves our interests at home and abroad, making us more secure here in America while seeking to vindicate our values in the rest of the world.  Mr. Mead has laid out a framework for how such a strategy could be cobbled together and could gain widespread support from each of the four schools, but our leaders need to seize the moment, before one school gains the ascendancy, most likely the Jacksonian right now (in light of the raw anti-Islamic sentiment in the country), and sends us barreling into an ill-considered future.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Walter Mead Links:
    -Walter Russell Mead Senior Fellow, U.S. Foreign Policy (Council on Foreign Relations)
    -Walter Russell Mead (Board of Advisors, New Perspectives Quarterly)
    -BOOK SITE : Special Providence (Random House)
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of Special Providence
-ESSAY: American Crisis: How we lost our faith in the future and how to get it back (WALTER RUSSELL MEAD, APRIL 19, 2023, The Tablet)
    -ESSAY: Why America First Loves Israel: ‘Jacksonian Zion’ (Walter Russell Mead, July 2, 2022. Free Beacon)
    -ESSAY : The Jacksonian Tradition (Walter Russell Mead, Winter 1999/2000, The National Interest)
    -ESSAY: Once Were Warriors: On foreign policy, are the Democrats again the party of Truman? (WALTER RUSSELL MEAD, January 25, 2004, Wall Streeet Journal)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Why Do They Hate Us?: Two Books Take Aim at French Anti-Americanism (Walter Russell Mead, March/April 2003, Foreign Affairs)
    ESSAY: Battlefield Europe: Fight for EU's future is on, with U.S.-German relations at the middle (Walter Russell Mead, March 30, 2003, LA Times)
    -ESSAY: Deadlier Than War (Walter Russell Mead, March 12, 2003, Washington Post)
    -ESSAY: U.N. Blessing Is Just a Frill for a U.S. War in Iraq (Walter Russell Mead, February 23, 2003, LA Times)
    -LECTURE : The Secret Strength of American Foreign Policy (Edited transcript/audio of remarks by Walter Russell Mead, 12/12/01 Books for Breakfast.)
    -ESSAY : The Case Against Europe : The very things that Europeans think make their political judgment better than Americans' actually make it worse (Walter Russell Mead, April 2002, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : The American Foreign Policy Legacy (Walter Russell Mead, January/February 2002, Foreign Affairs)
    -ESSAY : The Case Against Europe (Walter Russell Mead, April 2002, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : America's way will win out  (Walter Russell Mead, March 25 2002, The Age)
    -ESSAY : A Bullish Diplomacy (Walter Russell Mead. Los Angeles Times, March 18, 2002)
    -ESSAY : Argentina: Legacy of Skin-Deep Reform (Walter Russell Mead, Los Angeles Times, January 13, 2002)
    -ESSAY : Back to the Future (Walter Russell Mead, Newsweek, December 3, 2001)
    -ESSAY : Notes from the Next War (Walter Russell Mead, Esquire)
    -ESSAY : Braced for Jacksonian Ruthlessness (Walter Russell Mead, September 17, 2001, washington Post)
    -ESSAY : Barely Passing: The C+ President : With the help of a booming economy, Clinton was able to maintain U.S. power and prestige, despite a few mistakes along the way. (Walter Russell Mead and E. Benjamin Skinner, December 2000, American Foreign Service Association)
    -ESSAY : CENTRAL FOREIGN POLICY PRINCIPLES (Walter Russell Mead, Council on Foreign Relations)
    -ESSAY : The Price of China's New Policy (Walter Russell Mead, LA Times, Nov. 21, 1999)
    -ESSAY : Report From Washington : Capital Ideas (Walter Russell Mead,  July 1999, Worth)
    -ESSAY : Does Euro Spell End of the Dollar? (WALTER RUSSELL MEAD,  LA Times Sunday, January 3, 1999)
    -ESSAY : The New Global Economy Takes Your Order (Walter Russell Mead, May 1998, Mother Jones)
    -ESSAY : More Right Turns Ahead : Political analyst Walter Russell Mead argues that no matter what Clinton and the Democrats decide to do, their running room is limited. (Walter Russell Mead, Jan/Feb 1997, Mother Jones)
    -REVIEW: of 'Reagan's War: The Epic Story of His Forty-Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism' by Peter Schweizer (Walter Russell Mead, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Churchill by Roy Jenkins (Walter Russell Mead, Foreign Affairs)
    -REVIEW : of Europe Adrift by John Newhouse (Walter Russell Mead, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW : Policies of Power : An exchange with Walter Russell Mead, the author of Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World (FALLOWS@LARGE | Dialogues with James Fallows, December 6, 2001 , Atlantic Monthly)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : Maintaining the Coalition (NPR Weekend Edition, November 4, 2001)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : Walter Russell Mead (Diane Rehm Show, November 21, 2001, NPR)
    -CHAT : Axis of Evil with Walter Russell Mead (Washington Post, 2/12/02)
    -DISCUSSION : ECONOMIC UNREST : Daniel Yergin, president of Cambridge Energy Research Associates and Co-author of the book Commanding Heights, the Battle Between Government and Marketplace That's Remaking the Modern World; Adam Posen, an economist with the Institute for International Economics; Walter Russell Mead, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; and Richard Jacobs, CEO of Newstar, an international investment advisory firm that focuses on Russia.  (The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, August 28, 1998)
    -ESSAY : Fall Guys (Lawrence Kaplan, June 2000, New Republic)
    -ARCHIVES : "walter Russell Mead" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "walter Russell Mead" (Mag Portal)
    -REVIEW : of Special Providence (Aaron L. Friedberg, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World by Walter Russell Mead (Christopher Layne, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of  Special Providence  (David M. Kennedy, American Prospect)
    -REVIEW : of  Special Providence (James P. Rubin, 03.26.02, New Republic)
    -REVIEW : of Special Providence (Arnold Beichman, National Review)
    -REVIEW : of Special Providence (Jacob Heilbrunn, Commentary Magazine)
    -REVIEW : of Special Providence (David Talbot, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Special Providence (
    -REVIEW : of Special Providence (The Economist)
    -REVIEW : of Special Providence (Steve Oney, LA Weekly)
    -REVIEW : of The Low-Wage Challenge to Global Growth: The Labor Cost-Productivity Imbalance in Newly Industrialized Countries by Walter Russell Mead (James Fallows, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of 'The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream' by H.W. Brands (Peter Schrag, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Age of Gold (Robert C. Jones , CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW : of The Age of Gold (David Kipen, SF Chronicle)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ESSAY : Exhuming Old Hickory for the war on terror : Andrew Jackson's continuing influence helps explain the US determination to bring democracy to rogue states (Amity Shlaes, March 4 2002, Financial Times)
    -ESSAY :  McCain's Majority (Michael Kelly, Jewish World Review Feb. 24, 2000)
    -ESSAY: Imperialism of Neighbors: A new paradigm for the use of American power (Michael Hirsh, June 2003, Washington Monthly)
    -REVIEW : of    Derek Leebaert. The Fifty-Year Wound: The True Price of Americas Cold War Victory. (Arnold Beichman, Policy Review)