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

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"God has a special providence for fools, drunks and the United States of America."—Otto von Bismarck America's response to the September 11 attacks spotlighted many of the country's longstanding goals on the world stage: to protect liberty at home, to secure America's economic interests, to spread democracy in totalitarian regimes and to vanquish the enemy utterly. One of America's leading foreign policy thinkers, Walter Russell Mead, argues that these diverse, conflicting impulses have in fact been the key to the U.S.'s success in the world. In a sweeping new synthesis, Mead uncovers four distinct historical patterns in foreign policy, each exemplified by a towering figure from our past. Wilsonians are moral missionaries, making the world safe for democracy by creating international watchdogs like the U.N. Hamiltonians likewise support international engagement, but their goal is to open foreign markets and expand the economy. Populist Jacksonians support a strong military, one that should be used rarely, but then with overwhelming force to bring the enemy to its knees. Jeffersonians, concerned primarily with liberty at home, are suspicious of both big military and large-scale international projects. A striking new vision of America's place in the world, Special Providence transcends stale debates about realists vs. idealists and hawks vs. doves to provide a revolutionary, nuanced, historically-grounded view of American foreign policy.

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Editorial Reviews

David M. Kennedy
Ambitious...inventive...A heroic effort to comprehend the entirety of Americans' diplomatic past. This intellectually fecund, infectiously engaging book deserves a wide readership. It raises serious questions in abundance and provides often ingenious answers. A rich and substantial book that is sure to influence discussion of foreign-policy issues in the years ahead.
Martin Walker
The most orignial and probably the most important book to have been written on American foreign policy in decades.
David Rieff
A remarkable accomplishment...[Mead] is a brilliant scholar, and he has produced a book of enduring value as both a work of intelectual genealogy and a stimulating re-evaluation of some of the roots of America's rise.
Aaron L. Friedberg
Mead is a clear and original thinker and an engaging writer, and these pages are filled with striking insights and pithy formulations.
Publishers Weekly
America is perceived as not having a foreign policy tradition, contends Mead (Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition), a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. In fact, Mead contends, there are actually four contrasting schools of foreign policy: a "Hamiltonian" concern with U.S. economic well-being at home and abroad; a "Wilsonian" impulse to promulgate U.S. values throughout the world; a "Jeffersonian" focus on protecting American democracy in a perilous world; and a bellicose, populist "Jacksonian" commitment to preserving U.S. interests and honor in the world. As Mead's detailed historical analysis of the origin and development of these schools shows, each has its strengths and faults if Wilsonians are too idealistic, Jacksonians are too suspicious of the world but each keeps the other in check, assuring no single school will dominate and that a basic consensus among them will be achieved, as was the case during the Cold War. As the Cold War ended, however, and the world became more complex, consensus ended. Hamiltonians and Wilsonians saw the opportunity to mold the economy and morality of the world in the U.S. image, but Jeffersonian doubt about foreign action in places like Bosnia, and Jacksonian popular suspicions of organizations like the WTO soon challenged such grandiose plans. Mead worries that U.S. foreign policy is too unfocused today and suggests we could learn much from the interactions in the past of the four schools, a complex history he ably unfolds. 8 pages of photos not seen by PW. (Nov. 8) Forecast: With foreign policy at the forefront after September 11, this could help shape discussions of U.S. response; expect serious interest. Copyright2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A senior fellow for foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, Mead (Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition) follows in the footsteps of Walter McDougall in Promised Land, Crusader State (Houghton, 1997). Like McDougall, he points out that the United States-contrary to the received wisdom-was awash in diplomacy from its birth throughout the supposedly isolationist 19th century. But Mead sets himself a broader task. Why, he asks, does the United States still suffer from a reputation for naivet despite its meteoric ascent to world power? The author traces European puzzlement at Americans' stubborn independence, aversion to state power, and obsession with commerce. Like other historians, Mead discerns several schools of thought that vie for supremacy within the American diplomatic tradition: Hamilton's preoccupation with commerce, Jefferson's watchfulness over the Republic's founding principles, Jackson's obsession with military strength, and Wilson's pursuit of a just world order. The beneficial interplay of these principles, says Mead, has yielded the most successful foreign policy in history. Largely celebratory and sure to be controversial, this work belongs in all library collections.-James R. Holmes, Ph.D. Candidate, Fletcher Sch. of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts Univ., Medford, MA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A political scientist (Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition, not reviewed) proposes that four "schools" compete for dominance in American foreign policy. Mead names these schools after four highly recognizable American personalities: Hamilton, Wilson, Jefferson, and Jackson. But before his detailed description and analysis of each, he assails Americans (and their diplomats) for a shallow understanding of the history of US foreign policy. Despite the pervasive perception of America as a sort of Mr. Magoo-a purblind blunderer who somehow succeeds in spite of himself-it's clear, Mead asserts, the country has become the richest, most powerful nation in the history of the world. So we must be doing something right, in spite of obvious blunders like the Bay of Pigs and the Vietnam War. Mead devotes a substantial chapter to each school. Hamiltonians tend to focus on money issues, believing a strong economy is the best foundation for a strong democracy. Wilsonians have a missionary zeal that leads them to pursue peace and advocate human rights. Jeffersonians (whom, near the end, Mead aligns himself with) see the American democracy as fragile and tend to "Speak softly, and carry the smallest possible stick." Jacksonians, the most bellicose and pragmatic of the four, are the hawks in the American aviary, animated by a deep sense of honor and religious belief. At the close there are a couple of strong chapters about the need for a comprehensive post-Cold War strategy that includes a US gyroscope. We should be asking ourselves, Mead argues, "What kind of hegemony . . . we want, and why." His prose may seem driven by a traditional sentence outline from English 101, but he displays aserrated wit and an abundant supply of apt analogies. A clear, crisp analysis, refreshingly free of jargon and cant. (8 pp. b&w photos, not seen) History Book Club selection
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780415935364
  • Publisher: Taylor & Francis
  • Publication date: 9/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 314,235
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Walter Russell Mead is Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. A contributing editor at the Los Angeles Times, he has also written for the The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, Harper's and Foreign Affairs. He is the author of Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition.

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Read an Excerpt

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 theWestern 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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Copyright 2001 by Walter Russell Mead
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Table of Contents

Foreward by Richard C. Leone Introduction 1. The American Foreign Policy Tradition 2. The Kaleidoscope of American Foreign Policy 3. Changing the Paradigms 4. The Serpent and the Dove: The Hamiltonian Way 5. The Connecticut Yankee in the Court of King Arthur: Wilsonianism and Its Mission 6. "Vindicator Only of Her Own": The Jeffersonian Tradition 7. Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright: The School of Andrew Jackson 8. The Rise and Retreat of the New World Order 9. The Future of American Foreign Policy

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2002

    More than just Foreign Policy - American Strategy

    This book has been getting some well deserved press in places like Atlantic Online. It is, in my opinion, a must read for every citizen interested in the future course of our country and culture. And that's not just foreign policy either - the choices we have to make in the next few years will affect the day-to-day lives of our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren. As Shakespeare pointed out 'Past is Prologue,' and the interest clusters and coalitions of past American politics continue to this day and are not likely to change anytime soon. After reading this book, one can attribute just about any new argument, no matter how concise, to a school of American thought dating back to the origins of the Republic. For example, the current debate over missile defense had similar politics to the construction in the early 1800's of the massive brick forts that sit at the entrances to most major US harbors. The book does an excellent job of providing historical structure to present and future debates. As the author points out, as world hegemon, we have some very important choices ahead. Again, EVERY educated citizen should read this book.

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