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

Page 4 of 6

American Individualism

This leads us to the conclusion that it's not just the economy that's changing, but the society and the politics of the society. There is a change also in the different groups that are now supporting different kinds of foreign policy. Talk a little about that. What is the implication of millennial capitalism, for example?

I don't want to say that the economy is driving everything, because often culture drives the economy. American popular culture, historically, has been pretty individualistic, and while a lot of people liked the economics of the New Deal and of Fordist society, they didn't necessarily like the regimentation and group-think of that era, where it was sort of an interest-bloc society -- you were part of the union, and the union leadership decided how to vote; the bosses decided how the parties nominated, and so on. This growing individualism in America, which is also a return to our older national character, got increasingly tired of all of these constraints, and everybody wanted to cut their own deal: "No, I don't want to just take the price that the airline tells me it costs to fly from here to Tampa. I want to go on the Internet and check with one of these services and find the best deal I can cut for me." This individualism has helped empower this economic change.

I talk in the book about an "American revival," which is the revival of American exceptionalism, the idea that Americans are different from other peoples. For example, we tend to be more religious than other developed countries. We also tend to be more tolerant of the excesses and disequilibria and unequal outcomes of free-market capitalist competition. American society is more tolerant of these things. As a result, we tend to experiment with new kinds of capitalist organization, we're more willing to let capitalism rip than other places are willing to let it go, and that's one of the reasons we stay on the cutting edge of things.

When it comes to foreign policy, as much of the rest of the world is feeling more and more passionately nostalgic for Fordism, American society has continued, at least through the present -- obviously, I'm not making predictions about the future, but through the present -- we've continued to be more millennial capitalists. I'll be a little predictive: I think probably we will continue to be more in that direction than other countries, even if we pull back -- say, if a Democrat comes along in November, or what have you.

The popular pressure is to push the United States in ways that make our foreign policy harder, that makes the system that we're trying to build internationally less popular overseas.

Because the individualism does not go with the values that many of these other places hold?

Well, they're individualistic, but for example, in a country like Germany, the people are much more concerned that their neighbor might be getting more than them, than that they might be losing an opportunity to get more than their neighbor. It's a different sense of what justice is. Obviously, not every German is more this way than every American; there's a lot of variation. But if you look at the choices people make en masse, it does seem that the American needle tilts more to the individualistic opportunity side, whereas in other countries it tends to tilt more to the group and justice side, or equality side. This gap is continuing to drive a lot of differences, but there are other things as well.

And you point out a significant one, which is that this emphasis on individualism goes with a country in which the evangelicals and the messianic Christians are becoming more important politically. In fact, you say in your book that it's critical for understanding U.S. foreign policy, because in an earlier period, in the period of Fordism, shall we say, the support for international institutions, multilateral processes, which was a key element of U.S. foreign policy, was supported by Episcopalians, Methodists, the more traditional Protestants, but now the evangelicals are increasingly important, and they have a different view.

That's right. The mainline Protestant denominations are losing members -- in some cases, absolutely; in others, just as a percentage of the population -- but evangelicals and Pentecostals are gaining members in that way. And you have to throw something else in, which is the Catholic Church has also been a supporter of multilateral institutions, and while the Catholic Church remains strong and is gaining members, individual Catholics in America are much less likely to pay attention to the views of their bishops and ecclesiastical leaders. The recent sexual scandals, in a sense, have given an extra push to this skepticism. So a lot of the forces in American society that saw politics as being about progress that was going to create a peaceful world based on first the League of Nations, then the United Nations -- international law in institutions replacing politics and war with administration and the operation of institutions -- that vision of the future is not as strong in American society as it used to be.

In fact, there's a counter-vision. For people who come out of a Calvinistic evangelical Protestant background, there's a sense in which human nature is fallen. When "unsaved" people, non-Christians or what have you, are the most full of their moral virtues, they're in the most self-deceit, that it's selfish. It's the way a lot of Americans look at Europeans, which is: "You talk a beautiful game and you say, 'Oh, I hate genocide. I hate war criminals,' but every time there is a genocide, you don't want to do anything. You won't do anything about somebody like Saddam Hussein who is killing a lot of people, but you will always denounce it." There's this sense that that's immoral, it's just vapid posturing. And so there's a radical alienation from the United Nations, from the world community conscience, all of those things.

And you have to add into it a new element, a twentieth-century element of an American Judaism which saw the Holocaust, or the history of anti-Semitism in Europe culminating in the Holocaust, where, to our eternal shame, Americans also wouldn't accept Jews as refugees from Germany in the thirties, and so on.

So again, there's a deep sense that when the great and the good of the world meet together in the United Nations, they're not necessarily good. In fact, they're often evil, and that the good doesn't necessarily come along in cooperating with other countries and international institutions, but a good person has to stand against them and defy them, and point out their evil, sort of the way Martin Luther stuck it to the popes.

This has always been an aspect of the American character. The Puritans left England because they didn't want to be too implicated in these things. It's come back strong in early twenty-first-century America, and it is definitely shaping the public's attitudes, or at least a part of the public's attitudes, toward a lot of the questions that we face.

So what you get is a kind of a messianic nationalism, a sense that we can transform the world, but we can do it alone, without others, and not through international institutions, which is a new variant.

To be fair to them -- I constantly get in trouble because people think every time I try to explain a point of view, I must be sharing every nuance of that point of view, but it seems to me that the way people who share this belief set think is [that they] know that we will have allies, but institutions are not necessarily where those alliances will be formed, or what they will create. That the good people will come to our side the way the British, the Poles, and many others did on Iraq (that would be the view here), and that sometimes that coincides with institutions; sometimes it doesn't.

Again, the trouble for some of the internationalists is they bought the Kosovo intervention, which was the same thing, really. So in principle, there aren't that many principled multilateralists in American society.

Americans, whether they're on the left or the right, generally tend to think that once you know, or think you know, what the right thing is, you have a duty to do it, regardless of what others say or do.

I've used the example in the book that the Episcopal church, which is the church I belong to here in the U.S., has ordained as the Bishop of New Hampshire, a gay man in an active relationship with a partner. And the other Episcopal churches or Anglican churches around the world are saying, "This is unilateral! How can you possibly do this? There was no discussion. This affects us." And many of the Episcopalians who strongly support the ordination of this bishop are people who strongly criticize Bush for a unilateral posture vis-à-vis Iraq!

So we disagree on what we think is important, or where our consciences are leading us, but as a society when our consciences tell us to do something, we tend not to think that institutions should be allowed to slow the cause of God down.

We must add to this the Jacksonians. One of the [foreign policy] themes that you identify in Special Providence as recurring in American history is the one associated with President Jackson, and 9/11 has brought that sensibility, those ideas back to the fore. book coverHow does that contribute to this whirlwind that you're describing?

It contributes a lot to it, because, as I wrote in Special Providence, American Jacksonians are the kind of people who are not necessarily that excited about bring democracy to the rest of the world, or free trade, on any of those things. They're not sure that the rest of the world is ready for that. But if somebody attacks the United States, then they believe that you've got to react strongly. You've got to mercilessly crush anybody who attacks you, particularly if it's a sneak terrorist, dishonorable attack, like the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, or like al Qaeda with the World Trade Center. That if you end up having to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, "Well, they shouldn't have started the war." So after September 11, there was a tremendous upsurge in the United States of people who didn't know the details of strategy, didn't know the ins and outs, but the one thing they insisted on was that the President of the United States really go after this new threat.

We've all got to understand that no matter who wins in November or which way the national debate goes, if there are more attacks on the United States, the biggest danger for any president is not having done something. For Jacksonians, the blame usually isn't that "you tried too hard to protect me, and so you made mistakes," but that, "you weren't doing enough and you left me vulnerable." It plays out in party politics, in that, probably, Jacksonians tend to be more congregated in the red states, much more important to the Republican base; but a lot of the, quote, "Reagan Democrats," the swing voters who tend sometimes to be more Democratic-leaning on economic issues, are strongly motivated by national security, national pride issues. Where those swing Democrats go is clearly a major issue in our politics at this time.

Next page: Grand Strategy

© Copyright 2004, Regents of the University of California