Book Summary: “Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World” by Walter Russell Mead


Title: Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World
Author: Walter Russell Mead
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Mead overviews the history of American foreign policy and its impact on the rest of the world.

My Comments

Progress does not come from technological innovation alone. Another important factor is the role of dominant military and political powers in either spreading the or hindering the spread of the Four Keys of Progress.

On the face of it, this book appears to be about American foreign policy. In fact, the book describes how foreign policy is influenced by culture, ideology, the military, economics and how the global balance of power causes changes in the rest of the world.

Key Take-aways

  • While often criticized as unsophisticated, American foreign policy has been remarkably successful of expanding American power and influence throughout the world.
  • Americans have four different political traditions that have informed its foreign policy:
    • The Hamiltonian tradition focuses on promoting national economic growth, finance and trade.
    • The Wilsonian tradition focuses on moral obligations to spread democracy, human rights and free trade abroad.
    • The Jeffersonian tradition worries about the effects of intervention will have on domestic freedom.
    • The Jacksonian tradition focuses on national honor, physical security and triumphing over hostile powers.
  • Each of these traditions come from regional cultures within the United States that were founded by the original settlers.
  • The influence of each tradition has varied greatly over time with none ever being dominant.
  • This multiplicity of traditions has given American foreign policy a far greater flexibility than in other nations.
  • It has also played a critical role in the diffusion of democracy, human rights and economic prosperity.
  • From 1776 to 1895 American foreign policy was dominated by its relation with the British empire.
  • After the collapse of the British empire, American foreign policy benefitted from the four traditions to become the world’s dominant power.

Important Quotes from Book

This is a book about how and why American foreign policy works. In little more than two hundred years, the United States has grown from a handful of settlements on the Atlantic seaboard to become the most powerful country in the history of the world. Both foreigners and Americans themselves take this remarkable development for granted. Throughout the U.S. rise to world power, most observers have believed that the country did not care very much about foreign policy and was not very good at it.

I could not escape the fact that the two most recent great powers in world history were what Europeans still sometimes refer to as “Anglo-Saxon” powers: Great Britain and the United States. Besides having a large number of cultural similarities, these two countries have historically looked at the world in a different way than have most of the European countries. The British Empire was, and the United States is, concerned not just with the balance of power in one particular corner of the world but with the evolution of what we today call “world order.”

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 policy should be the physical security and the economic well-being of the American people. “.

Indeed, one of the most remarkable features about American foreign policy today is the ignorance of and contempt for the national foreign policy tradition on the part of so many thoughtful people here and abroad. Most countries are guided in large part by traditional foreign policies that change only slowly. The British have sought a balance of power in Europe since the fifteenth century and the rise of the Tudors. The French have been concerned with German land power and British or American economic and commercial power for almost as long. Under both the czars and the commissars, Russia sought to expand to the south and the west.

Only in the United States can there be found a wholesale and casual dismissal of the continuities that have shaped our foreign policy in the past. “

The overwhelming majority of their talented and hardworking colleagues in think tanks, universities, the national media, and government departments that are concerned with developing, carrying out, reporting, and reflecting on the foreign policy of the United States do not know very much about the history of American foreign policy before World War II, do not particularly want to learn more than they already know, and cannot think what practical purpose a deeper knowledge of American foreign policy history might serve.

This lack of knowledge and curiosity about the history of American foreign policy contrasts with what is in general a passion for historical learning among our foreign policy intellectuals.

The United States has had a remarkably successful history in international relations. Since that time, the United States has made mistakes, but overall its diplomacy has been remarkably successful. The United States not only won the Cold War, it diffused its language, culture, and products worldwide-the American dollar became the international medium of finance; the American language became the lingua franca of world business; American popular culture and American consumer products dominated world media and world markets. The United States is not only the sole global power, its values inform a global consensus, and it dominates to an unprecedented degree the formation of the first truly global civilization our planet has known.

Despite all this, foreign policy commentators and practitioners alike hold that the United States, in order to succeed in foreign policy, must abandon its naive “oscillation between idealism and isolationism” and embrace the mature, sophisticated, worldly approach of European statesmen. They have succeeded at foreign policy, critics say, and we have repeatedly failed.

Nobody, however, seems to ask a basic question: Which European country has had a more “sophisticated” and successful foreign policy than the United States in the twentieth century or, indeed, ever?

Compared, in sum, with the dismal record of the other great powers, American foreign policy-with a handful of exceptions, most notably Vietnam-“looks reasonably good. Cast morality aside for the moment. From a purely practical standpoint, no European power, with the possible exceptions of Switzerland, Sweden, and Vatican City, has done better than the United States in the twentieth century; most have done much, much worse.

Not only has American foreign policy been more successful than the conventional wisdom acknowledges, it has played a much more central role throughout American history than many Americans believe. The leading statesmen of the United States often devoted more of their attention to foreign policy questions before and during the Civil War than they did during the twentieth-century Cold War. Indeed, of the first nine presidents of the United States, six had previously served as secretary of state, and seven as ministers abroad. Four of the first twelve-Washington, Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and Zachary Taylor-won fame for commanding American troops in the field, fame that was in each case the most important single factor in their gaining the presidency. Six of the fifteen American presidents who served before Lincoln had been both secretary of state and minister to Great Britain; a seventh, Jefferson, had been secretary of state and minister to France; and an eighth, John Adams, had been minister to both Britain and France.

The evidence suggests that the U.S. economy was at least as dependent on foreign trade in 1790 as it was two hundred years later. I3 Economically the United States was more dependent on the rest of the world in the nineteenth century than it was during much of the Cold War. From 1948 to 1957, foreign trade accounted, on average, for 7.3 percent of the GNP; from 1869 to 1893, for 13.4 percent.

American farmers were utterly dependent on export markets for their wheat, corn, tobacco, and cotton.

Once a farming community had passed the initial pioneering stage of subsistence agriculture and began to sell its surplus produce, it entered the world market.

Like it or not, the United States was inextricably bound up in the British economic system.

Until well after the Civil War the United States was in a permanent war atmosphere, in which either it or its European negotiating partners were continually threatening war, levying sanctions, and issuing threatening orders to their armed forces.

Great Britain, as the only global power of the day, was the country with which the United States most often came closest to war. From the end of the War of 1812 to the Venezuela boundary crisis of 1895, there was scarcely an administration or a decade in which the United States and Great Britain did not face a crisis or war scare in their tense and turbulent relations.

Foreign policy issues loomed large in election. Often, indeed usually, the American government was more pacifistic and isolationist than public opinion. At several points in the nineteenth century, the popular pressure for war against Britain and France was almost overwhelming.

Foreign policy and domestic politics were inextricably mixed throughout American history. The question of American independence was, of course, an issue of foreign relations, and the formation of the French alliance was the key to the successful conclusion of the Revolutionary War. It is no exaggeration to say that we owe the Constitution to the requirements of foreign affairs. After the Revolution, the inability of the Continental Congress to manage foreign relations under the Articles of Confederation was the first and foremost reason put forward by the supporters of the new Constitution in the great national debate over ratification.

There were four great issues in nineteenth-century American politics: slavery, westward expansion, the tariff, and monetary policy. Of these only slavery was a purely domestic issue.

One major reason why American foreign policy gets so little respect is that it violates so many of the expectations that various analysts and observers bring to the subject. A surprising number of people today still share a set of conventional views about what foreign policy should be and how it should work that have little to do with the contemporary world. This strangely fossilized conventional wisdom is not just Eurocentric; it is what can be called Continentalist…  it focuses only on the approaches and ideas emanating from the Continental powers of nineteenth-century Europe (especially Prussia, France, and Austria) and ignores the many distinctive features that marked the foreign policy experience of Britain during that century and the United States today.

Continental realism, as this approach to foreign policy can be called, remains extremely influential in academe and in what Alterman calls the punditocracy.

There are three principal areas in which the differences between the American and Continental contexts block Continentally oriented observers from fully understanding the American approach.

First, there is the problem of economics. For statesmen like Metternich and Bismarck, and those in their tradition, politics is everything in foreign policy; economics is, at best, an afterthought. In the Anglo-American tradition economic issues are vital.

For most of American history the immediate objects of foreign policy have been economic questions. From a Continentalist perspective, worrying about tariffs, monetary coordination, and trading rights hardly looks like foreign policy at all.

For Continentalists, economic policy is not the high and challenging business of the state. For American realists, getting economic policy right is the true grand strategy of the state; if we have the money we will somehow find the ships and men.

The second distortion that weakens the ability of those wearing the spectacles of Continental realism to see the true nature of American foreign policy has to do with scale. Continental realists are Eurocentric, and see the European continent as the main theater of world politics.

Behind this reality is an even deeper problem, one that not only Continental realists but many observers schooled in history and political science regard as an absolutely critical deficiency in the American system: its democratic nature.

There is an almost universal feeling among European governments that foreign policy should be, as far as possible, insulated from the turmoil of democratic politics.

Infact the United States in the 1920S and 1930S lay under the spell of a historical myth-call it the myth of virtuous isolation. It was in fact a profoundly antihistorical myth.

We need to become aware of our foreign policy traditions and history and learn to appreciate our strengths and make allowances for our weaknesses.

What we really need is a myth for the twenty-first century which condenses those historical experiences and realities that are relevant to the conditions we face in the new world slowly taking shape around us. That myth will help Americans to reconnect with the pre-Cold War past, identify and celebrate the qualities in American ideology and politics that have contributed to the nation’s remarkable success, and, it is to be hoped, create a useful framework for public debate over the policy choices that the United States faces in the decades ahead.

What I see as the most promising potential new paradigm or myth for American foreign policy depends on four basic ideas. The first of these has already been presented: the idea that foreign policy, understood as including questions of the relationship of the American economy to the international economic system, has been a central concern of American politics throughout our history.

The second idea is that the basic shape of American foreign policy throughout American history has been determined by the nation’s interest in the international, largely maritime trading and financial order that over the last few centuries has gradually spread over the earth.

The history of American foreign policy divides into four eras based on our changing relationship to Great Britain and the emerging global order. The first era, lasting from 1776 to 1823, saw the United States win its political independence from the British Empire, and then immediately begin to work out the question of its relations with the British economic system and imperial power.

The British acknowledged that Britain was better off trading with the United States than adding the dangers and expenses of an anti-American foreign policy to all the worries of maintaining a balance of power in Europe and building a growing global system. The United States for its part decided that having Britannia rule the waves was better than letting the rest of the scorpions out of the bottle.

The second era in American foreign policy lasted from 1823 through 1914. During this time the United States existed in a Britain-centered global order.

The United States concentrated on getting the best deal for itself within the British system, while staying on guard against the danger that Britain might be tempted by its strength to crush or divide it… The United States believed that over time American power and influence within the British system would grow, and looked forward to the day when it would surpass Great Britain as what today is called a global superpower.

The uneasy balance between the two powers was largely in Britain’s favor early in the period. The Union victory in the Civil War marked the beginning of a period when the United States moved steadily toward equality,

The third era of American foreign policy encompassed the two world wars and saw the rapid decline and fall of the British world system.

The third era in the history of American foreign policy ended with the decision that opened the fourth, in which we still live. In 1947 as in 1823, Americans concluded that the national interest required a strong maritime power able to uphold the balance of power in Europe and to maintain an international economic and political order in the rest of the world. By 1947 that power could no longer be Great Britain; it would have to be the United States.

The third element in a new paradigm has to do with the importance of democracy in American success.

All four schools are deeply rooted in the American experience. To some degree one can trace their roots to the four folkways that historian David Hackett Fischer identifies in colonial America, where the cultural, ideological, and political differences among the colonists appear to have arisen from the differences in the regional cultures out of which they emerged in the British Isles.”

In the early twentieth century all four schools were severely tested by the problems posed by the decline of the British Empire. Yet within a generation all four had made an adjustment. The commerce- and finance based Hamiltonians dropped their historic support for protection and supported free trade as a necessary economic policy for a hegemonic power. Jeffersonians modified their historic aversion to great-power politics to provide critical support for the Cold War. Wilsonians linked their vision of a universal moral order on earth to the concrete needs of the American hegemony. Jacksonians provided forty years of broad, and unwavering popular support for the bloody and dangerous Cold War.

My goal instead is to show how the “four schools” idea can help us think more clearly about American foreign policy.

The Hamiltonian Tradition:

British policy was more commercial and less militaristic than Continental policies; American policy could and would be more commercial still. Indeed, the importance of trade would determine the Hamiltonian definitions of U.S. security interests… Access to trade with the rest of the world would clearly be a paramount American interest. It was an interruption of trade, rather than the loss of territory to rivals, that would most worry American foreign policy intellectuals through the first 150 years of national independence.

A foreign policy that was fundamentally commercial changed the nature of the American relationship with other powers. Security policy has historically been played like a zero-sum game.

The zero-sum game of military rivalry played an enormous role in European power politics, and the prospects for cooperation among participants in such a game are not good. Today’s temporary ally is tomorrow’s mortal foe.

Commercial relations do not work in the same way. In commercial transactions it is possible to have both a satisfied buyer and a satisfied seller. Furthermore, economic prosperity is not a zero-sum game.

Hamiltonians see commerce as, potentially, a cause of peace. The expansion of trade, and the substitution of the win-win strategy of commerce for the zero-sum game of war, would become important Hamiltonian aims in the twentieth century.

Hamiltonians would be much more hospitable to the instruments of warfare-above all, to navies, but also to a professional standing army than American politicians who worried about the political consequences of professional armed forces, but the traditional foreign policy of the United States assigned military matters a significantly smaller role than was common in Europe.

One of the earliest and most important of these interests, one that occupied the minds of the American colonists even before the Revolution, is what can be called the freedom of the seas. In its narrowest sense this involves the freedom of American citizens, American goods, and American ships to travel wherever they wish in the world in the interests of peaceful trade.

Freedom of the seas in even this narrow sense remains the single point

on which American interests are most likely to come into conflict with those of other powers.

The zenith of Hamiltonian power in the United States lasted from Abraham Lincoln’s election to the outbreak of the Great Depression; of the seventeen presidential elections held between Lincoln’s nomination in 1860 and Hoover’s defeat in 1932, the Republicans won all but four. This was also the period in which American tariffs were at the highest levels in our history.

The weight of Hamiltonian opinion gradually shifted from protectionism toward free trade as the lesson of reciprocity sank in.

Since the nineteenth century the United States has conducted its foreign policy with one eye on the necessity of maintaining its access to supplies of these materials. Any country or group of countries that found itself with a monopoly in some key material and that then attempted to use this monopoly against the United States would soon find itself the object of vigorous countermeasures. The vital role of oil and energy policy in shaping American foreign policy and military strategy today points to the continuing importance of these considerations in our policy.

Equally vital from a Hamiltonian point of view: the need for a free flow of money between the world’s principal trading nations. Unless dollars, pounds, and francs can be freely exchanged for one another in some predictable way, and unless traders and investors can freely move money from one country to another, the advantages of trade would be largely lost.

Britain has occupied a special, central place in Hamiltonian thinking since the Federalist period. At every crisis in American foreign policy from the Treaty of Paris, which established our independence, to the Kosovo war, Hamiltonians have seen Great Britain as the key to a successful American policy, and they have done their best-in early times with little cooperation from pigheaded and shortsighted British diplomacy – to preserve close relations between the two great English-speaking nations.

It was partly a matter of trade. As a market for American goods and as a source for manufactured goods, the importance of Great Britain to the young republic is impossible to exaggerate. In 1790 the United Kingdom absorbed 35 percent of America’s total exports; one hundred years later that proportion had risen to 52.2 percent Great Britain remained the largest single purchaser of American exports until I946, when it was overtaken by Canada. (If the British Empire had held together, it would today incomparably be the most important economic partner of the United States).

The growing importance of British investment in the United States created a strong pro-American party in Britain and a strong pro-British party in the United States.

This special relationship meant that the United States could have an extraordinarily simple and cheap national defense policy in the nineteenth century. For Hamiltonians in those years, American security policy was a simple matter, and something Lord Bryce could understand: Stay strong enough to ensure that Britain respected American rights, and otherwise, stay out of European politics.

The fall of the British Empire was the most important event in international politics in the twentieth century, and in the whole history of American foreign policy. The great international conflicts of the twentieth century-the two world wars and the Cold War-can be grouped together as the wars of the British succession, as Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States scrambled to inherit the British mantle.

From this perspective the United States had three great achievements to its credit in the twentieth century: assisting in the dismantling of the decaying fabric of the old empire, seeing off the challenges from Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union, and building a new international order to support the American system that replaced Great Britain as what Colonel House called “the gyroscope of world order.”

Hamiltonian ideas informed many of the key decisions the United States made.

The most important change came in the policy toward Britain. From 1789 to 1941, Hamiltonians generally believed that America’s place was at Britain’s side. From 1941 to the present, they have believed that Britain’s place is at America’s.

The Wilsonian Tradition:

While Wilsonianism has unique characteristics drawn from American culture and history, the phenomenon of a great power linking its destiny to the spread of a particular ideology is not unique to the United States. Athens and Sparta looked for allies, respectively, among the democratic and aristocratic parties of the Greek city-states of their era. The spread of Hellenic civilization was an object of policy for Alexander the Great and his successors; the Christian emperors of Rome and Byzantium and the Muslim caliphs of Damascus and Baghdad believed that faith could, would, and should follow the flag, so to speak.

As the Cross and the Crescent slugged it out in the Near and Middle East, the powers of Western Europe also consciously sought-and generally found-ideological rationales for their political ambitions.’ England, Holland, Sweden, and the Lutheran princes of Germany were Protestant powers; the Hapsburg dominions were proudly Catholic.

British Liberal opinion continued to support what, in an American context, we would call Wilsonian policies up through the fall of the British Empire and into modern times. When Wilson tried to impose a Wilsonian peace at the end of World War I, his strongest foreign allies were found in the British Liberal Party.

Rooted originally in the separatist piety of Puritan New England, and nurtured in the long, cool afterglow of Yankee Calvinism in decline, the Wilsonian subculture has exercised a continuous and powerful influence inside and outside government from the eighteenth century onward.

The venom and ridicule that realists in Britain and elsewhere have poured and continue to pour on the Wilsonian approach to foreign policy is both startling and strange.

Europe has come to accept the prophet that it scorned, and that every European state west of the old Soviet Union now conducts its policy along recognizably Wilsonian lines.

From the end of the Cold War to the end of the Clinton administration, Wilsonianism battled with Hamiltonianism to be the dominant force in American foreign policy. Much of the contemporary fighting over foreign policy-as, for example, with respect to China-reflects a conflict between the Hamiltonian quest to build a global commercial order and the Wilsonian view that that order must also be based on principles of democratic government and the protection of human rights.

The very concept of a global civil society comes to us out of the missionary movement; apart from a handful of isolated intellectuals, no one before the missionaries ever thought that the world’s cultures and societies had or could have enough in common to make a common global society feasible or desirable. Certainly before the missionaries no large group of people set out to build just such a world. The concept that “backward” countries could and should develop into Western-style industrial democracies grew up among missionaries, and missionary relief and development organizations like World Vision and Catholic Relief Services remain at the forefront of development efforts. The idea that governments in the Western world had a positive duty to support the development of poor countries through financial aid and other forms of assistance similarly comes out of the missionary world. Most contemporary international organizations that provide relief from natural disasters, shelter refugees, train medical practitioners for poor countries, or perform other important services on an international basis can trace their origin either to missionary organizations or to the missionary milieu.

Those who saw an American duty to remake the world in its image spent the nineteenth century seeking action from the United States government on three different levels. On the first level came the demand for an active role by the American government in giving American missionaries the right of entry into other countries, providing them with legal protection once there, protecting their property, and, ultimately, as converts were made, protecting the Christian minority against private pogroms or government discrimination and/or persecution. At this level the missionaries enjoyed a substantial degree of success.

As the missionary movement grew, and grew more successful, missionaries and their allies moved to a second level of political activism. Itbecame increasingly important to protect the lives, property, and other interests of American missionaries, and the effort to do so consumed more of the energy and time of the American diplomatic community.

On the third and highest level of activity, missionaries sought to persuade the U.S. government to use its influence to promote what would now be called a human rights agenda in the developing world. In some countries, even the very modestly sized native Christian communities that appeared in the nineteenth century alarmed local authorities and traditional religious communities. The introduction of Western-style printing presses and the development of increased written literature on sensitive political, cultural, and economic subjects further troubled the officials of some countries. Attempts to suppress the new Christian congregations-in Korea, in the Ottoman Empire, in China-met with stiff diplomatic resistance from the United States.

The missionary community and their friends, supporters, and others who shared their values back in the United States also sought to develop broad concepts for American foreign policy in general: a grand strategic vision for the exercise of American power.

Although the missionaries exerted a considerable influence over government policy, their major impact was outside government: the creation of institutions, relationships, and cultural and social realities in the United States and foreign civil society, along with other changes that resulted from missionary activity… missionaries and their offspring have served as a gateway between the mass of the American people and people abroad.

That the United States was prepared for world leadership after World War II is largely a result of the missionary movement. Missionary kids, fluent from childhood in foreign languages and at home in foreign cultures, were invaluable assets for American forces during the war, and after it for occupation and diplomatic missions and as key staffers in the vast international expansion of American business. According to one recent survey, roughly 50 percent of “foreign culture experts” during World War II were missionary offspring. ‘This was particularly crucial at a time when the European empires were collapsing.

The secular contributions of the missionary movement may, on a global scale, ultimately have more impact than do their religious achievements. Liberal democracy has, officially at least, become the ruling ideology in southern, southeastern and most of northeastern Asia… In most of Africa, liberal democracy has no serious ideological rival; it haunts the chancelleries of the Muslim Middle East and duels with the recidivist national fascisms of the Balkan Peninsula.

Supporting this worldwide movement toward humane and liberal democracy is a host of civil society movements for human rights, protection of journalists, the defense of ethnic and religious minorities, women’s rights, justice for refugees, disarmament, and other liberal causes. In many cases there are direct institutional links between these organizations and the missionary churches. In many others the links are cultural, ideological or personal.

The first principle of Wilsonian foreign policy is that democracies make better and more reliable partners than monarchies and tyrannies.

Wilsonians-again under missionary influence-became determined opponents of colonialism. The British raj was evidently not democratic; the less enlightened rule ofother colonial empires was even less tolerable. Wilsonian opinion, which had flirted briefly with the imperialist option at the turn of the twentieth century, soon joined the chorus calling for the United States to give up its own colonies.

Wilsonian beliefs lead to the principle that the support of democracy abroad is not only a moral duty for the United States but a practical imperative as well.

An important factor in the growth of Wilsonian determination to spread democracy was the startling success of American post-World War II policy in Germany, Italy, and Japan.

After the promotion of democracy, the next object of Wilsonian strategic thought is the prevention of war.

Despite their yearning for peace, Wilsonians have often joined Hamiltonians in supporting, if necessary, war against states that make war on the international order. Hamiltonians may snicker when Wilsonians talk about war to make the world safe for democracy-and Wilsonians groan at the thought of Hamiltonians wanting to make the world safe for plutocracy-but in practice the targets of Wilsonian and Hamiltonian wrath are often the same. Hamiltonians may think the crime is principally an assault on the balance of power. Wilsonians see it as an attack on international law, or as the violation of neutrality.

Wilsonianism benefits American foreign policy in another important way. Since most great powers have guiding ideologies, it is a good thing that Wilsonianism is particularly well-suited for winning friends and influencing people abroad.

To begin with Wilsonianism is a universal, not a particular, ideal.

For the United States to be seen as the main international supporter and avatar of so effective and seductive an ideology is clearly a major advantage in international affairs.

The Jeffersonian Tradition:

The Hamiltonian and Wilsonian approaches to American foreign policy, however controversial they may sometimes be, are relatively well understood. Though in some ways alien and in others offensive to the classical approaches of European diplomacy, over time they have become familiar enough to be easily comprehensible. Furthermore, throughout the twentieth century, other countries to a greater or lesser extent appropriated elements of Hamiltonian and Wilsonian political thought to their own circumstances.

The Jeffersonian and Jacksonian schools, however, which more directly spring from idiosyncratic elements of American (or Anglo-American) culture, remain less well known, less well liked, and much less well understood. This is natural. Hamiltonian and Wilsonian values are universal.

Jeffersonians and Jacksonians would be happy if the rest of the world became more like the United States, though they don’t find this likely. They resist, however, any thought of the United States becoming more like the rest of the world.

But Jeffersonians make the obvious and compelling retort that capitalism and business cannot flourish unless society itself is healthy and democratic. And furthermore Jeffersonians have darkly and repeatedly warned that the unchecked operation of capitalism does not always reinforce democracy. The development of great fortunes and private concentration of wealth perverts and suborns the political process. Democracy cannot be taken for granted; it must be vigilantly defended.

The Jeffersonian party looks at the American Revolution with something of the same emotion with which good Bolsheviks once views? Lenin’s October revolution… it was the start of a new era in the world.

Wilsonians could be called the Trotskyites of the American Revolution; they believe that the security and success of the Revolution at home demands its universal extension through the world. Jeffersonians take the Stalinist point of view: Building democracy in one country is enough challenge for them, and they are both skeptical about the prospects for revolutionary victories abroad and concerned about the dangers to the domestic Revolution that might result from excessive entanglements in foreign quarrels.

Jeffersonians have a very different view. They believe that democracy is a fragile plant–difficult to grow, harder to propagate.

Liberty is infinitely precious, and almost as infinitely fragile; that is the core belief of the Jeffersonian movement. In this it differs from all the other major political forces in American life. Hamiltonians believe that commercial development can secure the blessings of free government; Jeffersonians note that in one democracy after another, great commercial interests have subverted the political process to its destruction, and that the ambitious rich man can be the greatest danger to a democratic system. Wilsonians believe that the force of progress and enlightenment is moving mankind toward a reign of peace and reason; Jeffersonians believe that history goes backward as well as forward, and that ambition and the lust for wealth are too deeply embedded in human nature to be easily harnessed by just and rational laws.

There are two basic kinds of danger to liberty that might arise from developments in foreign policy: There are those things that foreign countries may do to us that threaten our liberties directly; there are also, perhaps more dangerous, the things we may do to ourselves as we seek to defend ourselves against others, or even as we seek to advance our values abroad.

War was the first and greatest evil Jeffersonians sought to avoid.

If the avoidance of war is the first principle of Jeffersonian statesmanship, the second is the constitutional conduct of foreign policy. Here Jeffersonians often stand alone; the other three schools are willing and ready to lay the sacred scrolls aside when the cannons thunder, or even when they threaten to thunder.”

Speak softly, and carry the smallest possible stick; Jeffersonians believe that is the best method for avoiding unnecessary war. Define your interests as narrowly as possible, and you will have the fewest possible grounds for quarrels with others.

Having defined American interests as narrowly as possible, Jeffersonians then seek to serve them as economically as possible.

Of the four schools Jeffersonians are most often moved by a disinterested appreciation and respect for foreign cultures.

Furthermore, the Jeffersonian tradition supplies something occasionally lacking in the other three schools: a critical tradition that seeks systematically to investigate, and in some cases controvert, the claims made by proponents of Hamiltonian and Wilsonian activism. If nothing else, Jeffersonian skepticism keeps Wilsonians and Hamiltonians on their toes, forcing them to think through their policies more thoroughly.

The Jeffersonian approach to foreign policy has one other advantage: Every vehicle should have at least one reverse gear, and Jeffersonianism often provides exactly that. When the United States needs to lower its international profile for some reason-as, for example, in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam defeat in the 1970s-Jeffersonian ideas and values allow us to approach the problem in a positive, thoughtful way.

The Jacksonian Tradition:

Andrew Jackson laid the foundations of American politics for most of the nineteenth century, ,and his influence is still felt today.

For foreigners and for some Americans, the Jacksonian school is the least impressive of the four. It is the most deplored abroad, the most denounced at home.

If Jeffersonianism is the book ideology of the United States, Jacksonian populism is its folk ideology. Historically American populism is based less on the ideas of the Enlightenment than on the community values and sense of identity among the British colonizers who settled this country before the Revolution. In particular, as one learns from the work of historian David Hackett Fischer, what we are calling Jacksonian populism can originally be identified with a subgroup among these settlers, the so-called Scotch-Irish who settled the backcountry regions of the Carolinas and Virginia and who went on to settle much of the Old West-which would become West Virginia, Kentucky, parts of Indiana and Illinois-and the south and south central states of Tennessee, Missouri, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas.

To understand how crabgrass Jacksonianism is shaping and will shape American foreign policy we must begin with another unfashionable concept: honor.

The second principle of the code of honor is equality. Among those members of the folk community who do pull their weight, there is an absolute equality of dignity and right. No one else has a right to tell the self-reliant Jacksonian what to say, do, or think. Any infringement of equality will be met with defiance and resistance. The Jacksonian is, and insists on remaining, independent of church, state, social hierarchy, political parties, and labor unions.

The third principle is individualism. Given the freedom to think and live as one pleases, Jacksonian America offers every individual the opportunity to seek satisfaction and salvation through whatever means the individual finds helpful.

Finally, courage is the crowning and indispensable part of the code. Jacksonians must be ready to defend their honor in great things and small.

Jacksonians are instinctively democratic and populist… Career politicians are inherently untrustworthy.

The profoundly populist worldview of Jacksonians contributes to one of the most important elements of their politics: the belief that while problems are complicated, solutions are simple.

Jacksonian populism, which, according to such students of American public opinion as Michael Lind, remains the most widespread political philosophy among the American population at large, is stronger among the mass of ordinary people than it is among the elite. It is more strongly entrenched in the heartland than on either of the two coasts. It has been historically associated with white Protestant males of the lower and middle classes, the least fashionable element in the American political mix today. 

Often Jeffersonians and Jacksonians will stand together in opposition to humanitarian interventions or interventions in support of Wilsonian or Hamiltonian world-order initiatives.

Jacksonians believe that there is an honor code in international life.

Many students of American foreign policy, both here and abroad, dismiss Jacksonians as ignorant isolationists, but this misses the complexity of the Jacksonian worldview. Their approach to war is more closely grounded in classical realism than many recognize. Jacksonians do not believe that the United States must have an unambiguous moral reason for fighting. In fact they tend to separate the issues of morality and war more clearly than do many members of the foreign policy establishment.

In the absence of a clearly defined threat to the national interest, Jacksonian opinion is much less aggressive.

This mass popular patriotism, and the martial spirit behind it, give the United States immense advantages in international affairs. Since the two world wars no European nation has shown the same willingness to pay the price in blood and treasure for a global presence. Most of the “developed” nations find it difficult to maintain large, high-quality fighting forces.

While in many ways Jacksonians have an optimistic outlook, there is a large and important sense in which they are pessimistic. Whatever the theological views of individual Jacksonians, their culture believes in original sin and does not accept the Enlightenment’s belief in the perfectibility of human nature.

As a corollary Jacksonians are premillennialist; they do not believe that utopia is just around the corner.

Another aspect of Jacksonian foreign policy is a deep sense of national honor and a corresponding need to live up to, and be seen to live up to, the demands of an honor code. Some things are so disgusting and cowardly that we can’t do them, and some indignities so demeaning that we can’t suffer them at the hands of others. Honor compels us to undertake some difficult and dirty jobs, however much we would like to avoid them. The political importance of this code should not be underestimated; Americans are capable of going to war over issues of national honor.

Jacksonian America has clear ideas about how wars should be fought, how enemies should be treated, and what should happen when wars are over. Jacksonians recognize two kinds of enemy and two kinds of fighting: Honorable enemies fight a clean fight and are entitled to be opposed in the same way; dishonorable enemies fight dirty wars and in that case rules don’t apply.

The first rule of war is that wars must be fought with all available force. Jacksonian opinion finds the use of limited force deeply repugnant, and considers the phrase “limited war” to be oxymoronic. There is only one way to fight: You must hit them as hard as you can as fast as you can with as much as you can. Nothing else makes sense.

Jacksonians also have strong ideas about how wars should end. “There is no substitute for victory,” as General MacArthur said; the only sure sign of victory is the unconditional surrender of enemy forces. Just as Jacksonian opinion resents limits on American weapons and tactics, it also resents stopping short of victory.

The cultural, social, and religious vibrancy and unorthodoxy of Jacksonian America-not excluding its fondness for such pastimes as professional wrestling-is one of the country’s most important foreign policy assets.

Each of the four schools has made distinct contributions to national power, both by building up the power and cohesion of American society and by providing the nation with both hard and soft power abroad. Admirable as each of the schools is, however, all of them are limited. We are better off with four of them than we would be with anyone of them on its own. Left to itself, each school would press its insights too far, alienating important domestic interest groups and either missing opportunities or taking unnecessary risks abroad.

As it is, one of the chief advantages of having four dominant schools rather than one is that American foreign policy tends to be pragmatic and results driven.

An underlying common grounding in liberal values among all four schools facilitates their cooperation and helps keep conflict between schools within bounds.

If you would like to learn more about the role in Great Powers in promoting progress, read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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