Random musings from a libertarian, tech geek...
Special Providence is the best book I've read in 2003. Some books are great because of their special insight, others because of their intellectual depth (I consider them 2 different things...) and finally others because of their approachability by the lay person. Walter Russell Mead's is all 3 and provides outstanding historical commentary on American foreign policy, analysis of underlying issues and synthesis of a thoughtful, prescriptive framework for discussing future trends.
Mead argues that America has always had a more sophisticated / nuanced foreign policy than it is given credit for. He contends that the conventional wisdom that a halcyon order of American Isolationism existed is generally false and provides detailed evidence of the extent of international trade, military commitments, and diplomatic achievements beginning almost from the very birth of the nation. Mead notes [p 27]:
Mead argues that several unique aspects of American Providence make it difficult to construct an appropriate narrative of our foreign policy and thus the convenient "myth" of historical isolationism has set in.
The plurality and inter-school rivalry is a unique facet of US Foreign policy and has much to do with the pervasiveness of our democracy. Many other nations and at their previous periods of historical dominance saw their foreign policy agendas shaped in a rather aristocratic, dark room manner with singular grand visions being faithfully implemented by the apparatus. By contrast, the US State Department is merely one of a cabal of voices which has strong influence upon the direction of American policy. A popularly elected President, for example, can overrule hordes of PhD's employed at the state department. MNC's can directly lobby their state senators, and so on. The result is that the common man in America - whether he realizes it or not (a topic to discuss later) - has much more impact on US foreign policy than the common citizen at the height of Pax Britannica, or any other historical global power.
In order to provide a "hitchhiker's guide" to America's Foreign Policy, Mead constructs a four node framework which articulates his major schools - a good summary paragraph from the introduction [p xvii]:
So basically, Hamiltonians = Traders, Wilsonians = UN, Jeffersonians = Libertarians, Jacksonians = Hawks.
He does an AWESOME job of credibly explaining all 4 schools in a manner which is both equally complementary and critical and shows no outward sign of bias. (he "comes out" later in the book and states that his own biases are towards the Jeffersonian school). Membership in a school is by no means exclusive (one can be a Hamiltonian about China, for example, but a Jacksonian towards the Middle East) and, Mead elegantly demonstrates, the plurality of voices are actually able to feed and buttress each other and achieve goals far better than any one school alone - the Wilsonian / Jacksonian Good Cop / Bad Cop routine is probably the easiest to imagine.
On the Hamiltonians, Mead notes [p 128]:
Mead also observes how unique the Jacksonian and Jeffersonian schools are to foreign observers - particularly the EU [p 174]:
Viewed through this framework, it's easy to understand some of the major fault lines in US diplomacy today. For example, Wilsonian's (correctly, IMHO) argued for direct intervention in the Balkans to secure human rights while the Hamiltonian voice (also correctly, IMHO) dominates our policy towards China believing that Trade and the resultant economic development in China will advance the democratization and human rights agenda.
Another example -- recently well publicized rifts between the State department and the Pentagon basically boil down to individuals of a Wilsonian bend tending to congregate at one institution while Jacksonian's congregate at the other. The rift may have been obvious, but the elegantly simple mnemonic to describe it is Mead's contribution. Further, Mead demonstrates that this division is a timeless contradiction within the American personality itself rather than some recent Bush administration creation.
The book was written before 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq - and is yet remarkably applicable in recognizing the structure of today's debate (Mead did provide an epilogue in the edition which I read that did directly address this world). That Mead's conceptual framework survives the trial by fire of 9/11 and the War on Terror is perhaps one of the best compliments that can be paid.