The National Interest

The National Interest
Winter 2001/02

The Four Schoolmasters

by H.W. Brands


The British statesman Lord Bryce once remarked that describing American foreign policy was like describing the snakes of Ireland. "There are no snakes in Ireland", he added.

It’s an old anecdote but an apt one for Walter Russell Mead, who rebuts Bryce from the outset of his new book, Special Providence. Mead discovers lots of snakes in Ireland—four species, in fact. One species that predominated for decades bore protective coloration, which was why Bryce missed it. But it and the other three have long been active, often aggressive, and very successful in defending and expanding their territory.

The first species—that is, the first school of American foreign policy—Mead calls "Hamiltonian", after the founding Secretary of the Treasury and the most influential advisor to George Washington. Mead’s Hamiltonians see the world as a marketplace and perceive the purpose of U.S. foreign policy to be the enhancement of America’s position in that marketplace. They are conservatives in the sense of doubting the perfectibility, or even the substantial improvability, of human nature; yet they are optimists regarding the benefits that will accompany the growth of commerce and the institutions that support it. For the first century of America’s independent existence, the Hamiltonians advocated cooperation with Britain, the world’s leading trader. Upon Britain’s decline in the 20th century, they pushed the United States to the van of world trade, but their fundamental belief remained as before: that business was both the raison d’être of foreign policy and the facilitator of such collateral benefits as peace and stability.

Mead’s second school of foreign policy is the "Jeffersonian", which arose about the same time as the Hamiltonian, and in opposition to it. The touchstone of Jeffersonian thought is democracy, which occurs, the Jeffersonians judge, not as some happy side effect of commerce, but only as the result of careful cultivation. Where the Hamiltonians are pessimists regarding human nature but optimists regarding the institutions of commerce, the Jeffersonians are just the opposite. They revere the individual and fear that institutions, especially those of commerce, will corrupt personal virtue. For this reason they have been skeptical of intercourse with other nations; better to perfect democracy at home than risk it in the hurly-burly of foreign relations. Their enemies have called them isolationist; Mead prefers the term nationalist. But, however labeled, the Jeffersonians have put the domestic interest so far ahead of the international interest as to convey the frequent impression of indifference, even hostility, to the world beyond American shores.

The "Jacksonians" have a similarly domestic orientation, although they have been the driving force behind some of America’s most energetic assertions of interest and power abroad. Where the Jeffersonians have tended toward elitism, handing down democracy from above, the Jacksonians are populists, viewing democracy as arising from the people themselves. In contrast to the diffident nationalism of the Jeffersonians, the Jacksonians brandish a belligerent nationalism, quick to take offense, punctilious as to honor, untroubled by the denial of rights to foreigners and other lesser breeds beyond the law. The most militant of the four schools, the Jacksonians have consistently supported spending for defense, and have never been reluctant to use the weapons once purchased. Yet their aim in fighting has been American victory, not the salvation of the world. Perhaps the world is redeemable, perhaps not; but the Jacksonians waste no time on such airy questions, as their sole concern is for the vigorous defense of American honor and interests abroad.

Mead’s fourth school is the "Wilsonian", which believes that the world can be saved, and that America is called to save it. Named, of course, for the President who promised to make the world "safe for democracy" and championed the League of Nations, the Wilsonians have often allied with the Jeffersonians, for like the Jeffersonians, the Wilsonians hold democracy to be the highest social value. But where the Jeffersonians fear that contact with the world will debilitate democracy at home, the Wilsonians fear that debilitation will come from a lack of contact. To save itself, America must save the world.

Mead’s taxonomy is not entirely original, and he does not claim that it is. His Hamiltonians and Wilsonians are, respectively, conservative and liberal internationalists, while his Jacksonians and Jeffersonians are conservative and liberal nationalists. Sliced differently, the Hamiltonians and Jacksonians are internationalist and nationalist hawks, respectively, while the Wilsonians and Jeffersonians are internationalist and nationalist doves.

So why go to the trouble to invent new names for old categories? For two reasons. First, Mead wants to underscore the honest inconsistencies of actual history, as opposed to the spurious clarity of theoretical constructs. Readers, he guesses, will find it easier to accept the contradictions when considering them within a category named for Thomas Jefferson, for example—who was nothing if not inconsistent—than in some disembodied liberal nationalism.
The second reason is more to the basic point of the book. Mead has written a history of American foreign policy that, more than most histories, looks forward as much as it looks back. Mead is the senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, and he wrote this book on commission for the Century Foundation; by inclination, affiliation and subvention he is interested in charting a path for American diplomacy into the future. On this subject—as on most others—he is engagingly frank. American foreign policy, he says, has operated on myths in the past, including the myth of virtuous isolation in the 19th century and the myth that the Cold War represented a break with American tradition. What America needs at present, and what he essays to provide, is a myth for the 21st century. The book is his conjuring effort, and his labels represent a self-conscious calculation that he will have better luck selling it—the myth primarily, but no doubt also the book—if it comes with familiar handles.

He is probably right: in their reflexive regard for the Founders and the other great figures of their past, most Americans will be more comfortable with a foreign policy identified with Hamilton or Jefferson or Jackson or Wilson than with some sterile offspring of political science.

Yet, whatever the brand-name appeal of his nomenclature, there are some serious historical problems with it. . . .