When I first read Walter Russell Mead’s seminal work Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, I felt less that it was telling me something I didn’t already know than that it was casting what I did know in a fascinating new light. In this book Mead characterizes the forces or influence that have created American foreign policy throughout her history naming each influence after a president or figure who at least symbolically is its type.
Hamiltonians (economic nationalists) believe that American foreign policy exists primarily to further business interests. A highly Hamiltonian slogan: “what’s good for General Motors is good for the USA”. Wilsonians (idealistic internationalists) are missionaries. Think of “making the world safe for democracy”. A Wilsonian wants to spread American ideals and methods and institutions of government and economics throughout the world. Jacksonians (populist nationalists) are patriotic, have an honor culture, tend to be isolationist, and have no problem using force in defense of the country: “don’t tread on me”. Jeffersonians (isolationists) believe strongly in American exceptionalism and have no problem with protecting American commerce with tariffs. A fundamental Jeffersonian aphorism is “hands off the Western world”.
In Special Providence Mead showed how Hamiltonians, Wilsonians, Jacksonians, and Jeffersonians have influenced and shaped American foreign policy. His thesis is that it is the interplay or debate between these four forces that gives American foreign policy its force and durability.
In his latest book Power, Terror, Peace, and War: America’s Grand Strategy in a World at Risk Mead expands on the ideas presented in Special Providence to examine
“…what America is trying to do in the world, why things have gone so terribly wrong, what the Bush administration tried to do, where it has and where it has not been successful, and what we need to do to get American foreign policy back on track.”
I should emphasize that what Mead means by “back on track” is returning to America’s grand diplomatic strategy.
Grand Strategy is a reference to the Clausewitzian theory of war as described by Carl von Clausewitz in his classic On War. For Clausewitz war consisted of several components: objectives—the reasons determined by the civil authorities for going to war; strategy—the plan formulated by the general officers for achieving the objectives; tactics—the plan formulated by the field officers for effecting the strategy; and logistics—the aspect of military science dealing with the procurement, maintenance, and transportation of military matériel, facilities, and personnel. Grand strategy is about deciding what wars to fight.
America’s grand strategy as described by Mead is not the decision of a central command or ruling authority. It is an emergent phenomenon, a large scale, group behavior that cannot be predicted by an understanding of workings of the individual components of the system—the result of thousands or millions of individual decisions and actions. I’ve written about emergent phenomena before here.
Mead then discusses Joseph Nye’s ideas from his important work The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone:
“In Nye’s analysis, hard power (military and economic) works because it can make people do what you want them to do. Soft power—cultural power, the power of example, the power of ideas and ideals—works more subtly: it makes others want what you want.”
Mead further divides soft power into the sweet power of values and culture, and the hegemonic power that comes from setting the agenda. This notion of hegemonic powers derives from the work of the Marxist philosopher Antonion Gramsci and forms the bridge to the next portion of his book, a discussion of the West’s response to Communism which he characterizes as Fordism.
Fordism is a set of compromises among government, organized labor, and business interests which allow them to work together (hopefully) synergistically: mass production, mass consumption, management-friendly trade unionism, regulated business. The EU is Fordism writ large. But Fordism has its problems:
“Unfair trade and investment policies have placed obstacles in the paths of poor countries. The chaotic rush for development that has characterized the capitalist process under American tutelage has caused vast social and environmental damage.
All of this has led a significant and vocal minority in the United States to condemn the American project in whole or in part. Outside the United States this sentiment is more widespread still and in much of the world constitutes a majority verdict on the history of the American project.”
But there’s a more fundamental problem with Fordism: its approach is very nearly as planned as one of the old Soviet Union’s Five Year Plans and about as flexible. And it’s unable to compete with what Mead calls “millenial capitalism”, a more dynamic and de-centralized approach. Compare the growth of the U. S. economy and prosperity over the last ten years or so with the same period in Europe. This is very close to the dynamists and stasists Virginia Postrel describes in her interesting The Future and Its Enemies: the Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress.
The thrust of millenial capitalism is to open markets, dismantle subsidies, and allow foreign investment and this brings us to the Arab world. In Mead’s view Arab Fordism collapsing under an exploding population and radical Islam make the Arab world implacably opposed to this phase of the American project:
“From a conservative Middle Eastern point of view, the increased military power of the United States, the deeper penetration of its increasingly immoral media, the increased power and presence of its economic model and methods combined to make the American presence in the region all but unendurable to large numbers of people.”
George H. W. Bush was the most Hamiltonian president of my lifetime. A collaboration of his natural allies—Hamiltonians in the U. S., Fordists all over the world, and American Jacksonians—made Gulf War I one of the most successful military operations in American history. But by September 11, 2001, his son, George W. Bush had also been elected as a Hamiltonian had new allies. These included the anti-Fordist Wilsonians known as neocons. This new collaboration of Hamiltonians, Wilsonians, and Jacksonians resulted in the revolutionary ideology of the Bush foreign policy.
Mead is even-handed in his treatment of Bush 43. He praises Bush’s abandoning of Fordist economic and foreign policy considerations and his abandoning of a Eurocentric foreign policy outlook. He criticizes Bush’s political failures in preparing the public for the war and for the intelligence failures that resulted in an over-emphasis on weapons of mass destruction in the period leading up to the war. He criticizes Bush for unnecessary damage to relations with Europe.
In the final section of his book, Mead looks to the future. He describes the grand strategy of the War on Terror as one of “forward containment”:
“It will include a version of the triple containment with which we defeated communism and the Soviet Union, but it will involve a much greater forward presence of the United States and a much greater willingness to engage militarily with enemy combatants on their own ground. We will seek through political and military measures to contain the danger that terrorists pose to the United States by weakening their organizations, cutting their ties to governments, and blocking their access to weapons of mass destruction. We will seek to contain the influence of the terrorist ideology. And we will contain the expansion and consolidation of state power by those embracing this ideology—we will resist any and all efforts to establish governments founded on these principles anywhere in the world—peacefully if we can, but if necessary throught the use of force.”
He concludes this section with a brief discussion of the necessity of and prospects for a resolution of the Israeli—Palestinian conflict.
It’s in this chapter and the concluding chapter in which Mead outlines his proposals for re-directing the American foreign policy grand strategy that I have the greatest problems with Mead’s analyses. For example, I don’t believe that there is any solution which the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the Arab world at large will find minimally acceptable. It’s not reasonable to expect the Israelis to compromise their survival. And as long as there’s an Arab world encouraging the Palestinians to destroy the Israelis at any cost I don’t see any prospects for a solution.
I also don’t see how fundamentally Fordist institutions like the U. S. State Department and federal bureaucracy or the United Nations can play any constructive part in an increasingly millenial capitalist world. I can see how they can forestall the transition or how they can destroy the whole world system in attempting to save it from the horrors of a millenial capitalist system but not how they can facilitate the transition.
A final interesting fact is that Mead does not really mention Jeffersonians in PTPW. Does he believe that there are no longer any Jeffersonians on the scene? Or that they no longer have any influence? Or are they just biding their time?
In Special Providence Mead gave texture, substance, and personality to otherwise dull forces with his Hamiltonians, Wilsonians, Jacksonians, and Jeffersonians. In Power, Terror, Peace, and War Mead weaves these same forces into a discussion of American hard and soft power, the Fordist 20th century, and a millenial capitalist 21st century. Worth a read.