The American Way of Power

Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World
By Walter Russell Mead. Alfred A. Knopf, 374 pages, $30.00

This book begins with a bang and ends with a kvetch. "The United States has had a remarkably successful history in international relations," Walter Russell Mead proclaims in his opening pages. That such a common-sense statement might be regarded as provocative, Mead claims, testifies both to the myopia of much learned commentary on foreign policy and to most Americans' ignorance of their own diplomatic traditions. Those failings he energetically sets out to remedy.

Mead presses his case with panache. Along the way he dispenses some trenchant aper├žus: "A global hegemon leads a hard and busy life"; "the United States of America is the most dangerous military power in the history of the world"; "the advantages of democratic government apply in international affairs as well as in domestic ones"; and "France, Germany, Italy, and Britain may have sneered at [Woodrow] Wilson, but every one of those powers today conducts its European policy along Wilsonian lines." This intellectually fecund, infectiously engaging book deserves a wide readership. It raises serious questions in abundance and provides often ingenious answers. Yet in the end, it is less than wholly convincing and perhaps somewhat less original than it appears.

For Mead, American diplomatic success is axiomatic: The United States has effectively safeguarded its national sovereignty (the first and paramount requirement of any nation's foreign policy), largely avoided costly wars while winning almost all the ones it has chosen to fight, and made itself into the dominant international actor of the modern era. He insists that those accomplishments have not been accidents of history and geography. They emphatically are not explained by Otto von Bismarck's reputed theory that "God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America" -- a dictum Mead finds so aggravatingly erroneous that he borrows his title from it and invokes it on at least three additional occasions. On the contrary, he asserts: "The rise of American power has been consistent, striking, sustained over the long term, and accomplished at an astonishingly low cost . . . [by] the world's most successful country."

The "rise of American power" is one of the most shopworn tropes in the abundant literature about the global role of the United States. But Special Providence also offers a less worn and more ambitious thesis: that the history of American foreign policy must be understood not simply as a prelude to the moment in which we now find ourselves, when the United States is "militarily supreme, culturally pervasive, technologically dominant, and economically dynamic." Rather, says Mead, American diplomacy has been consistently successful, not just in the post-Pearl Harbor era that defines the customary telos of standard diplomatic histories, but in all phases of national development from 1776 to the present -- well, almost to the present (about which more below).

That argument puts his narrative sharply at odds with conventional ones about American diplomatic history. The common story line describes a long period of isolation, stretching from George Washington's cautionary farewell address to the Spanish-American War or perhaps to World War I, followed by a lengthy struggle to comprehend and embrace the mature nation's international "responsibilities." Mead will have none of that. Relying on scattered anecdotal evidence and some dubious extrapolations from foreign-trade-and-investment statistics, he proffers a potted history of America's episodic forays into the international arena in the nineteenth century and advances the decidedly unorthodox proposition that "the average American in 1845 or 1895 appears to have been at least as aware of the links between domestic prosperity and the international economy as his or her counterpart is today, and perhaps more so." Ignorance of that long tradition of international engagement, he asserts, threatens the effectiveness of foreign policy today.

Mead makes a heroic effort to comprehend the entirety of Americans' diplomatic past in a complex structure composed of four "schools" of foreign policy. The interplay among those schools, he claims, is what makes American foreign policy both distinctive and successful.

In his inventive formulation, the schools appeared at the Republic's birth and have somehow managed to preserve their respective identities every since. He names each for a prominent figure in American history. "Hamiltonians" favor government-business collaboration to advance American economic interests overseas. "Wilsonians" champion active international involvement not to hawk American wares but to spread democratic values. "Jeffersonians" worry less about disseminating democracy abroad and more about preserving it at home. And then there are the "Jacksonians." They resemble the fabled Irishman who didn't know what he believed in but was more than willing to die for it. They care about national security to the exclusion of virtually all other dimensions of foreign policy. They also have an unsettling habit of becoming ferociously bellicose when provoked.

This ingenious labeling scheme produces more than a few anachronisms and oddities. Wilsonians appear more than a century before Wilson himself. Hamiltonians morph from nineteenth-century protectionists to late-twentieth-century free-traders, without compromising the continuity of their foreign-policy bloodlines. Sometimes additional crotchets creep in, as when Mead dubs the Wilsonians the "Trotskyites" and Jeffersonians the "Stalinists" of the American Revolution. Wrestling with his own balky nomenclative brain-child, Mead is sometimes a splitter, sometimes a lumper. Mead the splitter sees "Right Wilsonians" and "Radical Wilsonians"; southern and northern Hamiltonians; "high-flyers" and "low-flyers"; "purists" and "synthesizers." Mead the lumper joins the Hamiltonians and Wilsonians together as globalists, the Jeffersonians and Jacksonians as nationalists. But even here, the impulse to parse proves irresistible. Broadly speaking, he finds his globalists among elites, his nationalists among hoi polloi. Globalism is constantly in danger of degenerating into imperialism or messianism; nationalism, into isolationism or unilateralism. All are susceptible to chauvinism.

Sometimes Mead treats his schools as free-floating bodies of ideas, appropriated by different groups at different moments in history. Sometimes they appear as fairly systematic ideologies; sometimes as loose bundles of sentiments. Sometimes he presents them as definable constituencies with particular interests at stake; sometimes not as historical agents at all, whether ideational or material, but simply as ideal types, serviceable mnemonic devices to help organize the reader's thinking. But whatever the precise nature of Mead's categories, and however much his elaborate taxonomic contraption may creak and groan under the analytic weight it is made to carry, his central claim is clear: The shifting relationship among his various schools has given the United States what he calls "its own unique style" of foreign policy, and that style has yielded stunning successes.

That there is a distinctively American tradition of geopolitical theory and practice seems a reasonable intuition. But Mead never clearly explains the precise dynamics of the relationships among his schools that supposedly have generated that "unique style." He relies instead on the metaphor of a kaleidoscope, in which his various schools perpetually reassemble themselves in random patterns.

And though Mead offers an argument about history, his is not a conventionally historical analysis. To be sure, Special Providence is well grounded in the particulars of both diplomatic and domestic history. Indeed, one of the book's strengths is its appreciation of the linkages between foreign policies and domestic institutions, values, and attitudes. But matters of contingency and context, not to mention change over time, get scant attention here. The book's operational field is defined by the supposed emergence of the four schools as fully formed entities in the Revolutionary era. Little effort is made to explain why they appeared at that particular time, what circumstances shaped their separate characters, or why American culture has nurtured only those four schools and not others. Most notably, Mead skirts the question of why they have remained -- if in fact they have -- so remarkably constant over more than two centuries of drastic alterations in technology and economic conditions, not to mention demographic transformations, ideological challenges like Nazism and communism that were unimaginable at the nation's birth, and the rise and fall of countless other diplomatic actors.

An exception to that last point is Mead's sustained attention to the geopolitical ascendancy and decline of Britain. Indeed, he invokes the cycles of Britain's diplomatic fortunes as the central organizing principle to explain the evolution of America's own.

He divides the history of American foreign relations into four periods, all of them defined by Britain: 1776-1823, characterized by hesitant and confused efforts to work out a relationship with America's former imperial overlord; 1823-1914, when Americans embraced the "Monroe system" of sheltering under Britain's benign hegemonic influence; 1914-1947, when the United States grappled with the problems of Britain's rapidly waning power; and the period since 1947, when the United States laid unambiguous claim to Britain's hegemonic mantle, indeed ascended to a hyperpower status so unprecedented that "its allies and enemies alike fear being swallowed up in it." In a typically extravagant flourish, Mead declares that the two world wars of the twentieth century and the Cold War, "can be grouped together as the wars of the British succession."

This conceptual apparatus is creative, but its weakness is revealed by the difficulty it has encompassing a particularly important historical episode: the two decades between the twentieth century's world wars. Mead variously characterizes that moment as "paradoxical," "unhappy," and "haunting." Worse, the interwar period "unfortunately looks increasingly similar to our own." As then, today "our engagement [with the world] is incoherent, contradictory, and ultimately less effective than it needs to be."

The conventional histories that Mead is trying to displace had less difficulty understanding the fateful interwar period. They treated it not as an odd interlude in a continuous saga of shrewdly conducted international involvement but as more or less seamlessly continuous with a history of indifference or even active hostility to the world beyond America's shores. As H.G. Nicholas once put it, the United States after World War I "carried the mentality of a debtor and a satellite into a world in which she was the principal creditor and the center of the financial and trading system." Nicholas's fellow British historian E.H. Carr put the same matter even more pointedly when he wrote that "in 1918, world leadership was offered . . . to the United States . . . [and] was declined."

From that perspective, the truly exceptional, paradoxical, and haunting chapter in the nation's diplomatic past is not the interwar period but the Cold War -- the only moment in American history when the United States played a consistently internationalist role, and only then because of the challenge it faced from the Soviet Union, another state with revolutionary origins and a universalizing ideology. It follows that the problems of the present moment arise not because Americans are ignorant of the more distant past but because they are all too inclined to revert to their isolationist or unilateralist habits now that the demon of Soviet communism has been slain. Mead effectively concedes as much in the closing pages of his book.

Among Mead's four schools, it turns out that some are more equal than others. In particular, those pesky Jacksonians, sprung "from idiosyncratic elements of American (or Anglo-American) culture," compel his most urgent attention.

Jacksonianism, he says, "remains the most widespread political philosophy among the American population at large." Because of that, "the dynamics of American foreign policy remain indecipherably opaque without an understanding of this vital force." The Jacksonians are rough-hewn and provincial in their outlook. They come from social sectors that bamboozle the professoriat and the media. They are reflexively suspicious of elites. They tend to be xenophobic. If it comes to the use of force, they loathe the concept of limited war. Most important, they have all the advantages of numbers. Consequently, "the United States cannot wage a major international war without Jacksonian support; once engaged, politicians cannot safely end the war except on Jacksonian terms." What's more, "the shift of Jacksonian America toward the Republican Party under [Richard] Nixon is the most important political change in American life since World War II, and the future of Jacksonian political allegiance is one of the keys to the politics of this century."

In effect, Mead deals the Jacksonians all the trump cards in the game of American foreign policy. That emphasis ultimately makes his analysis look little different from traditional accounts of a nation tempted always to go it alone in the world, unreliably internationalist in its outlook, and often recklessly assertive when it does turn outward. In a justly famous passage written a half-century ago -- a passage with uncanny relevance to the current moment -- George F. Kennan compared America's international behavior to

one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin: He lies there in his comfortable primeval mud and pays little attention to his environment; he is slow to wrath -- in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat. You wonder whether it would not have been wiser for him to have taken a little more interest in what was going on at an earlier date and to have seen whether he could not have prevented some of these situations from arising instead of proceeding from an undiscriminating indifference to a holy wrath equally undiscriminating.

Given Mead's robust opinionating on so many other issues, his remedy for this chronic problem in American diplomacy is disappointingly unmuscular. In his closing pages, he confesses his own allegiance to the Jeffersonian school, primarily because of its alleged sensitivity to the physical, political, and moral limits to action in the international arena. But in fact, his Jeffersonians appear to be little more than genteel, better-educated, and more clubbable Jacksonians. (Jeffersonians, he notes, join the American Civil Liberties Union; Jacksonians join the National Rifle Association.)

Mead himself seems decidedly Jacksonian in his peroration against the "neo-elite" of academics and professional foreign-policy mavens who seem incapable of closing "the cultural, political, and class distance between Jacksonian America and the representatives of the other schools." In tones disturbingly reminiscent of the notorious isolationist Robert McCormick's assaults on diplomats as striped-pants, cookie-pushing "he-debutantes," Mead inveighs against the "neo-elite" for failing to "venture from the citadels of privilege to learn about their fellow citizens at home: Tibet, yes; Peoria, no." He even allows himself a gratuitous shot at the alleged deficiencies of college curricula for failing to offer adequate training in writing and speaking.

But despite its closing tirade, Special Providence remains a rich and substantial book that is sure to influence discussion of foreign-policy issues in the years ahead. Few questions are as consequential in that discussion as the one that Mead poses in his final pages with urgent simplicity: "What is the point of our 'empire' -- to make us rich, or to make us safe, or to build a better world?"

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