Bully or Hermit?

Our Austrian correspondent AMT sends a European’s review of a book about American foreign policy, and includes this prefatory note:

The following book review was written by a student of International Relations at a university in central Europe. I believe this book may be of interest to Gates of Vienna readers, as it describes United States foreign policy from a interesting and different point of view from, say, foreign policy icons such as Henry Kissinger.

Book Review:

Special Providence — American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World
by Walter Russell Mead

“God has a special providence for fools, drunks and the United States of America.” — Attributed to Otto von Bismarck

Those interested in the foreign policy of the United States can be divided roughly into two groups: those who believe the US pursues an isolationist foreign policy, and those who think the US wants to take over the world. As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Henry Kissinger asks whether America even needs a foreign policy. (It does.)

Walter Russell Mead takes on a topic of long-time contention among politicians, scholars, and students: does the United States have a foreign policy to speak of? Did it ever? What is it, if it even exists? How does it compare to that of Europe? And with this we come to the two main premises of this very readable book:

1.   What works in European foreign policy — i.e. Continental realism — does not necessarily work in and for the United States. On the one hand, Europeans play a game of chess (“If you move your piece here, I’ll move mine over there.”) On the other hand, the United States has traditionally been more driven by economics. Meade argues that these two views do not correlate: “It’s like using a map of Oregon to plan a trip to Georgia.” America simply does not work in the style of Metternich or Bismarck.
2.   In contrast to Metternich’s view that politics is all and economics merely a second thought, in the Anglo-American tradition it is economic success that creates the financial backbone for power. Because continental realism is unable to explain American reality, Meade introduces a new paradigm. He argues that American foreign policy is shaped by four schools of thought based on four presidents: Jefferson, Hamilton, Wilson and Jackson. Thereby Meade cleverly offers every American the opportunity to identify with one of the schools, even though American foreign policy is shaped by a combination of these schools at all times.

The four schools Meade introduces deserve a closer look. Hamiltonians find much of America’s foreign policy rooted in that of Great Britain and see commerce as the main driver of peace, much like the original European Community. Freedom of the seas, the free flow of money, and freedom of cargo, i.e. freedom of the skies — all this is needed for the free movement of goods. Hamiltonians introduced the most important principle of US diplomatic history, namely the right to respond with force. Any interference with the freedoms enshrined in Hamiltonianism is considered the fastest way to the start of a war with the US.

Wilsonianism, in turn, insists that the United States has the moral duty to change — some would argue, interfere with — the world’s conduct. This view is based on the history of US missionary activities, which partially helped shape American foreign policy, left-wing idealism as well as the promotion of human rights. As a result, Wilsonians look for the (utopian) realization of universal brotherhood and peace by promoting democracies, which are better and more reliable partners than monarchies and tyrannies, and the prevention of war by supporting and promoting collective security schemes.

Government is a big business and a necessary evil according to Jeffersonian tradition. Because Jeffersonians believe that war is the first and greatest evil, their foreign policy posits that unavoidable American involvement in world conflicts should be handled with the least possible damage to existing democratic institutions. The military should be reduced as far as possible, with civilians in control. Furthermore, Jeffersonians despise debt in any form, as it is a danger to democracy by dividing the populace into those who pay taxes and those who collect them.

Jacksonianism, the author notes, is the most obstructionist of all four schools and the most likely to torpedo any Wilsonian initiative, being unable to accept Jeffersonian patience in reaching diplomatic goals, and having a general unwillingness to approve of Hamiltonian trade schemes. Followers of Jacksonian traditions are not so much intellectuals, but are more rooted in American folk tradition with strong moral codes of honor, including self-reliance, a healthy skepticism of authority and a quest for economic success. Furthermore, absolute equality, individualism, financial esprit, and courage (to defend honor) are important cornerstones of Jacksonianism.

The book’s one major drawback, however, is historical: its publication date only weeks before the attacks of September 11, 2001. The fall-out from a foreign policy perspective has been staggering and momentous, which prompted Meade to publish a sequel.

Meade makes an essential point in this work: the lack of interest in American foreign policy before the division of Europe is baffling. Memoirs of secretaries of state and defense rarely even touch on any foreign policy matters before 1941; even Kissinger’s treatise on foreign policy begins with Wilson, NATO, and European integration post-World War II. It may come as a surprise to pundits that the United States even had a foreign policy to speak of prior to the 20th century. Special Providence thus fills crucial gaps.

The conclusion Meade arrives at is that American foreign policy faces some major challenges: the development of a “coherent, politically stable strategy for American world leadership in peacetime.” (p. 321) as well as the need for genuine leadership. In an ideal situation, the foreign policy of the United States should include proponents of the four schools, a condition sadly lacking today. These proponents should work towards:

[…] a grand strategy that is rooted in the concrete interests of the American people, that respects and serves their moral values, and that at the lowest possible cost in blood, treasure, and political concentration of power secures their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. (p. 334)

“Special Providence” is a very worthy book, entitled to strong consideration from government and academia, in particular students of international relations and government. Those with a certain amount of prerequisite understanding of American history combined with European political history will find this treatise easily readable.

7 thoughts on “Bully or Hermit?

  1. This is interesting on a number of levels.

    1. Hamilton, from New York, was an illegitimate child born in the West Indies. He was orphaned by the age of 11 or 12. Locals realized his prodigious talents and paid for his education in the U.S. Thus, his formative years in New York City turned him toward NY’s roots in Dutch culture, though I don’t think that influence has been acknowledged much. Like the original European settlers from the Netherlands, New Yorkers based their economy on trade. Commercial interests were and remain regnant. Thus, to the extent that England’s takeover of Manhattan Island was successful, it was because they left the Dutch spirit intact and then claimed it as their own.

    2. Jefferson’s family was firmly rooted in an agrarian gentleman-farmer culture and that template remained his ideal. Our State Department still carries forward its founder’s distaste for war and foreign entanglements, not to mention his belief in utopias. Having spent time abroad, Jefferson was more strongly influenced by Europe’s philosophy and aesthetic ideals than the others in this account.

    The Muslims in Algiers forced Jefferson to begin establishing a national naval structure, though he hoped to maintain it as a littoral guard, not a deep-water enterprise. That’s a farmer for you.

    3. Ah, Jackson. He was another orphaned young, but his birth in the Carolina highlands was strikingly different than Hamilton’s fortunes in the West Indies. Jackson was definitely a self-made man, a Democrat of the old breed, and at heart a Celtic military man, with all that implies. Jackson elicited great loyalty from his men even as the upper classes villified his pioneer background and ‘low’ birth.

    He followed through with what were originally Thomas Jefferson’s plans for ‘removal’ of the Indians to make room for growing numbers of European settlers. But Jackson gets more opprobrium heaped upon him for the solution Jefferson initated and that he was left to finish.

    (We have selective memories, we Americans – and that goes particularly for Jeffersonian Virginians who don’t allow for the influence Hamilton’s “Federalist Papers” had on the final documents of our founding or the uncomfortable reality of Jefferson’s role as the architect of the natives’ mass “removal” westward.)

    4. Wilson doesn’t seem to fit with the other three. He was a 20th century academic and we have come to see all too well what governance under those mandarins entails.

    The aftermath of WWI was America’s first truly global encounter and many of the participants – Japan, anyone? – were whelmed by the experience of that wicked Versailles Treaty; it resonates faintly even now. Wilson’s health was ruined in his attempts to tour the country and encourage Americans to support what he had done. The German and Irish immigrant communities, well integrated in American culture, could still smell a scam when it was put under their noses.

    It wasn’t until 1921 that Harding, Wilson’s successor, got the formal cessation of hostilities ratified in Congress…yeah, back when we had a real Congress and a real tripartite division of powers in the U. S. government.

    Walter Russell Meade’s undertaking deserves our attention.

  2. Hello, but Hamilton could never have been president! Alexander Hamilton was born out of wedlock, before the foundation of the US in Nevis, part of the Leeward Isles of the West Indies—not in the US.

    I do believe that Section One of Article Two of the Constitution was written specifically to keep him from ever becoming President. Madison considered Hamilton a monarchist sympathizer, and I’m sure he made enemies aplenty for proposing lifetime terms both for the President and for Senators (contingent on “good behaviour.”)

    He did serve as Secretary of the Treasury, but I wonder if his biggest contribution was to get Aaron Burr mad enough at him to start the Manhattan Company, which played an important role in the development of New York City’s water system—but really was founded to offer banking services in competition with Hamilton’s bank, the Bank of New York, and the Bank of the United States, which Hamilton helped organize.

    Seriously now, Hamilton did have more influence on the President and the Federal Government than any Cabinet-level officer since—he helped set the form and the procedures of the Cabinet and the Departments of the Federal Government that are led by Cabinet appointees to this very day. More to the point, President Washington looked to Hamilton for help in matters far outside the purview of a Secretary of the Treasury.

    ‘Nuff said.

    • Hamilton is included in Meade’s book because of his strong influence on American foreign policy, not because he was ever a presidential candidate. I thought that was obvious? Perhaps not.

      He did serve as Secretary of the Treasury…

      AH wrote many of the Federalist Papers & had a strong influence on our economic philosophies:


      And without him there might not have been as clear a division of powers among the exec, legislative and judicial. Of course that’s rotting out now.

      But Meade’s book is about U.S. foreign policy and who influenced it. Definitely Hamilton should be included in that number.

      As to his banking influence, many feel he was the origin of our financial problems…certainly not as baneful as those nominally in charge now.

  3. Interested to hear that New York’s position as a centre of trade, banking and commerce may be down to the Dutch. I believe that the same is true of the City of London. As I understand it the Bank of England and the Stock Exchange were founded under William of Orange and his Dutch coterie, including many Jews, although I may be wrong in view of the fact that the latter returned to England under Oliver Cromwell.

    This poses the interesting question. Are those twin centres of international finance so admired by former prime minister Gordon Brown ( I have just spotted him at the United Nations, even though an mp he never graces the House of Commons any more; money for doing nothing like his sidekick Tony Blair and Palestine) the creation of the Dutch and Amsterdam Jews and have nothing to do with the Anglo-Saxons at all?This would underline my view that accumulating vast amounts of money is something that has never appealed to most English very much; and the worry that because it appeals to recent immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, there may be trouble ahead when the English find themselves the poor relations in their own country. The Englishman’s soul lies in the English countryside which David Cameron is intent on concreting over to accommodate yet more of the globalizers’ pawns, immigrants from Eastern Europe and the third world. Could this be because Mr Cameron’s soul lies in Scotland and overseas and the Stock Exchange?

    • Oh for heaven’s sake, enough with the Jews already.

      New Amsterdam was a center of commerce and trade by the time the first Jewish group arrived and was permitted to settle…in Rhode Island, if memory serves.

      The Dutch did quite well on their own. As long as you obeyed their rules you had a kind of freedom not found elsewhere…

      For anyone who wants to understand why some people in the Netherlands are not free, read this Dutch historian:

      Why Spinoza Was Not Murdered

      Some of what was current in 2008 isn’t so in 2013, but the essence holds.

      He says:


      Again the ruthless reflex sets in. Because that lies at the core of our Dutch character: the social annihilation of the deviating individual –including a neat political murder, every now and then (we never go after a group, that is not done after our very active partaking in the Holocaust).

      And in 2011, Forbes ran a short essay, Gregorius Nekschot, RIP. – or something like…Now what do you think that last name is supposed to connote? Bingo! “In the Netherlands, don’t stick your neck out”.
      So, for you anon and any others tempted to start in on the Jews during this beginning of a lovely Sabbath evening in July: don’t. This is a post about the roots of American foreign policy and so it shall stay in that channel.

      • I was not having a go at the Jews!! It is just that they are very good in matters financial but so then apparently are the Dutch. I do not believe that is something that comes naturally to the majority of the English but somebody can correct me there if they wish. Which poses the question as to whether all that happened in London in the 17th/18th century would have happened in the way it did if it had not been for William Orange and those who arrived with him.

        In fact it was Britain’s only Jewish prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who, in his 1845 novel Sybil; or the Two Nations spoke of the fatal introduction of the system of Dutch finance as being a debasing qualification. Many in Britain blame the City of London for many of our ills.

  4. On the subject of fiscal woes, there are really only two relevant policy choices, hard money or soft. Hamilton was a hard money man through and through, it was the impetus for his push to validate the Colonial debt instruments and to establish a national bank.

    It is the exact opposite policies, an ever-expanding supply of debased and then fiat currency along with ruinously irredeemable deficit spending, which are to blame for the current financial crisis (and nearly every other, history provides notable instances in which extreme tightening of a currency led to economic ruin, but they are notable mostly because they are so rare and bizarre in the details of execution).

    As a foreign policy per se, Hamiltonian thinking does not really qualify because it sees international commerce as an extension of the same principles espoused for national commerce. One might more accurately call it a “non-foreign” policy…it has very little direction to offer about dealing with actually foreign nations, those with really different values and economic systems. Nor do those who promote Hamiltonian “foreign policy” seem very adept at realizing when they are dealing with an actually foreign nation. Hamilton himself did not suffer any serious difficulty of identifying most nations as being really foreign, but he conversely had no interest in dealing with them at all.

    The heirs of Hamilton are not as gifted intellectually, and they face an additional difficulty Hamilton did not face. The vast engine of wealth creation that propelled America to become a superpower may have been substantially designed by Hamilton, but it was in his lifetime dependent on theoretical appeal to peoples with a compatible outlook. But for later generations, the wealth created brought with it the problem of those willing to falsely claim agreement with the economic and cultural principles in order to gain access to the riches produced.

    Which is to say, in his day Hamilton had the luxury of simply being able to ignore nations that did not really want to adopt free markets and sound money. Now they are engaged in banging on (or breaking down) the door, and a policy for dealing with the demands of actually foreign nations is necessary. Those “Hamiltonians” who fail to recognize that Hamilton advanced no real policy towards truly foreign nations are doomed in their efforts to find workable answers.

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