SPECIAL PROVIDENCE: AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY AND HOW IT CHANGED THE WORLD
By Walter Russell Mead
Knopf, $30, 374 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY ROGER FONTAINE
Madeleine Albright was fond of observing that the United States is the indispensable nation. Perhaps it is. The Taliban’s Afghanistan certainly wasn’t. Nevertheless, Walter Russell Mead’s new book, “Special Providence,” on American foreign policy is decidedly indispensable for anyone interested in that subject which should be all of us after September 11.
The book presents no less than an analytical scheme of American foreign policy since its inception as well as good advice on where America should be headed in the 21st century. Recent events only reinforce the importance of the author’s design.
Mr. Mead dispels a number of myths about the subject held most dearly not by the ignorant masses, but the foreign policy elite in this country and abroad. The first is that America had no real foreign policy until World War II. Anything before was either simple isolationism or Woodrow Wilson gallantly attempting to rally fellow Americans around supporting his version of a New World Order.
Nonsense, says Mr. Mead, correctly. In fact, American leaders beginning with the Founders were remarkably sophisticated in their understanding of what foreign policy can and cannot do. Moreover, the author contends, our historical amnesia will surely work against us, especially after the Cold War and the collapse of our unlamented communist adversaries. Mr. Mead also has a good time eviscerating the European continentalists who have forever derided American foreign policy as the work of blundering amateurs. He suggests (to paraphrase Capt. Reynault in the film “Casablanca”) that the blundering Americans always manage somehow to win the war.
Mr. Mead also brushes aside that old chestnut of American foreign policy falling into one of two schools isolationist and internationalist. He gives short shrift to another dichotomy: realists versus idealists. These distinctions are not necessarily flat wrong, merely inadequate, and they fail completely to describe the full richness of American foreign policy. Almost in passing, the author reminds us of the importance of American missionaries in the conduct of that policy throughout our history. That is something that academic diplomatic historians have willfully or otherwise ignored. Meanwhile, Mr. Mead detects four strands four schools if you will in that thought.
In no particular order, they are identified as Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian, Wilsonian and Jacksonian, named after their foremost proponents. Hamiltonians like their namesake, the first secretary of the Treasury, believe the central purpose of American foreign policy is promoting business by securing a stable, market economy at home and promoting trade abroad. Jeffersonians don’t discount business, but are fearful of making commitments Americans can’t or won’t keep in the long run. Wilsonians are guided by the thought of America’s special duty in promoting permanent international peace through law and international organizations like the World Court and the United Nations.
Jacksonians are scornful of such intellectual shrubbery and believe that in a wicked world American military might is still our best shield, not international agreements that often disappear with the first whiff of grapeshot. Give peace a chance? The Jacksonians simply snort and say “sure,” after we win the war. Their namesake, incidentally, as Mr. Mead points out, was no crude, frontier Indian fighter. Andrew Jackson was literate and articulate and perfectly capable of using force, but only like Ronald Reagan, another Jacksonian when it was appropriate. Jackson too has often been misunderstood. His own admirers have done so, not to mention contemporary detractors like Henry Clay.
The United States has never conducted its foreign policy with only one school dominating. Jeffersonian caution has spared us endless and costly commitments of blood and treasure. Hamiltonians remind us all that the United States or any nation cannot hope to remain vibrant without a strong economy that produces the resources to protect and defend, much less make over the world in our image. Wilsonians instruct us that American ideals are worth emulating, and Jacksonians when sufficiently guileful will respond to threats to our national security. Since most Americans are natural Jacksonians, as Mr. Mead tells us, Jacksonians are the motor without which the others cannot move.
Jacksonians thus are always good to have around, but they are absolutely indispensable in wartime. Unlike Wilsonians, their warrior nature is a compound of various elements. They do believe in national honor and don’t blush at the phrase. They also understand that when our enemies play dirty, there are no rules and the United States will reply in kind until defeat of the enemy is total and final. Honorable enemies once defeated, however, are not to be handed a Carthaginian peace. Jacksonians seem to understand better than anyone that while there may be no permanent friends, there are no permanent enemies either.
That brings us to the fascinating game of figuring out what we are. I suspect most Americans are mixtures of all four with one or two perhaps preponderant. The present writer is several parts Jacksonian, one part Jeffersonian, and one part Hamiltonian at least in international economic policy with a dash of the Wilsonian, but only a dash.
And what of Abraham Lincoln a far more interesting example. Mr. Mead makes only one passing reference to Lincoln unfortunately. But it occurs to me Lincoln was Hamiltonian in economic policy, Jacksonian in waging war against the anti-Unionists, Jeffersonian in foreign policy (he thought, unlike William Henry Seward, the French adventure in Mexico was a pasteboard concoction that would collapse on its own), and Wilsonian in expressing what the war was about. No one can read the Gettysburg speech or the Second Inaugural without realizing how Lincoln commanded the language in order to make sense out of utter carnage.
One last thought. It is too bad that Osama bin Laden and company did not read “Special Providence” before they embarked on their campaign of murder and mayhem. When the Americans come and get him and his henchmen, their nemeses will be Jacksonians who most certainly won’t spend any time agonizing about the rightness of their cause. But messianic ignoramuses like bin Laden are hardly the only ones that have consistently misunderstood American purpose or policy. Mr. Mead goes a long way to explain why they have so often missed the point often to their own demise.
Roger Fontaine is a writer in Washington. He served on the National Security Council Staff during the first Reagan administration.