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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Four Themes in U.S. Foreign Policy

As you went about this task of writing or coming to an understanding of our foreign policy in the trajectory of our history looking backward, you conceptualized it by talking about four schools or four themes that have been the core of the American dialogue on U.S. foreign policy. Explain how you came to that realization and what that realization was.

After I became increasingly aware of just how important foreign policy had been throughout American history, I also started looking at the battles over foreign policy, and I realized that they actually don't change that much. You could go back to George Washington's administration. There's this huge debate: Do we side with the French Revolution in a worldwide crusade for democracy, or do we realistically work with Britain to secure our economic goals? Do we try to stay out of the whole thing and defend our democracy at home? When France or Britain does something that annoys us or insults our sovereignty, do we retaliate by force or with diplomacy? The arguments that people advanced and the values that were at stake in those debates, you'll find them in the 1820s, 1830s, 1840s, and all the way up to the present day.

Or you look at the antiwar movements in American history. You look at the opposition to the Mexican War. For that matter, Abraham Lincoln was against the Mexican War. A lot of the arguments they brought up are very similar to the ones that Mark Twain and some of the anti-imperialists brought up in 1898, but you hear them again in the 1930s. You hear them again in the Vietnam era, during the Cold War, and you've certainly heard them since September 11th. They tend to be the same kinds of arguments.

As I looked at all of this, I found that these arguments were increasingly grouping themselves into four categories. As I looked at those a little longer and tried to think about what the connections and differences were, I came up with this theory, that there are four approaches, four visions of foreign policy of the national interest that shape the way Americans think and argue about the world.

And they are? Go over them very briefly.

I named them after heroes in American history. I really try in the book to be impartial, to try to describe each school the way someone who belonged to that school would describe it, rather than saying, "Well, this is my pet school and I hate all the others, they're stupid."

The Hamiltonians are people who think the United States needs to become the same kind of great power in the world that Britain was at its peak. We need to have a strong economy. The federal government should be working hand-in-glove with large corporations and great business interests to advance their interest in overseas trade. We should try to build a global order of trade and economic relations that keep us so rich that we can afford to do what Britain used to do, which is to keep any one country from getting too strong in Europe and Asia to affect our vital interest, to threaten us. And when a country threatens to take over, either Europe or Asia, then we should build up a coalition against them and bring them down, either by peace or war. That's been a vision that has moved a lot of people. George Washington to some degree had this view of American foreign policy.

Then you've got its opposite, the Jeffersonian view, which says the United States government should not go hand-in-glove with corporations. That will undermine democracy. It'll get us involved with despots abroad. We'll be supporting evil dictators because some American corporation has economic interest that is advanced by this. And, also, this is going to undermine democracy at home. So you look at somebody like Ralph Nader as a Jeffersonian, who sees the Word Trade Organization (WTO) as a corporate, big-government plot against democracy at home and democracy abroad.

But at the same time, this Hamiltonian goal of a grand, global order gets us involved in conflicts with people overseas. We're involved in the Middle East, so people hate us in the Middle East, so they come and attack us as on September 11th. "If we'd never set foot in the Middle East, we wouldn't have these problems," say Jeffersonians. That's the logic of antiwar movements, and we've certainly seen a lot of Jeffersonian [values] over the generations.

Wilsonians -- and I think we all intuitively know what that is -- hold the belief in the United Nations, international law. The United States should be pushing our values around the world and turning other countries into democracies whether they like it or not. And the U.S. should also work multilaterally in institutions. We should be supporting things like the International Criminal Court, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. And we should not be unilateralist in our approach. We should put human rights ahead of trade, and so on.

Then finally, you've got a group called the Jacksonians, for Andrew Jackson. One way I describe them is to talk about an incident in American history that illustrates a lot of that school's values. When Andrew Jackson was a general in 1818, he was fighting a war against the Creek Indians in Georgia. Because Florida at the time was still under Spanish rule and there were two Englishmen in Florida selling arms to the Indians, who were then attacking U.S. forces in Georgia. Jackson took the U.S. Army across the international frontier into Spanish territory without any permissions or any U.N. resolutions. He went in there, arrested the two Brits, brought them back to the United States, tried them before a military tribunal and hanged them. And this did cause outrage in Europe. They said "These people have no respect for international law." But it made Jackson so popular in the U.S. that his election to the presidency was just a matter of time after 1818. [The idea is]: "Don't bother with people abroad, unless they bother you. But if they attack you, then do everything you can."

So in the 1930s, Hitler takes over Paris; we don't move an inch. He starts exterminating the Jews; we don't move an inch. Japan is [carrying out aggression] all over Asia. And on December 6, 1941, any opinion poll in the country would have said that most Americans wanted to stay out of World War II. Then December 7th, Japan attacks Pearl Harbor and suddenly the polls change. Jacksonians: when somebody attacks the hive, you come swarming out of the hive and you sting them to death. And Jacksonians, when it comes to war, don't believe in limited wars. They don't believe, particularly, in the laws of war. War is about fighting, killing, and winning with as few casualties as possible on your side. But you don't worry about casualties on the other side. That's their problem. They shouldn't have started the war if they didn't want casualties.

So, four schools.

I'm curious about your intellectual orientation at the time you wrote this. The book was written in the nineties. book coverThe Cold War was over, so we were groping for a strategy in the United States where it wasn't clear what our relationship would be with the world, what would be the guiding strategy. It's at this point that you're doing the study and exploring the history, coming up with the schools and your notions about U.S. foreign policy. What was it like to then try to apply your notions to the world of the 1990s? Did that help you make sense of that world?

It did. One of the big things about the 1990s for someone like me who had been around during preceding decades is that the politics of foreign policy stopped being predictable. In the 1980s, if somebody was a dove on, say, intermediate missiles in Europe, or didn't like Reagan's policies in Grenada or Central America, you could be pretty sure that that person had been against the Vietnam War earlier on -- had been a dove basically going as far back as the 1950s. And the same thing about hawks -- you had hawks, you had doves, and that's what you had. And they didn't change, and you could predict [where people would stand on issues].

People during the Cold War tended to work with very binary systems of discussing American foreign policy -- internationalists, unilateralists, isolationists, interventionists, realists, idealists, hawks, doves -- they sort of all boil down to the same things, and they didn't change. Then in the 1990s, things did change and you had all these humanitarian interventions. You'd look at something like Bosnia or Kosovo and you would see an alliance of old hawks and doves being hawkish, but also an alliance of old hawks and doves being dovish. So why were there ex-hawks now doves and ex-doves now hawks? But also, some ex-hawks still hawks, and ex-doves still doves? I guess that helped me start to think, "Can you subdivide these realists/idealists, hawk/dove categories to try to figure out what would give you the new political combinations that you're getting?"

That line of questioning got me to see, for example, that some idealist Jeffersonians and Wilsonians favor a very muscular policy of expanding American values, and some just want to keep American values safe at home and don't want to run risks abroad, so that people who opposed the Vietnam War would disagree over Kosovo on that side, and so on. What I found was that the new realities of the post - Cold War world demanded a more complicated typology.

And it's the case that if one doesn't look back to history, one tends to see each case -- Kosovo, the debate over NAFTA, relations with China -- as a distinct, discreet case study with no overarching view of what it says about our past or how it relates to our past and what it might say about our future.

Yes. For example, in the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, the Hungarians threw off the Austrian yoke, but the Russians came in and crushed them. The leader of the Hungarian resistance, Kossuth, came to America. His tour of American was an amazing event. Thousands and tens and hundreds of thousands turned up. There was a demand that the President of the United States receive him. People wanted the United States to do something about the crushing of the Hungarian freedom movement and, in general, the crushing of the democratic revolutions of 1848. We actually did send the navy to Rome, where the papal forces had crushed the republican forces in Rome. And we provided political asylum for the refugees of 1848. So we did end up intervening a little bit. But to listen to the Bosnia/Kosovo debate, you would never have thought -- and believe me, the 1848 event was not an isolated event, either, in American history -- you never would have thought that these debates over humanitarian interventions are something that go back to the eighteenth century in the United States. And that, in general, the forces and the arguments that advocate and resist these interventions tend not to change all that much over time.

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