Commentary Magazine

Special Providence by Walter Russell Mead

Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and how it Changed the World
by Walter Russell Mead
Knopf. 345 pp. $30.00

Few notions have been more persistent than the idea of American innocence abroad. The British historian and diplomat Lord Bryce once likened America’s interest in the rest of the world to the traveler’s report about snakes in Ireland: “There are no snakes in Ireland.” More recently, Henry Kissinger has written that in its international dealings, the U.S. has been “torn between nostalgia for a pristine past and yearning for a perfect future,” and thus “has oscillated between isolationism and commitment.” Since September 11, such verdicts have acquired new force as the news media depict the country as having been on holiday for much of the 1990’s.

Yet the last decade was not a period of American withdrawal from the world. On the contrary, the Clinton administration invaded Somalia, stationed a flotilla off Haiti, drove the Serbs from Kosovo, and bombed Somalia, Afghanistan, and the Sudan. As for the new Bush administration, the main complaint from Europe before September 11 was not that the U.S. was disengaged but that it was unilateralist, wantonly exercising its hegemonic power.

Nor were the 1990’s exceptional in some way. As Walter Russell Mead argues in Special Providence, America has never been indifferent to foreign affairs. A senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Mead seeks to trace and explain the rise of American power, and to endorse its more vigorous use. For Mead, whose first book, Mortal Splendor (1987), argued that the U.S. had overextended itself in the world and was headed for a crash, this represents something of a U-turn. As he now sees things, the key to America’s continued success in international affairs is a fuller appreciation of our own considerable foreign-policy traditions.



Some of Mead’s most illuminating chapters cover early American diplomacy. Not only has foreign policy always occupied a prominent place in our national councils, but most of the country’s early statesmen spent a good part of their careers dealing with foreign powers. Of the first nine Presidents, Mead reminds us, six had served previously as secretary of state, and seven as ministers abroad. Still others—George Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and Zachary Taylor-had earned fame for commanding troops in the field. Experience in war, whether against the British, Indians, or Mexicans, was the norm, not the exception. In light of this record, Mead observes, it is little wonder that “within a generation after the Civil War, the United States became a recognized world power while establishing an unchallenged hegemony in the Western hemisphere.”

Why have these chapters of our history been scanted or ignored? When it comes to European observers, Mead believes, sheer snobbery accounts for much of the disdain expressed for U.S. achievements in foreign policy. At home, he blames the “deep lack of interest in the history of American foreign policy” on the pervasiveness of European classical-realist thought in both government and the universities. For practitioners of realism like Kissinger and Richard Nixon, he contends, American history is irrelevant; statecraft is the work of brooding statesmen, individuals exempt from national traditions (and conventional morality) who manipulate countries like pawns on a chessboard.



As Mead sees it, the U.S. needs to emancipate itself from this destructive and influential paradigm and return to its native foreign-policy traditions. In this connection, he identifies four distinct strains of thought.

The first is Hamiltonianism, which calls for a strong alliance between national government and big business as the key to great-power status. This school reached its zenith under Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and General Leonard Wood, who at the turn of the 19th century sought to expand American markets and intervened aggressively in the Philippines and South America.

The second is Wilsonianism, which maintains that the U.S. has a moral duty and national interest in disseminating American values around the globe. Mead credits Wilsonianism with having prompted both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to push for human rights in the Soviet Union. “Even the arch-realist Kissinger himself,” Mead observes, “now takes pride in the Helsinki Accords, which realists once dismissed or condemned.”

The third school of thought is Jeffersonianism, which holds that America should not undertake to hector the rest of the world before purifying its own flawed democracy. The strength of Jeffersonianism, according to Mead, is its insistence on defining the national interest narrowly and avoiding fruitless battles abroad.

Finally, there is the Jacksonian school, which Mead depicts as the hidden motor of much of American foreign policy-and our best guide for the future. Jacksonianism, Mead contends, has eluded previous scholars, largely because of its origins in the country’s substantial Scotch-Irish community. It is

less an intellectual or political movement than it is an expression of the social, cultural, and religious values of a large portion of the American public. Jacksonianism is doubly obscure because it happens to be rooted in one of the portions of the public least represented in the media and the professoriat. Jacksonian America is a folk community with a strong sense of common values and common destiny, periodically led by intellectually brilliant men like [President Andrew] Jackson himself.

Mead sketches what amounts to a Jacksonian code of honor. It consists of self-reliance, equality, individualism, and courage, qualities that in foreign policy translate into a hard-headed and popularly-based realism that is opposed to merely humanitarian interventions. The Gulf war won the support of militant Jacksonian patriots; Bosnia did not. Once the U.S. was engaged in Kosovo, however, Jacksonian honor demanded that we prosecute the war successfully.



Mead is a lively and provocative thinker, and he produces the kind of work that is increasingly uncommon among political scientists; in Special Providence, he skillfully brings the history of American foreign affairs alive, employs anecdotes to telling effect, and shuns jargon. Most of all, he is never boring-though his predilection for grandiloquent theorizing can lead him astray, as it does here.

Where his book goes off the rails is with his theory of Jacksonianism. There is, for a start, a problem with just who the Jacksonians are. Mead never exactly says. Is George W. Bush a Jacksonian? If so, was he a Jacksonian before September 11, when he advocated unilateralism—or is he a Jacksonian now that he is pursuing a war against terrorism with an international coalition? What distinguishes Jacksonianism from the traditional categories of American policy, especially from realism tout court, or even (to use Mead’s own nomenclature) from Hamiltonianism?

Nor does Mead convincingly demonstrate that Jacksonian traditions have played so pivotal a role in American foreign policy. George Bush, Sr., he tells us, lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton because, refusing to invade Baghdad at the end of the Gulf war, he ignored the demands of the Jacksonians. But was it not Bush’s passivity in the face of a recession that cost him the election (“It’s the economy, stupid”)? Mead even associates the reaction to Pearl Harbor with the Jacksonian impulse: the Japanese attack, he writes, “enraged Jacksonians.” Well, no doubt. But it enraged all Americans, just as the attack on the World Trade Center has now roused Americans to combat. What nation, Jacksonian or not, would have remained indifferent?

Worst of all, by framing his case in terms of Jacksonian honor, Mead falls victim to the sort of abstract theorizing that he rightly condemns in much foreign-policy analysis. Like his fellow theorizers, whether realists or humanitarian interventionists, Mead wants the U.S. to pursue a grand strategy. But while he and they are debating means and ends, events are having their wonted effect, and the continuities that Mead rightly discerns in our foreign policy are propelling us back onto the world stage. As all parties to the debate can agree, it is a stage we never left.


About the Author

Jacob Heilbrunn is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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