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  • Written by Walter Russell Mead
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Special Providence

American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World

Written by Walter Russell MeadAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Walter Russell Mead


List Price: $37.99


On Sale: June 20, 2012
Pages: 400 | ISBN: 978-0-307-82204-8
Published by : Knopf Knopf
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From one of our leading experts on foreign policy, a full-scale reinterpretation of America’s dealings—from its earliest days—with the rest of the world.

It is Walter Russell Mead’s thesis that the United States, by any standard, has had a more successful foreign policy than any of the other great powers that we have faced—and faced down. Beginning as an isolated string of settlements at the edge of the known world, this country—in two centuries—drove the French and the Spanish out of North America; forced Britain, then the world’s greatest empire, to respect American interests; dominated coalitions that defeated German and Japanese bids for world power; replaced the tottering British Empire with a more flexible and dynamic global system built on American power; triumphed in the Cold War; and exported its language, culture, currency, and political values throughout the world.

Yet despite, and often because of, this success, both Americans and foreigners over the decades have routinely considered American foreign policy to be amateurish and blundering, a political backwater and an intellectual wasteland.

Now, in this provocative study, Mead revisits our history to counter these appraisals. He attributes this unprecedented success (as well as recurring problems) to the interplay of four schools of thought, each with deep roots in domestic politics and each characterized by a central focus or concern, that have shaped our foreign policy debates since the American Revolution—the Hamiltonian: the protection of commerce; the Jef-
fersonian: the maintenance of our democratic system; the Jacksonian: populist values and military might; and the Wilsonian: moral principle. And he delineates the ways in which they have continually, and for the most part beneficially, informed the intellectual and political bases of our success as a world power. These four schools, says Mead, are as vital today as they were two hundred years ago, and they can and should guide the nation through the challenges ahead.

Special Providence is a brilliant analysis, certain to influence the way America thinks about its national past, its future, and the rest of the world.


Chapter One

The American Foreign Policy Tradition

Lord Bryce, a British statesman who served as Britain's ambassador to the United States from 1907 to 1913, once wrote that the role of foreign policy in American life could be described the way travelers described snakes in Ireland: "There are no snakes in Ireland."

That at the turn of the twentieth century the United States had no foreign policy worth noting was a view that, in retrospect, many Americans would come to share. How such a view arose is somewhat mysterious. Americans of 1900 thought they had an active, indeed a global, foreign policy. The Spanish-American War had only recently ended, and American forces were still in the midst of a bitter war against guerrilla freedom fighters in the Philippines. It was a time, in fact, when many Americans were struck by a sense that the United States was coming of age. "Th' simple home-lovin' maiden that our fathers knew has disappeared," said Mr. Dooley in 1902, "an' in her place we find a Columbya, gintlemen, with machurer charms, a knowledge iv Euro-peen customs an' not averse to a cigareet."

In 1895 one of America's many successful but largely forgotten secretaries of state, Richard Olney, had forced the British to back down in a boundary dispute between British Guiana (now Guyana) and Venezuela. "Today the United States," stated Olney, "is practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition." Not content with forcing the British to acknowledge their secondary states in the Western Hemisphere, the United States was exerting increasing influence in Asia. It was Secretary of State John Hay who proclaimed the Open Door policy toward China, and, rather surprisingly, the other great powers accepted American opposition to further partition of a weak Chinese empire. Under Lord Bryce's friend Theodore Roosevelt, the United States would humiliate Britain three times in the Western Hemisphere: First, the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty of 1900 saw Britain give up its long-standing insistence on equal rights in any Central American canal. When the Senate rejected this agreement as too generous to Britain, the unhappy Lord Pauncefote, Britain's ambassador to the United States, had to concede even more Isthmian rights and put his name to a second and even more humiliating agreement with Hay. The third humiliation came when Britain, increasingly anxious not to offend the United States at a time when tensions were growing with Germany, agreed to settle a boundary dispute between Alaska and Canada on American terms.

The energetic Roosevelt's foreign policy did not stop with these successes. He would send the famous "White Fleet" of the U.S. Navy on a round-the-world tour to demonstrate the nation's new and modern battle fleet; arbitrate the Russo-Japanese War; send delegates to the 1906 Algeciras Conference in Spain, convened to settle differences among the European powers over Morocco; and generally demonstrate a level of diplomatic activity entirely incommensurate with the number of Hibernian snakes.

The closing years of the nineteenth century and the opening years of the twentieth saw American politics roiled by a series of foreign policy debates. Should Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, or Puerto Rico be annexed, and if so, on what terms? Should the United States continue to participate in its de facto currency union with Britain (the gold standard), or not? How high should tariffs on foreign goods be–should the United States confine itself to a "revenue tariff" set at levels to support the country's budgetary needs, or should it continue or even increase the practice of protective tariffs?

Lord Bryce knew all this very well, but he had reasons for making the statement he did. Like many British diplomats of his day, he wanted the United States to remain part of the British international system, a world order that was in 1900 almost as elaborate as, and in some respects even more interdependent and integrated than, the American world order that exists today.

There was, he conceded, one diplomatic representative the United States did require, however. The Americans could fire the rest of their ambassadors and not notice any real difference, he said, but the United States did need to keep its ambassador at the Court of St. James.

This change would have been a great deal more beneficial to Great Britain than to the United States, but the good lord had a point. In 1900 Great Britain was at the center of a global empire and financial system, a system that in many respects included the United States. On the occassion of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, often considered the high-water mark of British power and prestige, the New York Times was moved to acknowledge this fact. "We are part," said the Times in words that were no doubt very welcome to Lord Bryce, "and a great part, of the Greater Britain which seems so plainly destined to dominate the planet."

In a certain sense the Times was right. One hundred years ago the economic, military, and political destiny of the United States was wrapped up in its relationship with Great Britain. The Pax Britannica shaped the international environment in which the United States operated.

In the last analysis Lord Bryce's comment was less an informed observation about American history and foreign policy than it was a hopeful statement about the durability of the British Empire. It was a prayer, not a fact. Bryce hoped that Britain could continue to manage the European balance of power on its own, with little more than the passive American participation it had enjoyed since the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine. The British statesmen of his day hoped that if they offered the United States a "free hand" in the Western Hemisphere, and supported the Open Door policy in China, the United States would not contest Britain's desire to shape the destinies of the rest of the world.

That Lord Bryce would have discounted and minimized the importance of foreign policy in the United States does not startle; that so many important American writers and thinkers would join him in a wholesale dismissal of the country's foreign policy traditions is more surprising. Indeed, one of the most remarkable features about American foreign policy today is the ignorance of and contempt for the national foreign policy tradition on the part of so many thoughtful people here and abroad. Most countries are guided in large part by traditional foreign policies that change only slowly. The British have sought a balance of power in Europe since the fifteenth century and the rise of the Tudors. The French have been concerned with German land power and British or American economic and commercial power for almost as long. Under both the czars and the commissars, Russia sought to expand to the south and the west. Those concerns still shape the foreign policy of today's weakened Russia as it struggles to retain control of the Caucasus, project influence into the Balkans, and prevent the absorption of the Baltic states and Ukraine into NATO.

Only in the United States can there be found a wholesale and casual dismissal of the continuities that have shaped our foreign policy in the past. "America's journey through international politics," wrote Henry Kissinger, "has been a triumph of faith over experience. . . . Torn between nostalgia for a pristine past and yearning for a perfect future, American thought has oscillated between isolationism and commitment."

At the suggestion of columnist Joseph Alsop, the extremely intelligent George Shultz acquired a collection of books about American diplomacy when he became secretary of state, but nowhere in his 1,138-page record of more than six years' service does he mention anything he learned from them. 6 The 672 fascinating pages of James A. Baker III's memoirs of his distinguished service as secretary of state are, with the exception of a passing mention of Theodore Roosevelt's 1903 intervention in Panama, similarly devoid of references to the activities of American diplomats or statesmen before World War II.

For Richard Nixon, American history seemed to begin and end with the Cold War. American history before 1945 remained a fuzzy blank to him; even in his final book he could call the United States "the only great power without a history of imperialistic claims on neighboring countries"–a characterization that would surprise such neigh- boring countries as Mexico, Canada, and Cuba (and such countries as France and Spain that lost significant territories to American ambition) as much as it would surprise such expansionist American presidents as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James Knox Polk, James Buchanan, Ulysses Simpson Grant, and Theodore Roosevelt.Other than warning about the dangers of isolationism and offering panegyrics on American virtues, Nixon was largely contemptuous of or silent about the traditional aims, methods, and views of American foreign policy, although he frequently and respectfully referred to the foreign policy traditions of other countries with which he had had to deal.

The tendency to reduce the American foreign policy tradition to a legacy of moralism and isolationism can also be found among the Democratic statesmen who have attempted to guide American foreign policy in the last twenty years. Some, like Jimmy Carter, have embraced the moralism while rejecting the isolationism; others share the Republican contempt for both. The copious and learned books of Zbigniew Brzezinski show few signs of close familiarity with the history of American foreign policy or with the achievements of his predecessors, much less a sense of the traditional strategies and goals that guided their work. Similarly, the memoirs of former secretary of defense Robert McNamara and former secretary of state Dean Rusk rarely touch on American foreign policy before 1941. When former secretary of state Warren Christopher selected and published the most important speeches of his tenure in office, the collected documents contained only one reference to the diplomatic activity of any American before FDR, and that was to what Christopher sees as the failures of Woodrow Wilson's efforts vis-à-vis the League of Nations and human rights.

The deep lack of interest in the history of American foreign policy is not confined to high officials. The overwhelming majority of their talented and hardworking colleagues in think tanks, universities, the national media, and government departments that are concerned with developing, carrying out, reporting, and reflecting on the foreign pol- icy of the United States do not know very much about the history of American foreign policy before World War II, do not particularly want to learn more than they already know, and cannot think what practical purpose a deeper knowledge of American foreign policy history might serve.

This lack of knowledge and curiosity about the history of American foreign policy contrasts with what is in general a passion for historical learning among our foreign policy intellectuals. The history of American foreign policy from Pearl Harbor forward is well known and well studied. Lives of such statesmen as Dean Acheson, the Bundy brothers, and Harry Truman–sometimes long and detailed biographies running to several large volumes–find respectable audiences, as do the memoirs of living American statesmen. Foreign policy analysts and journalists are also reasonably well versed in the domestic side of American history and, particularly since the end of the Cold War, the American foreign policy establishment justly prides itself on its knowledge of the histories and cultures of the many peoples and nations with which American foreign policy has had to deal. It is only the history of our foreign policy before World War II that lies buried in obscurity.

The widespread indifference to and disdain for that history is, at least on the face of things, somewhat surprising. The United States has had a remarkably successful history in international relations. After a rocky start, the young American republic quickly established itself as a force to be reckoned with. The Revolutionaries shrewdly exploited the tensions in European politics to build a coalition against Great Britain. Artful diplomatic pressure and the judicious application of incentives and threats enabled the United States to emerge from the Napoleonic Wars with the richest spoils of any nation–the Louisiana Purchase rose on the ruins of Napoleon's hopes for a New World empire. During the subsequent decades, American diplomacy managed to outmanuever Great Britain and the Continental powers on a number of occasions, annexing Florida, extending its boundary to the Pacific, opening Japan to world commerce, thwarting British efforts to consolidate the independence of Texas, and conquering the Southwest from Mexico despite the reservations of the European powers.

During the Civil War, deft American diplomacy defeated repeated efforts by powerful elements in both France and Britain to intervene on behalf of Confederate independence. The United States demonstrated a sure diplomatic touch during the conflict, prudently giving in over the seizure of Confederate commissioners from a British ship in the Trent affair, but firmly forcing a reluctant Great Britain to observe the principles of neutrality and to pay compensation for their violation in the controversies over Confederate ships built by British firms.

Within a generation after the Civil War, the United States became a recognized world power while establishing an unchallenged hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. As to American intervention in World War I, it was a failure only compared to the lofty goals Wilson set for himself. The United States failed to end war forever and to establish a universal democratic system–challenging goals, to say the least–but otherwise it did very well. With fewer casualties than any other great power, and fewer forces on the ground in Europe, the United States had a disproportionately influential role in shaping the peace. Monarchical government in Europe disappeared as a result of the war: Since 1918 Europe has been a continent of republics, and the great thrones and royal houses that once mocked the United States and its democratic pretensions have vanished from the earth.

Fashionable though it has long been to scorn the Treaty of Versailles, and flawed though that instrument undoubtedly was, one must note that Wilson's principles survived the eclipse of the Versailles system and that they still guide European politics today: self-determination, democratic government, collective security, international law, and a league of nations. Wilson may not have gotten everything he wanted at Versailles, and his treaty was never ratified by the Senate, but his vision and his diplomacy, for better or worse, set the tone for the twentieth century. France, Germany, Italy, and Britain may have sneered at Wilson, but every one of these powers today conducts its European policy along Wilsonian lines. What was once dismissed as visionary is now accepted as fundamental. This was no mean achievement, and no European statesman of the twentieth century has had as lasting, as benign, or as widespread an influence.

Even in the short term, the statesmen who sneered at Wilson did no better than he did. The leaders of France, Britain, and Italy–George Clemenceau, David Lloyd George, and Vittorio Orlando–did not do very well at Versailles; none of them gained anything of real or lasting value by the peace. The United States was the only true winner of World War I, as it had been the real winner of the Napoleonic conflicts of the previous century.

World War I made the United States the world's greatest financial power, crushed Germany–economically, America's most dangerous rival–and reduced both Britain and France to a status where neither country could mount an effective opposition to American designs anywhere in the world. In the aftermath of the war Britain conceded to the United States something it had withheld from all its rivals in two centuries of warfare: Britain accepted the United States as co-monarch of the seas, formally recognizing the right of the United States to maintain a navy equal to its own. Wilson and Warren Harding succeeded where Napoleon and Wilhelm II had failed, and they did it without a war with Great Britain. An American diplomacy that asserted American interests while emphasizing the community of values between the two principal English-speaking nations induced Great Britain to accept peacefully what no previous rival had extracted by force.
Walter Russell Mead|Author Q&A

About Walter Russell Mead

Walter Russell Mead - Special Providence
Walter Russell Mead, the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of Mortal Splendor and Special Providence, which won the Lionel Gelber Award for best book on international affairs in English for the year 2002. He is a contributing editor to The Los Angeles Times; has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker; and is a regular reviewer of books on the United States for Foreign Affairs. Mr. Mead also lectures regularly on American foreign policy. He lives in New York City.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Walter Russell Mead, author of Special Providence

Q: The question at the top of everyone's list right now is what should we do in response to the September 11 attacks? Is the Bush Administration handling the situation properly in your view?

The Bush Administration's response to the September attacks has been extremely successful so far. U.S. public opinion is firmly behind the president, and a large international coalition supports our policy. With the war less than two months old, that is not a bad start.

Unfortunately, the most serious problems still lie ahead. Over time, the strength of both the domestic and international support for the president will be tested. As the carnage of September slowly fades from public memory, the media will increasingly be dominated by the pictures of collateral damage caused by U.S. bombs in Afghanistan. This could be a problem. Bin Laden's strategic goal at this stage of the war is to turn the American campaign against terror into a war between Islam and the west. Preventing him from consolidating his support in the Muslim world and presenting himself as the leader of Islam in a struggle with the west must be one of our highest priorities. Unfortunately, what we do to win the military campaign in Afghanistan could undercut our political efforts and perhaps endanger friendly governments in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. We should not exaggerate this danger, but we should not be blind to it, either.

All this does not mean that I think U.S. policy in Afghanistan is mistaken. It only means that some of President Bush's hardest decisions still lie ahead.

Q: Should our leaders have seen the attacks coming?

Let's put it this way. Homeland defense has been shamefully neglected for many years. This failure will almost certainly affect Bill Clinton's already precarious standing in history.

Q: Has the Council been called upon to help devise a strategy for dealing with our current situation? If so, what has been the Council's role?

Since September 11, the new war has been the top priority of the Council on Foreign Relations. The Council web site is continually updated to include our publications and activities related to the war and can be contacted at www.cfr.org. We have established an Independent Task Force under the bipartisan leadership of Carla Hills and Richard Holbrooke to advise policy makers and the general public. In addition, Council fellows have made hundreds of media appearances in the US and abroad since September 11 and written dozens of op-eds and journal articles. Many of our research fellows are also involved in providing advice to policy makers about issues ranging from the overall strategy of the war to the humanitarian and refugee problems resulting from the conflict.

Q: You outline four schools of thought governing U.S. foreign policy. How did you decide upon these four schools and could you briefly describe each?

I didn't set out to write about four schools. I set out to write a book about the big themes in American foreign policy. As I did my homework in American history, however, it became more and more obvious that in many ways American thinking about foreign policy has changed very little in 200 years. That finding surprised me; as I studied these unexpected continuities I also began to separate them into four different approaches. I didn't see them all at once -- they kind of emerged from the murk one by one and I had no idea that there would end up to be four of them when I started. They are the Hamiltonian -- protection of commerce, Wilsonian -- moral principle, Jeffersonian -- maintenance of our democratic system, and Jacksonian -- populist values and military might.

Q: What school does the Bush Administration belong to?

The Bush Administration still hasn't made up its mind. That is not necessarily a bad thing. 'When the facts change, I change my mind,' said the British economist Lord Keynes. One group of Bush officials, apparently led by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, seems to take a largely Jacksonian view of the world. There is an important Hamiltonian streak as well when it comes to issues like trade policy. Secretary of State Colin Powell has a Jeffersonian tinge to his
thinking. The one school the administration started out by condemning was the Wilsonian school -- opposition to Clintonian 'nation building' in places like Bosnia and Haiti was an important part of the Bush foreign policy view. Now, however, thanks to Lord Keynes and the war, the administration is talking about nation building in Afghanistan. We will see where this goes.

Q: You write that the United States has had a more successful foreign policy than any of the other great powers that we've faced. What has been the key to this success?

Our success seems to come from the competition of the four schools I described above, each of which reflects different views of the national interest. As they compete with one another and form coalitions on specific issues, they end up giving the country a flexible and pragmatic foreign policy that over time seems to reflect and serve the national interest as a whole. Just as the unplanned competition of individuals and corporations creates an economic system that works better than a planned economy, so does the competition among schools seem to give a more effective foreign policy than one produced by a great individual genius like a Metternich or a Bismark.

Q: Why, if America is so successful, have so many Americans and foreigners alike considered U.S. foreign policy to be amateurish and blundering?

Most people still think that a successful foreign policy requires the direction of a single great genius acting alone and unhindered by domestic interests and lobbies. The American process is so messy -- Congress and the President fighting with each other, lobbies aggressively promoting single issue concerns, fights between government bureaucracies like the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA -- that many foreign policy scholars, including many Americans, simply assume that the results must be bad.

Q: Would you change any parts of book in light of the September 11 attacks?

There is nothing I would take out of the book today, but there are a few things I would add.

First, I'd want to show how the American response to the attacks showed the four schools hard at work. Jacksonians responded to the attacks with an outpouring of anger, flag waving, demands for retaliation and a surge of patriotism and determination. Jeffersonians worried that the US would respond too violently, and also blamed U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East for fanning hatred of the U.S. there. If we get an anti war movement this time (and from the Revolution forward most of our wars have been accompanied by anti war movements) it will as usual be based in Jeffersonian values.

Wilsonians want to make this a war for international law. They want the UN and the international coalition to play as large a role as possible, and they want the Bush Administration to realize that its need for international cooperation illustrates the importance of a more multilateral foreign policy.

Hamiltonians are, I think, winning most of the policy battles. Like the Jacksonians, they believe that the U.S. needs to make a strong response to the attacks. Our prestige and security will be gravely undermined if we don't destroy the organizations that want to destroy our power. Like the Jeffersonians, they think that we need to push Israel a little harder to make the Palestinians a more attractive offer -- and might offer Israel a formal security guarantee and an offer of U.S. troops as a reward. Like the Wilsonians, they see the need for a coalition -- but they want a conservative coalition with countries like Russia, China and Saudi Arabia. We won't antagonize Russia by giving it a hard time over the Chechens; Russia in turn will help us stamp out the terror camps in Afghanistan and provide its valuable intelligence support in the broader effort to contain terror. This is not what Wilsonians usually mean by multilateralism, but it looks like the kind of multilateralism that the Bush Administration is leaning towards.

Second, I'd warn that American history teaches that the Bush Administration could face some rough sledding ahead. Jacksonians, who now solidly back the president, don't like long, limited wars. Unfortunately the politics of the international coalition will limit American freedom of action in the war -- there are some things that might be advisable from a purely military point of view that would be counterproductive when you look at the politics of the war as a whole. The Bush Administration will have to make a convincing case for what it doesn't do in the war as well as for what it does do -- and that will be tough. The limited wars in Vietnam and Korea wrecked three American presidencies during the Cold War.

A Jeffersonian anti war movement is likely to continue to gain strength as the war goes on, but will not be as big of a problem for the administration.

Finally, I would point to a silver lining in the cloud of this horrible war. Wars bring out some of the best qualities in the American foreign policy process: in wartime Americans are much quicker to understand the need for commitment to a far seeing, engaged foreign policy. It is obvious to all of us now that events in the Middle East matter a great deal to our security and to the security of our loved ones. In the future it will be much easier for American presidents to persuade the country to make real investments and even sacrifices for the sake of bringing peace to this deeply troubled part of the world. Who knows -- this might even spur a serious debate about energy policy and reducing the world's dependence on Middle Eastern fuel supplies.



"Mead is a clear and original thinker and an engaging writer, and these pages are filled with striking insights and pithy formulations. His analysis is richer, more interesting, more accurate than so many others."
--Aaron L. Friedberg, New York Times

"Mead is definitely on to something. He makes lots of good points and debunks a host of myths. And he provides a highly intelligent analysis of America's foreign policy, which is full of common sense and learning and is clear and readable to boot."
--The Economist

"Walter Russell Mead's Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World is a stunning achievement. At a time of crisis, Mead's book forces the reader to rethink the central ideas that have guided American foreign policy in the past and are likely to shape its future."
--James Chace

"Few people writing on U. S. foreign policy are as brilliant and original as Walter Russell Mead. In Special Providence he shatters old diplomatic theories and historical assumptions with a creative vengeance. The result is a brave, landmark study that cannot be ignored.
--Douglas Brinkley

"To understand U. S. foreign policy, it is necessary to understand the United States. Nobody understands either better than Walter Russell Mead. This book is destined to join the small list of classics that explain America to the world and to Americans themselves."
--Michael E. Lind

"In his ambitious and important new book, Walter Russell Mead offers a provocative and highly original way of looking at American foreign policy, one that moves far beyond the conventional wisdom of 'realists vs. idealists.' His insights linking the grand sweep of American history to our present world situation are particularly valuable. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in America's role in our increasingly complex world."
--Richard C. Holbrooke

"This ingenious and provocative account of American foreign policy's past is a splendid introduction to its future."
--Michael Mandelbaum

" This important book-high-spirited, eloquent, and imaginative-could well change the way we think about America's relations with the world."
--Ronald Steel

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