Special Providence PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Monday, 10 October 2011 06:05

Walter Russell Mead, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Walter Russell Mead has a nose for the obvious. A professor at Bard College, contributor to many journals and newspapers, and erstwhile Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Mead sniffed out something noisome in the standard account of American foreign policy. According to many foreign policy professionals and scholars, the U.S. has no foreign policy tradition. Until the twentieth century, the US lived in innocent isolation, and now that it’s entered the world stage its democratic institutions inhibit it from being a successful player.

If that’s true, Mead wondered, how did thirteen embattled colonies, over a scant few centuries, expand over an entire continent, establish its military, economic, and cultural presence in every corner of the globe, and become the undisputed hegemon running the first global civilization in history? Bismarck had an answer: There is a special providence for drunks, fools, and the United States of America. Fortunately, Mead finds this unsatisfying, and Special Providence is the highly readable result.

Mead finds, for starters, that the United States does have a foreign policy. In fact, he discerns four distinct schools of foreign policy coexisting and combating each other almost from the start. Before we get to those schools, though, we should pause to consider Mead’s explanation of American ignorance of the history of American foreign policy. He offers a twofold solution to this puzzle.

First, many foreign policy intellectuals are schooled in a “Continental realist” strain of foreign affairs. Forged in the struggles of European powers, this tradition emphasizes state-to-state relations, assumes a Hobbesian international order, virtually ignores economic policy, and despises democracy. Continental realists have an “auteur” rather than a “studio” view of foreign policy; the foreign minister is “a dark Bryonic hero: Brooding, silence, and bearing vast responsibilities,” manipulating pieces on a real-life Stratego board. From a Continental realist perspective, whatever it is that US Secretaries of State do, it doesn’t rise to the dignity of real foreign policy.

Second, the Continental realist bias came to the fore in American international affairs during the Cold War. The Cold War produced two myths, one about “Them” and the other about “Us.” The myth about “Them” was that communism was a united and determined movement aiming at global conquest. Mead is not soft on communism, but he believes this myth was “never very accurate.” The myth about “Us” is the myth of “innocent isolation.” Early in our history, we kept pretty much to ourselves, and that worked. With the rise of the Soviet bloc, however, the world has become more dangerous and more complex, and we can no longer indulge the naïve moralisms of childhood. Early American foreign policy has nothing to teach grown-ups.

In a densely packed opening chapter, Mead disposes of the myth of isolation. One sentence gets the gist: “Virtually every presidential administration from Washington’s to Wilson’s sent American forces abroad or faced one or more war crises with a great European power.” Mead is not against myths, which can serve as shorthand for history and provide clear guidance for policy. To be useful, myths need to have some relation to reality, and Mead demonstrates that the isolationist myth utterly fails in this regard.

Now, to those four schools, each named, sometimes anachronistically, for a major American political figure. “Hamiltonians” place business and economics at the center of foreign policy. They use government power to promote American business interests at home and abroad, and are not adverse to using force to ensure that the world’s economy serves American interests. Wilsonians are the moralists of American foreign policy. They aim at a global “international community” or “family of nations,” governed by international law or, as in recent history, by global NGOs (Non-Government Organizations). American values and institutions are for everyone, and Americans are obligated to promote our universal values elsewhere.

Despite their different motivations and goals, Hamiltonians and Wilsonians are internationalists. The other two schools are more concerned with the effects of America’s international activity on life at home. Jeffersonians believe that the main goal of American foreign policy should be to protect liberty in the U.S., not to spread it to the rest of the world. They worry about “military-industrial complexes” that might undermine domestic freedom. Jacksonians believe that government exists for the protection of the governed. Both domestically and in foreign policy, American should use its power to provide physical security and ensure prosperity for American citizens. Honor is a central value for Jacksonian cowboys, and when American honor is assaulted, Jacksonians make war with the fullest fury they can muster. The American military is packed with Jacksonians.

Hamiltonians say, “The business of America is business,” and fashion foreign policy accordingly. Wilsonians want to make a “world safe for democracy.” Jeffersonians want to preserve the American experiment in liberty. The Jacksonian slogan is, “Don’t Tread on Me.” Thus, for example, on Iraq: Hamiltonians might advocate invasion to protect a flow of oil to the U.S.; Wilsonians might support the war for moral reasons, to deliver the Iraqis from tyranny and bring them the blessings of American-style democracy; Jeffersonians would worry more about Homeland Security and the TSA than Iraq; Jacksonians would dismiss the moral concerns of Wilsonians (terrible as Iraqi tyranny might be, it’s not our business), but they would be willing to go to war to ensure that the oil-saturated American way of life can be preserved. Mead knows his scheme is an oversimplification, a “myth” if you will. But it is an illuminating myth.

Though one or the other of these schools has gained the upper hand at different times in American history, all have been represented in some fashion from the beginning. One of Mead’s main arguments is that the jostle of these schools, and the apparent inefficiencies of democratic processes, actually account for America’s foreign policy success. Given the way our government works, most laws and policies represent a rough consensus of American opinion and ambition, domestically and internationally. Mead thinks that America needs all four schools, though he confides at the end of this history that he thinks the Jeffersonian stance is especially important as we enter the twenty-first century.

Mead pulls his punches. For the most part, he draws a veil delicately over American atrocities, and when he finally acknowledges them in detail with a numbing list of civilian deaths at American hands, he concludes, feebly, that our enemies were worse. (Outrageously, he compares the killing of “five picnicking Sunday School students and their teacher” by a Japanese balloon-bomb to the fire-bombing of Tokyo.)

Still, Special Providence crackles with insights and startling facts: American Presidents before World War I had far more international and military experience than Presidents since. The single most important event of the early twentieth century was the transfer stewardship over the world system from Britain to the U.S. Mead spends a fair chunk of the chapter on Wilsonianism examining the massive influence of American missionaries on American foreign policy. Its central theses are persuasive and could hardly be more timely.

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Last Updated on Monday, 10 October 2011 07:29