Walter Russell Mead Interview (2004): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

American Grand Strategy in a World at Risk: Conversation with Russell Mead, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, May 10, 2004 by Harry Kreisler

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The American Project

You write, "The American project is a distinguished moral imperative." Tell us what the American project is.

Well, it's ... you know, you could call it "La Cosa Nostra," in a way, if you wanted. It's ...

Or at least the mission statement... !

Right. It's something that we inherited, in a sense, from the English, and then remolded in our own way. It's the idea that what you try to do in the world is create a balance of power that prevents great power challenges to you from arising, particularly in Europe and Asia. And then you try to knit the world together in a system of trade, and a system of political relations and other kinds of relations which, on the one hand, make the world more peaceful and make war less likely, and on the other hand, make you rich enough and powerful enough that if threats to the system arise, you are in a position to do something to stop them.

You can debate, is this an empire or is it an order? I argue in the book that's it a bit of both. It seems to me that this is a reasonably moral way for a great power to behave. If this system of trade and finance and so on were to come crashing down, many of the people who would suffer the most in the ensuing military and political chaos, economic dislocation, and so on, would be the poor. When the Titanic sinks, it's the ones low down in the ship who suffer first. Many of the people who hate us and hate our system would be victims if the system, in fact, did crash.

I made a note after reading that section of your book: "leadership's ongoing management of the impact of American society and economy on the world." In other words, we're so big, we're so important, we're so influential in the world that whatever we do in our economy and our society impacts the world with ripple effects, and part of the challenge of our leaders is to manage that. Is that fair?

Certainly to understand it, and take thought of it, absolutely. When we deregulate our capital markets, or regulate them in ways that make them more efficient so that the return on capital rises here in the United States, this puts pressure on everybody else in the world to introduce similar reforms no matter what the social consequences might be, and sometimes those are very large.

Ultimately, our economy's development is going to be shaped by the needs of the economy, but people in power, in policy positions, need to be sensitive to the impact that's going to have. As I spend a lot of time talking about at the end of Power, Terror, Peace, and War, we need to be thinking a lot more than we do about the potential of the new powers that this economic system offers: the higher productivity, the greater ability to spread the growth and the good of capital around the world. We need to find ways to use that to support social objectives, and make this new form of capitalism also a resource for stability and peace in much of the world.

Early in your book you write something that captures what you're saying here: "No one, not Human Rights Watch, the CEO of Halliburton, or even the editorial board of The Weekly Standard is going to clamber into the driver's seat and act like Addison's angel, who pleased the Almighty's orders to perform, rides in the whirlwind, and directs the storm." So you are suggesting with that quote that no one can control these forces.

That's right. There's an irreducible element of chaos in the world.

But we still need leaders, and we've got them, and for you they do matter.


As you look at the changes in society and the economy that are lying under the surface, your book [suggests] there's a lot of continuity in the leadership that we don't realize. So how leaders do make a difference? What is the difference, for example, [between] Clinton and Bush?

That's interesting, because most people tend to see them as night and day. They'll argue about which is night and which is day, but most people would see them as polar opposites. I see a lot more continuity in that the Clinton administration, internationally, was most known for pressing millennial capitalism into the global system. For the Clinton administration, for his Secretary of the Treasury, Robert Rubin, millennial capitalism and reform in that direction was the answer to global insecurity, to global poverty. If we could make capital flows more free, trade more free, then development would take place; development would lead to democracy, and so on. So you saw -- far more than under the first Bush administration, which wasn't as focused on some of these issues -- a very, very systematic push to change the world and to accelerate millennial capitalism into the world.

The Bush administration, interestingly ...

Now, we're talking about the second Bush administration ...

The second Bush administration hasn't paid as much attention to economic dimensions, particularly since September 11. But if you look at the records of the two administrations, you'll see that where Clinton did well, Bush has done well, and where Clinton did poorly, Bush has generally done poorly. So, for example, Clinton brought China into the WTO, and brought the U.S.-Chinese relationship a very significant step forward. That China relationship has been one of the strongest assets of the Bush presidency. Similarly, it was Clinton who expanded NATO to the east, and Bush has found a lot of his international support in those new NATO members.

On the other hand, where Clinton was less successful -- I mentioned the East Asia financial crisis. We've seen not only a lot of anti-Americanism in places like South Korea, but the financial collapse of Indonesia furthered a period of political instability, and also the rise of more radical forms of Islamic political activity, [including] the terror bombing in Bali. Clinton's relations in Latin America didn't go well.

Above all, Clinton had great intentions in the Middle East, but ended by destroying the peace process. And he completely failed to deal with the rise of al Qaeda.

So the challenges that Clinton was unable to meet have been the challenges that Bush, too, by and large, has had to struggle with, and the problems that Clinton solved have been pretty solid foundations for what Bush has tried to do.

Do you think that Clinton had more of a foreign policy than we give him credit for, and that Bush's foreign policy isn't that much more defined than Clinton's?

We're having this interview before Clinton's memoirs are out, and who knows how that will change [what I'm going to say], but at least at this moment, probably of all the leading Democrats, the two Clintons have been the least critical of Bush's foreign policy. The policy of regime change in Iraq was determined while Clinton was president ...

And it was passed by the Senate ...

That's right. And, also, Clinton really did spend time trying to persuade the country to take al Qaeda more seriously than it did. So the sense of a more hawkish posture in the Middle East is not something that Bush just invented out of nowhere, and Clinton has been remarkably slow to criticize him on it. So there may be more elements of similarity there than people sometimes think.

Now, one place that people see quite a difference is Bush is perceived as a unilateralist, whereas Clinton is perceived as a multilateralist. Is that just a superficial distinction between the two? Clinton went into Kosovo without the UN approval, and Bush tried to get approval to go into Iraq.

It's always important to remember that the strange thing about Bush's invasion of Iraq wasn't that he went in without the second resolution, but that he bothered to get the first. That's the anomalous thing in American history since 1945.

Clinton's multilateralism always had a certain fictitious air to it, because you take the Kyoto protocol: under Clinton, it was defeated 95 to 0 in the Senate. A treaty [requires] a two-thirds majority. What this means is that the Kyoto Protocol as it exists was dead, dead, dead under Clinton. The International Criminal Court, as it has been negotiated, will probably never be passed by the U.S. Senate, again, because it takes only one-third of the senators to block it. So Clinton, in a sense, had a multilateralist velvet glove, but Clinton was not able to deliver the United States of America for the multilateralism that at least rhetorically he espoused. Clinton's approach to this growing gap, particularly between the Americans and the Europeans, which was taking place all through his presidency, was to try to soothe the Europeans and make them feel that at least he was with them.

Bush's European diplomacy can't be considered a stunning success by anybody. But in some ways, if Clinton had managed that relationship better, Bush wouldn't have had such a chasm to cover. Bush has exaggerated the differences. He's saying, "Not only will we never ratify the Kyoto protocol, but I'm glad, I'm happy!" It might have been the best course for American foreign policy, it probably would have been for the Clinton people, to have been much clearer with the Europeans in the nineties. "Look, if you want the U.S. in the ICC, you're going to have to ... "

They had to do what Woodrow Wilson didn't do. Everyone said that Wilson should have brought Republicans with him to Versailles and gotten them involved in the treaty, and had these fights out earlier. Clinton didn't take Jesse Helms to the Kyoto protocol, or to the ICC negotiations. So this car crash between the Americans and the Europeans was already taking place, and to some degree it ended up being worse than it had to be, because the Europeans thought they had a deal with Clinton, and now there's this cold water with Bush. But the position of the United States, which is to say, the Senate, which has to ratify these treaties, didn't change that much between Clinton and Bush. It was the same.

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