Walter Russell Mead Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

U.S. Foreign Policy and the American Political Tradition: Conversation with Walter Russell Mead, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; February 25, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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American Foreign Policy Tradition

Why is the history of U.S. foreign policy important?

Most people in the foreign policy field would agree that you don't study the foreign policy of any country without trying to understand the historical context. You wouldn't try to understand, say, the politics of the European Union today without understanding the history of Franco-German relations, the history of British relations with France and other countries. You wouldn't try to understand Putin unless you knew something about both Soviet foreign policy and pre-Soviet Russia. Yet, most people come to the study of American foreign policy without that historical context. It's as if 1945 or 1941 were the year zero. Before that we were in virtuous isolation.

Or in the Garden of Eden.

Right. We didn't think about the rest of the world, or the rest of the world didn't think about us. Then, suddenly, there we were in the middle of things. And, you know, that's just not true.

Why is the history of U.S. foreign policy so misunderstood both at home and abroad?

It's hard to say. People say that Americans aren't interested in the history, Americans don't pay attention to history, and that's really not true, when you think about it. The way we look at the Declaration of Independence [and] the Constitution and we say those principles are still valid to guide us today, or we still read John Marshall's Supreme Court decisions, and those are important to us. If you were to go to West Point or Annapolis, you'd find that they're studying the tactics of the Battle of Saratoga, or John Paul Jones' sea fights. It's only in this one field of foreign policy that we seem to be so disconnected from our past.

Some of it has to do with the politics of getting into World War II and the Cold War. Roosevelt and the people around him, and then later Truman, and Acheson -- those people felt they needed to move public opinion quickly. They couldn't fight the battle of dealing with this myth of isolation, so rather than dealing head-on with that battle, they just said, "Well, things have changed with the airplane, with technology, with globalization. We have to be involved in the world in a way we didn't used to be. Let's move from there."

You say in your book that there are three realities in our history that are part of what we have ignored until the present. They are:

So in doing the history, part of the task, then, becomes to recover those realities by showing what actually happened.

That's right. Very few people know, for example, that trade was a bigger percentage of our GDP in the 1790s than it is today. It was bigger in 1870s than in the 1970s. So a lot of the ideas about globalization being new, it just ain't so. If you go back in the nineteenth century and you look at our stock market crashes and our depressions, they were generally caused by events overseas. There's an Indian mutiny and that causes the stock market in London to go down and interest rates to go up. Well, that meant, because of the way the world financial markets worked at that time, we followed London. So you suddenly have a stock market crash here because there was a revolt in British India. Or in 1893, Argentina -- surprise, surprise -- defaulted on its debts. At that time, banks had lent a lot of money to Argentina, rather foolishly. So the Argentine debt default set off a crisis in London, which, again, set off a panic in the United States. These things were transmitted at the speed of light over trans-Atlantic cables, so instantaneously you were getting these kinds of results.

Trying to recreate for people the ways in which the past was similar to the present is an important part of what a historian has to do, and what a student of foreign policy has to do.

One of the points that you make is that through the nineteenth century we were very dependent, because we were very much in debt to the outside world, and that that changed, say, at the end of the nineteenth century or at the turn of the twentieth century. That also affected our consciousness about the world. We didn't need the world in the way we had before.

Right. In a lot of ways, America in the nineteenth century felt like a third world country, like a Brazil. We were obviously a strong industrial power. Our economy was going somewhere, we had a future, but we were still dependent on outside capital. So if interest rates went up in London, we had a depression here. In those days, it was not the Federal Reserve System that set interest rates in the United States, it really was the Bank of England. And everybody knew it, and felt it.

So the foreign world was clearly, intimately affecting household budgets all over the country, and people followed foreign news and had a view on foreign issues with a great intensity. Then in the 1920s and 1930s, they didn't as much, because by then, in essence, the Federal Reserve System was telling the Bank of England what to do more than the other way around. So we were probably less influenced by outside factors in the 1920s and 1930s than in any other time before or after in our history.

That was when that myth of virtuous isolationism was created. People no longer felt that kind of dependency.

And in those years, we were safer from foreign forces than we'd ever been before. The U.S. Navy was as strong as the British Navy by then. In the nineteenth century, the British Navy was much stronger than the American Navy. If you go up and down the East Coast of the U.S. today, you see these enormous forts built to protect our coastal cities from the British coming in and burning them down, as, of course, they burned Washington in the War of 1812. They occupied New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and during the Revolution, Charleston. People lived with the potential nightmare that our cities could be destroyed. Only in the 1920s and 1930s was there this island of serenity. Then afterwards, of course, with airplanes and missiles, you get a return to this fear that your home could be destroyed in a foreign war.

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