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Special Providence
Special Providence:
American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World


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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. 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 neighboring 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 policy 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.

Excerpted from Special Providence by Walter Russell Mead Copyright 2001 by Walter Russell Mead. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.