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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Leadership and Public Dialogue

One of your concerns in writing a book, I've sensed, is the failure of American leadership in the 1990s to have a script, so to speak, that they could work with as they shaped our future course in world affairs. You say, "The task facing serious students of American foreign policy and those who aspire to lead the nation is to find within each of the enduring traditions of American statesmanship ways to speak to the aspirations and values of the American people, in order to win their firm and enduring support." Explain what you meant there.

I'm one of these people who thinks that the twenty-first century is going to be a century of danger and conflict. It was very unpopular in the 1990s, but I believed it then, and since September 11th, I believe it more.

You finished your book in July of 2001.

That's right. So the book is pre-September 11th. But I don't feel the need to change a word after September 11th. In this world of danger, the United States cannot escape having an active and vigorous, and frankly, at times risky foreign policy, because our interests connect us all over the world in all kinds of ways. The political leadership has to find a way to reach the different parties, the different schools have to be able to argue foreign policy, and the public has to find a way to say, "Okay, I believe you," or "I don't believe you." And, "I trust you, and I am prepared to follow you." I think that's inescapable.

In the 1990s, [interventions in] Bosnia and Kosovo were never particularly popular, or the Haitian intervention. Foreign policy was driven, to a certain degree, by lobby groups: "I want this and I'm an important constituency, so you have to give it to me." It was the feeling that we were so strong and the world was so safe that you didn't really have to lead. The first Bush administration, as well as the Clinton administration, didn't have to think strategically, run risks, or get the serious, well-considered, profound support from the people that, say, the Cold War policies had.

Another question that you think is terribly important to discuss and debate relates to a phenomenon, a characterization of America that we fail to discuss, and that is empire, hegemony. You say at one point, "We need a debate about American hegemony and its meaning for the national interest." The New York Times reported the other day that if the new defense budget goes through, it will be equal to all the defense budgets in the world. What did you mean as you wrote these lines, even before 9/11?

I meant that history has brought the United States to a certain position of influence and leadership in the world. Partly this is the result of our own choices in the past, and partly it's the result of others' failures or mistaken choices. From the standpoint of the American family, is this okay? Should we try to become stronger? Should we actually try to be a little bit less out front and pass the buck? How do we even discuss it? What are the alternative views and what are the costs and the risks? And what are our criteria for saying that something is successful or not?

I don't think we have, yet, the kind of consensus that would give us the basis for the debates that we need to have. After September 11th, some people said, "We're too deeply involved in the Middle East, and maybe we're too committed both to Arab dictatorships and to Israel. We should cut back on all of this." Then there are some people who say, "No, no, no, we're not involved enough and we haven't pushed enough. We should be pressing the Arab world to democratize." Then there are some who say, "Let's just manage what we've got here. Dictators, democracies don't bother me, but we need the oil and we need our relationships with the oil powers," and so on.

Well, why in all of those cases? What is your vision of the world? What are the likely consequences? What is America about in the world?

I don't think that our political leadership has yet been able to give answers to that. What is the kind of world America is trying to build? How much sacrifice for the average family, whether it's money, whether it's blood, whether it's living in fear of a terror attack, how much sacrifice are these goals worth?

The point of having a debate like this is to end up with a consensus, because whatever we choose among all of these and other alternatives, we're going to have to stick to it and make it work. Choosing one thing means turning your back on other things. If we build democracy, we're going to have to deal with following through with foreign aid. But also, we're going to have to deal with worse relations, maybe, with countries that aren't democratic, whom we may need. On the other hand, if we decide to ignore democracy and work with dictators, we have another set of problems. We need a more informed debate about what we should we do, and why.

Implicit in your argument is that knowing the history, whether one disagrees with your interpretation of the history, enriches that dialogue, and gives us ideas about the decisions that go with the questions you just raised.

That's right.

One other thing I want to add to that is that [clarifying the debate] will help foreigners understand us better. One of the real sources of instability and danger in the world today is that foreigners find the United States very unpredictable. When you have a very powerful country and you have no idea what it can do next, it is very unsettling. For example, again, in Bosnia and Kosovo, [foreign] public opinion was that the United States did not want a single casualty, wasn't willing to go to war. Now, suddenly, after 9/11, the feeling is that the U.S. is an aggressive military machine and God knows whom they'll invade next or what they'll do. And they turned on a dime. Why? And are they going to keep going like this forever?

If foreigners understood our history better, they would also understand the way in which we do keep our balance over time, [because] we are, in some ways, a fairly predictable power. It would make it easier for them to live with us, and it could make more fruitful forms of international cooperation possible.

What does our history tell us about our weakness for dealing with the world that we're going to face? Do we have any? And what are the corrections?

We do have weaknesses. Each of the schools, in a way, has a weakness. You can take the Jeffersonians wanting to stay fairly isolated from things. They have the tendency to ignore problems until they've become overwhelming. A classic example: [the U.S. and] Japan in the 1940s.

Then you've got the Hamiltonian approach. Again, left to itself, you get a country [where the force of] globalization becomes universally unpopular around the world, and the U.S. is associated with neoliberal economics: taking food stamps away from hungry children in hundreds of countries, and a corporate, faceless bureaucracy at the WTO. And so you get people burning down McDonald's over the world, and that's not so great.

The Wilsonians can be very rigid in wanting to apply ideals where they may be inappropriate. Clearly, it's a very tricky question. Do you impose your culture's values on someone else? And how do you do it? When is it appropriate and when isn't it? I don't think Wilsonians have good answers for those questions.

And Jacksonians' idea of ignoring the world until it does something you don't like and then going out and swatting it means that your country is going to be militarily strong when challenged. But that, alone, is probably not enough.

The four schools need to be operating to keep each other in check. Each of them has strengths; each of them has weaknesses. I think, in a way, the war on terror is going to be a good thing for American foreign policy because it has concentrated everyone's minds on foreign affairs. There's a sense, unlike the 1990s, that this is life and death. We have to take this seriously. We have to approach it responsibly, make choices, act, and commit resources. Bush is spending $15 billion on AIDS in Africa. This is tremendous; I think we're going to see more things like this. In the same way, during the Cold War, fear of the Soviets had us giving a lot more foreign aid than we would have, otherwise. Maybe we didn't always give it wisely, but you can learn.

I think the war on terror is going to be one of those events that brings the United States to a higher level, ultimately, for more effective foreign policy. I think we're going to surprise both our friends and our enemies over time at how effectively we deal with this challenge.

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