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Monday, December 29, 2003 - 10:45 AM Permanent link for Special Providence
Special Providence

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]:

Despite the long record of vigorous U.S. activity and intense interest in the world beyond its shore, despite the enormous impact foreign policy has had on domestic politics throughout U.S. history, and despite its unparalleled record of success in international affairs, the United States continues to enjoy both at home and abroad a kind of hayseed image when it comes to foreign policy, that of an innocent barefoot boy unaccustomed to the wiles and ways of the sharp international operators.

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]:

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 to both 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 the 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 for the American people. 

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]:

Those who denounce (or, in the case of Continental realists, admire) Hamiltonians for there presumed hard-nosed, realist approach to promoting the national interest have misunderstood the synthesis of principles and interests that does so much to define the Hamiltonian mind.   Business is the highest form of philanthropy;  commerce is the fastest road to world peace. 

Mead also observes how unique the Jacksonian and Jeffersonian schools are to foreign observers - particularly the EU [p 174]:

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...  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.

...Although the 1960s and 1970s left many Americans with the impression that the civil liberties movement was primarily an aspect of the Left, Jeffersonianism (like most American political movements) cannot so easily be fitted into categories drawn from European political battles.

Jacksonians believe that it is natural and inevitable that national politics and national life will work on different principles from those that prevail in international affairs.   For Jacksonians, the world community Wilsonians want to build is a moral impossibility, even a moral monstrosity. 

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.

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