Book Review: Special Providence


Special Providence: American Foreign Policy And How It Changed The World by Walter Russell Mead, New York: Routledge, 2002.

“God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America.” (quote attributed to Otto von Bismarck)

This epigram, on the flyleaf of the book, pretty much drew me in right there. This book, though somewhat dated after all that has happened in American foreign policy in the last 13 years, is still useful and interesting to the historian and anybody interested in how America’s relationship with the world has changed over the nation’s history.  The author addresses the book to American foreign policy professionals, and I think it could be important reading for them as well.

The author begins by attacking the notion that American foreign policy was governed by “isolationism” until 1941. He points out that of America’s first 15 presidents, from Washington to Buchanan, every single one had served as either a top general in a foreign war, Secretary of State, or ambassador to Britain or France, and most had had more than one of these top foreign policy jobs. This is in sharp contrast to the 19 presidents since the beginning of the “American century” in 1900, when America was supposed to be coming out of its isolationist shell and engaging with the world. Only two of those 19 had held top foreign policy jobs before becoming president (Eisenhower was a senior military commander in WW2 and George Bush the elder was director of the CIA – a job that didn’t exist in the 18th century – and ambassador to China, today’s equivalent in big-power terms of France in the 18th century). So obviously foreign policy experience was important to the resume of a potential president before the Civil War and is not, really, today.

The idea of “isolationism” refers to American unwillingness to get involved in the European wars of the turn of the 19th century, the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon. Nonetheless, American forces did fight during those conflicts, just not as formal allies of either side (America fought an undeclared naval war with France 1798-1800 and the War of 1812 against Britain 1812-1815). America’s unwillingness to get involved militarily did not mean that Americans were unconcerned about events outside the country. America had a clearly defined policy and set of objectives from the very earliest days of our national independence up until World War 1. The defining characteristic of this period was the dominance of Britain. British fleets controlled the world’s oceans and British money and manufactures dominated the world’s markets. For America, foreign policy meant making the best of living in a world dominated by our former colonial masters. Conciliating the British, preserving our independence, and gaining access to world markets, and fostering internal growth and expansion were all key goals, and American governments spent plenty of time paying attention to foreign policy to achieve these goals.

Mead identifies five main epochs in American foreign policy. The first is the period from national independence in 1783 to the Monroe Doctrine in 1823. During this period, tension with Britain led to war and threats of war on numerous occasions. Ultimately, the Monroe Doctrine represents a modus vivendi in which Britain will permit American merchants free access and preserve a world order, including the independence of the new nations of the Americas, while America will refrain from allying with any of Britain’s continental European enemies. This first period was marked by intense debate in the United States over foreign policy questions, and policy that fluctuated wildly from one presidency to the next. The British world order that the Monroe Doctrine recognized endured until World War 1, which is the second era, marked by occasional tension with Britain (as at the time of the Civil War) but growing accommodation, growing American power, and recognition by Britain of America’s primacy in the western hemisphere. The second period was also marked by a high degree of harmony on foreign policy questions in the US – to the extent that the American Secretary of State at the time of the Civil War sought to re-unite the separated halves of the country by sparking a foreign conflict with Britain and France. Finally, the British-led system fell apart in WW1, and the time from there until the Truman Doctrine in 1947 marks the transition to an American-centered world. This period was, of course, chaotic internationally, with economic crisis and destructive wars, and was also marked internally by gridlock, drift, and incoherence in American foreign policy (at least until 1941). The fourth era begins with the declaration of the Cold War by Truman. Most Americans rallied behind his call for a measured but firm response to the perceived Soviet desire for global domination. With the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989-1991 we entered the fifth phase, once again marked by incoherence, drift, and gridlock in foreign policy matters. The attacks of September 11, 2001 underlined this incoherence and conflict without resolving it (Mead’s book was written before the attacks; he includes a short postscript on the immediate aftermath of the attacks, with our perspective we can see that the pattern he demonstrates in this short passage has continued to this day).

The theoretical core of the book is Mead’s argument that there are four major schools of thought in American foreign policy. He identifies each with a major historical figure, though acknowledging that each of these figures was a complex individual with sometimes varying ideas about policy. The schools are the Hamiltonian, after Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Wilsonian, after president Woodrow Wilson, Jeffersonian, after president Thomas Jefferson, and Jacksonian, after president Andrew Jackson. Hamiltonians think that American foreign policy (and domestic policy, too, for that matter) should be directed towards ensuring the success of American business and the growth of the American economy. Wealth will make us strong and secure. Wilsonians believe that America’s special nature as a pluralistic democracy gives us a special mission to promote good and punish evil in the world. America should go out and slay dragons and build a better world. We are more secure and more free if most other countries are also free and democratic. Jeffersonians share Wilsonians’ interest in democratic values, but are concerned mostly about protecting those values in the United States. Jeffersonians are happy to see other countries take up democratic values but don’t see that it helps freedom here to spend money and lives making democracies elsewhere. They see  big government, especially the military, as a threat to democracy here. America should be a “city on a hill”. Finally, Jacksonians are particularly concerned about the security of the country and the welfare of people they see as “real Americans”. If Americans or critical national interests are attacked or threatened, Jacksonians are prepared to do almost anything to deter and punish.  If we don’t have a “dog in that fight”, Jacksonians can’t be bothered and, like the Jeffersonians, want to keep government small and weak.

The interplay of these four schools has shaped American foreign policy over the centuries, as Mead shows. The often-ignored  19th century comes in for a lot of discussion here. The seeds of American greatness were planted by those guys nobody can remember – Martin Van Buren and John Quincy Adams and such. It’s during this period (1823-1914) that the four schools were pulling together, mostly. American foreign policy focused on trade and tariffs, keeping access open to foreign markets, and supporting the rights of Americans (including Wilsonian missionaries and Hamiltonian businessmen) to do their work overseas. Everybody got something out of the deal – Jeffersonians got a small, weak military and government, Jacksonians got protection of American interests (and support for religious enterprises, something that Mead doesn’t discuss much but to my mind is clearly part of the Jacksonian project), and the internationalists got to do their thing.

After WW1, Wilsonian overreach scared Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian opinion away, and with the military defeat of the Central Powers, Jacksonians were mostly interested in getting “back to normalcy”. The defeat of the Wilsonians in the Versailles Treaty battle didn’t mean the end of their faction, though. In fact, Wilsonian ideas continued to be important among the foreign policy leadership even as they lacked public support to make their projects work. It was only after the Second World War and faced with the perceived threat from Communism, that the factions lined up again behind a coherent policy that gave each one enough to be satisfied.

And now we’re in the same boat as in 1919. Wilsonians want us to promote freedom around the world, intervening in Syria and Iraq to smash Daesh, working actively to protect refugees, expanding assistance to weak economies in the developing world, and so forth. Hamiltonians want us to sign trade agreements with the Pacific Rim countries and South America, but they haven’t shown much willingness to conciliate the Wilsonians with labor rights and environmental protections. At the same time, Wilsonians want a climate change deal that Hamiltonians fear will hurt American business worse than those of our competitors. Jeffersonians argue that the “war on terror” is fundamentally unwinnable and has eroded American freedoms; that we have done much more damage to ourselves than any number of 9/11 attacks could have done. And finally, the Jacksonians, who were united in outrage after the 9/11 attacks, have since increasingly lost faith in the foreign policy leadership as the war goes on without end or seemingly much progress.

Mead also points out that our contemporary foreign policy leadership, though drawn from a wider segment of society than the mandarins of the 19th and early 20th centuries, doesn’t have much experience with ordinary Americans. The upper middle class in this country pretty much sticks to itself, living in the same neighborhoods, going to the same schools, attending the same cultural events, watching the same news programs. Thus, the contributions of Jacksonian ideas – more prevalent outside the elite – are ignored or ridiculed. So you end up with politicians who had no idea about foreign policy promising selective carpet-bombing (that was Ted Cruz) or building a wall along our border to keep out terrorists (Trump) as appeals to Jacksonian sentiments, while the elite laughs and pooh-poohs them. Until they get elected.

And now they have been elected. And boy has the pot been stirred! Trump appears to be appealing to the Jacksonian ethos, while rejecting Hamiltonian and Wilsonian ideas out of hand. The Jeffersonian idealists can get something out of his plans, except that now he is talking about a larger military and thus more government spending. This book is such a great interpretation, I really wish the author would do an updated edition.

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