A Hamiltonian By Any Name ...

Per the criticisms from Poulos and Larison, I should say that I was playing along with Walter Russell Mead's division of the American foreign policy tradition into Wilsonian, Jeffersonian, Hamiltonian and Jacksonian strains, rather than endorsing it, and I agree that it runs into all sorts of difficulties very quickly - not least of which is the question of whether any of the three worthies not named Wilson are really the best figureheads for the viewpoints their names are being associated with.

But this is not to say that the underlying viewpoints aren't important. Here I want to disagree somewhat with David Brooks, an actual self-described Hamiltonian (albeit in a slightly different context), who has a column today on the possible foreign-policy continuities between the second Bush term and the Obama Administration - and specifically the way the lessons learned during the Bush years about nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq might translate into "multidisciplinary security and development campaigns" and efforts that focus less on "killing the enemy" than on "repairing the zones of chaos where enemies grow and breed." With this in mind, he writes:

Some theoreticians may still talk about Platonic concepts like realism and neoconservatism, but the actual foreign policy doctrine of the future will be hammered out in a bottom-up process as the U.S. and its allies use their varied tools to build government capacity in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, the Philippines and beyond.

I don't actually think this is true. Or rather, I don't think it's that much more true now than in the recent past. Certainly, there are some theatres, from the Phillipines to Mongolia, in which American foreign policy is and ought to be defined by a spirit of pragmatic improvisation disconnected from any Platonic theory of foreign affairs. (Or rather, disconnected from any theory save the consensus that America should be playing an informally imperial role around the globe, promoting stability, development and the national interest with a combination of hard and soft power - which is itself a theoretical prism through which to view world affairs.) And yes, of course, Platonic theories don't provide perfect answers to most dilemmas, which is why they don't always survive contact with actual world events - just ask Condoleezza Rice!

But high-level foreign-policy arguments matter even so, After all, any significant "multidisciplinary security and development campaign" requires at least some top-down theoretical presuppositions to start doing its bottom-up work. And the hardest questions likely to face American policymakers in the next four-to-eight years won't be questions like whether to send a hundred State Department advisers to the Phillipines, or dispatch five hundred Marines and a "civilian corps" of nation-builders to a war-wracked Liberia - cases where we can afford to experiment with various bottom-up improvisations, because the stakes (for us, at least) are relatively low.

They may be questions related to our existing efforts to "repair the zones of chaos" in Iraq and Afghanistan, where some answers have emerged (over years, and at cost) from the bottom up. But they're just as likely to be questions like whether we should plan to contain a nuclear Iran or pre-empt Tehran before it gets the bomb; or whether we should just send humanitarian aid to Russia's neighbors if they're attacked by Moscow or send them Stinger missiles too - or whether, to take up the subject of Robert Kagan's column this morning, we should pursue sanctions against Pakistan in an effort to convince them to accept an international peacekeeping force  to police and pacify western Pakistan.

These are not questions that can be answered through a "bottom-up process," and they're questions where competing theoretical frameworks produce significantly different answers. (The same was true with many of the biggest questions in the Clinton era: What was the "bottom-up" answer to how to deal with Slobodan Milosevic, or how to respond to an ongoing genocide in Rwanda?) What Brooks is describing in his column - an emerging consensus on counterinsurgency and nation-building, based on the American military's on-the-ground experience in Iraq and Afghanistan - is a positive development, and it's a good thing that this consensus seems likely to carry over into the Obama Administration. But it won't absolve Obama of the responsibility to tackle dilemmas that can't be resolved by asking "What Would H.R. McMaster Do?"

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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