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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Foreign Policy in Democracies

The prices we pay for not understanding or having a feel for our past are many, and you enumerate them in a very interesting way. One is the bum rap that democracy gets in the debates about foreign policy. You go on to show how the ideal was "Continental realism" with a balance of power. But, in fact, there is a complexity and richness to the way our messy process has produced this successful foreign policy. Talk a little about that and how these schools helped you get a feel for that.

It's definitely true that if there's one thing that there's a near-universal consensus about in American foreign policy here and abroad, it's that America is no good at foreign policy. We're not as subtle and sophisticated as the Europeans, many people will say, whatever the specific allegations are. Some people say our foreign policy is evil and conniving. We're murdering human rights, say advocates in developing countries. Others say we're spineless and weak-kneed and can't stand up. Of course, everybody's got a different stick they want to beat American foreign policy with. But, basically, everybody agrees we're stupid and incompetent.

And, yet, if you really look at the last two hundred years, it's interesting to ask, "Who's winning?" You compare the United States with the other great powers. Who's gotten more of what they wanted? Whether we wanted the right things in a moral sense, that's another issue, but whether, using this realist idea of the world as a competition between states for resources, who's getting more of it with less effort? It's clearly us.

So it's very interesting when you find that the foreign policy of the world's most successful state has the lowest reputation of any state. My sense of why that is true is that there's a very popular idea among political scientists that foreign policy needs to be made, generally, by a small number of people, and that you have to have long-term planning. Metternich plans Austria's foreign policy over thirty years, and no one gets in his way, and if he wants to change alliances, he can. He doesn't have to worry that the pro-French lobby will give him a hard time if he wants to switch to pressure. He can just do it.

American foreign policy doesn't work that way. Secretaries of state aren't in there for long. Our process if unbelievably messy. Congress is constantly sticking its oar in. There's war between the different departments in the Executive branch. Everybody's fighting over it. And yet, because this messy process allows the four different schools and visions to be represented, over time our foreign policy seems to define and seek the national interest better than the conventional, more orderly process of pre-democratic states. I make the argument in the book that other countries, as they've become more democratic (Germany and Japan being two very good examples), have gone from having absolutely disastrous foreign policies to foreign policies that work pretty well. So there's an argument that democratic debate doesn't weaken a state, but strengthens it.

Interestingly, the book is being translated into Chinese. What I'm hoping and maybe what some Chinese historians are hoping is that this will help legitimate the Chinese debate, the idea that a free public discussion does not divide and weaken China. Maybe that's a little bit of my "inner Wilsonian" coming out.

So in fact, you might hope that there are comparative implications for what you're describing, that although you have attached certain labels from our own history, you may have a comparable dynamic in other countries.

Right. I don't think it's going to be identical. You know, the Jacksonian [view] ... probably every country has a kind of a populism, and in some elements, it may be similar to our Jacksonian populism. But it won't be the same. For example, in Germany and Japan, public opinion is more deeply pacifist than in the U.S. So you can't just simply apply the American model. Countries really do have their own cultures and their own histories. It's also true in some countries you have oligopolies or oligarchies of families who control the economic fortunes of the country. So there, the debate between Hamiltonians and other schools is also a debate about the role of an oligarchy. And while many times our rich have tried to form an oligarchy, they've rarely succeeded for long. The economy keeps expanding, and new power centers keep coming up. So the relationship of the schools is going to be different in different places.

If any large foundation out there wants to give me a big fat grant, I'm ready to undertake comparative foreign policy studies!

The virtue of your school is that it gives those [interested] in the foreign policy debate in this country more hope than they might have. We have a tendency to see the road that we've just taken as the road that we'll always be on. So that once you get Bosnia and Kosovo where the Wilsonians, one could say, have the upper hand, there is a sense that, "Oh my God, we're going to be intervening everywhere in the world to bring human rights and democracy. There's a disaster down the road." But you're suggesting is that this very messy process with four identifiable schools suggests that there will be a balance over time, and a reassertion of the strengths of another school.

It's a little bit like our domestic political system. There's something in it that pulls people back toward the center. We may go veering of the left, to the right, but, ultimately, a kind of gravity reasserts itself. I think it's clear, for example, that a lot of the voters were uneasy with what they saw as an excessive Wilsonianism, too many humanitarian interventions, in the Clinton administration -- Kosovo, in particular, where we found ourselves in this rather odd war with Yugoslavia. Thank God Milosevic caved when he did, because if he hadn't, it's not clear whether we could have gone on to the next step of ground troops or what would have happened.

So there was a sense in the country of wanting to pull back a little bit. I think that was a factor in the 2000 election.

[Now] George Bush is in, and we have all this Jacksonian rhetoric. There's a perceptible sense of unease in the country, not so much about [our] military supremacy, because if you say to anybody, "What country do you want to see being militarily superior to the United States?" no one's actually going to give you, "Oh, well, China, that would be fine. And Russia, Germany, whatever." But [the Bush administration] is insisting and beating the drum about it, or making a big deal out of preemption rather than saying, "Obviously, in the last analysis, any country is going to act to defend itself; but let's not get into the details"; when [policymakers] push it and say, "This is going to be the foundation of our new foreign policy," people get nervous. You can see how the Bush administration keeps getting pulled back toward the Colin Powell view, even as the rhetoric remains very Rumsfeldian.

Which would be a Wilsonian view, to a certain extent?

Well, Rumsfeld is kind of a mix of that.

No, no, I mean Colin Powell.

Well, Colin Powell, no, I don't think Wilsonian ... I would call Colin Powell more a Hamiltonian. Like Condie Rice. [Henry Cabot] Lodge, who fought Wilson on the League of Nations, was a Hamiltonian. They don't mind international alliances and organizations, but they don't think these organizations should have power over the United States, to be able to veto something the U.S. wants to do, or be able to compel the U.S. to do something it doesn't want to do. Wilsonians think that if France vetoes it in the Security Council, then we shouldn't do it. Hamiltonians think the Security Council is terrific but if you think we're going to let France stop us from doing something we think we need to do, that's ridiculous. On the other hand, the Jacksonians say, "Why even bother with these stupid international organizations? They are just in the way. If you need to go get somebody, get somebody."

So the Jacksonian position was, "Don't go the Security Council for Iraq." The Wilsonian position is, "You've got to go and if the Security Councils says no, you can't do it." The Hamiltonian position is, "It's probably smarter to go, but in the last analysis, if they won't go with you, you'll have to go alone, but don't do that unless you have to." And you can see that the administration has been pulled away from the Jacksonian position toward that more or a centrist kind of thinking.

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