New Part Three - December 27:
James Fallows
Walter Russell Mead

Part Two - December 20:
James Fallows
Walter Russell Mead

Part One - December 6:
James Fallows
Walter Russell Mead

Walter Russell Mead is the senior fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mead is also the author of Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition. His internationally syndicated articles on economic policy and foreign affairs appear regularly in the Los Angeles Times and have appeared in major newspapers around the world, including The International Herald Tribune and The Wall Street Journal. He has also written for The New Yorker, Harper's, and Rolling Stone, and is a senior contributing editor at Worth magazine. A native of South Carolina, he lives in New York.

James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996) and of Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel. To learn about his new book and browse an archive of his recent articles, visit

Previously in Fallows@large:

Beyond the Tech Bubble (August 29, 2001)
An e-mail exchange with Michael Lewis, the author of Next: The Future Just Happened.

The Waste Land (June 21, 2001)
An e-mail exchange with Alex Kerr, the author of Dogs and Demons.

Working Classes (May 2, 2001)
An e-mail exchange with Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of Nickel and Dimed.

More by James Fallows

More on books

More on foreign affairs

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

Atlantic Unbound | December 20, 2001
fallows@large | Dialogues with James Fallows
From: James Fallows
To: Walter Russell Mead
Subject: The wily champion of the diplomatic world - Part Two

Dear Walter:

First, a word of explanation to you and any onlookers. Although terms like "Internet time" have gone out of fashion, to return only when the NASDAQ is back above 5,000, these online exchanges are meant to have some of the immediacy of electronic communications. You answered the first round of queries with admirable speed. I've been slow coming back with round two. The main reason is that, like you and a lot of other people, I have been preoccupied by breaking news. But I'll pretend that there is a nobler version: namely, that your tour d'horizon first answer preempted most of the things I was ready to ask in round two and has sent me back to do extra research.

And as your fellow foreign-policy big-thinker Henry Kissinger would say, this excuse has the added virtue of being true. I was going to ask you this time about the four-part classification scheme you introduce for understanding America's approach to foreign affairs—the outlooks you call Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian, Wilsonian, and Jacksonian. People love explanatory categories, whether the systems are as loopy as the signs of the Zodiac or as would-be scientific as the sixteen personality types of the Myers-Briggs psychological tests. Your four categories are much richer than the simple distinctions used in most political and journalistic discussion—hawk versus dove, moralist versus realist, protectionist versus free trader, internationalist versus isolationist. They're also different from what most readers would assume. For instance, as I understand your argument, Thomas Jefferson was not consistently a "Jeffersonian," but John Quincy Adams might have been.

But since you've already given a preview of these categories, let me save them for later. Instead I'd like to ask you about several of the ideas and arguments most likely to surprise readers (along with the book's main surprise, that America is actually good at conducting foreign policy). The ones I have in mind are "Brit-centrism"; the primacy of shipping lanes; the evils of the auteur theory; and the virtues of ruthlessness. Here goes:

  • Brit-centric foreign policy. If there is one long plot line in your book, it is the shift from a world trading-and-political system that Britain dominated to one that America runs. For instance, "The consequences of the fall of the British Empire for American politics and policy were so profound that they have led many to see an unbridgeable chasm between American foreign policy before and after Britain's fall." And you explain in the book why Britain's military power mattered so much for the young American Republic, why the trading order it enforced was important during America's nineteenth-century growth, and why the U.S. has taken on both the prerogatives and the headaches of the leading-power's role.

    But let me ask about one aspect of this imperial succession. Is it a cautionary example? That is, was the eventual collapse of the British Empire mainly due to a mismatch—such a small country taking on such vast obligations? If so, that would suggest that a big country, like ours, could bear the responsibilities more easily for a longer time. Or should we think that the very role of a dominant power contains the seeds of its own decline? A decade ago this last view was popular, in the concept of "imperial overreach." What should big, strong America learn about overreach from now-humbled Britain?

  • Columbia rules the waves. One of many startling facts in your book is this one, explaining the importance of the Panama Canal:
    Without the Panama Canal, San Francisco is closer by sea to London than it is to New York.... Without the canal, boats in Britain were better positioned to reach China and California than were those on the east coast of the United States. With it, the United States [could] maximize the advantages of what would become a central location between the two coasts of the great Eurasian supercontinent.
    The context here, as I understand it, is your effort to restore dignity to the idea of a principally commercial foreign policy. Americans tend to think that "mere commerce" is an inferior diplomatic goal. "Oh, it's just about oil" was the main way to discredit the Gulf War a decade ago. When Americans do want to advance commercial interests—say, selling Boeing planes to China—they usually dress up their argument with the claim that freer trade will bring freer societies around the world.

    What I think you're saying is, we shouldn't be embarrassed to be commercial. Through most of our history, we've done well when simply promoting commercial interests—and defending the sea and air lanes that make commerce possible. Is that a fair reading? And if you were a twenty-first-century politician, how could you make a mainly commercial argument without sounding like a Philistine?

  • Let the French keep their auteurs. As we've discussed, you have no time for the prevailing assumption that Americans are unschooled bumblers in foreign policy. But you go on to argue that the results keep going our way because of the chaos and inconsistency of our policy, rather than in spite of it. The contrast is with the European "auteur" theory of foreign policy:
    Like film critics who see films as the personal creation of a single hand—usually that of the director—so Continental realists believe that the best foreign policy is the product of a single great master: a Bismarck, a Talleyrand, a Metternich, or a Kissinger. The great genius labors, essentially alone, at something like a vast, complex, and multidimensional game of chess.
    Meanwhile, on this side of the water, the policy game is usually played like a pickup round of shirts-and-skins basketball on the playground. No one is in control, the rules are vague, lots of fouls don't get called. Yet, you contend, this shaggy approach is better, because it spares us from the blindness and excesses of any specific Great Genius, and because it ensures that all important interests are represented.

    So the question is: how far would you push this point? Isn't there a Dr. Pangloss danger in your outlook—that is, of welcoming nutty aberrations in our policy, because they're part of this non-auteur process? Consider two examples: the decades-long boycott of Cuba, and the demonization of Mexico (especially by Ross Perot) during the NAFTA debates. Is there any way to enjoy the benefits of the open, American process without these excesses? Or should we realize this is all part of the deal?

  • Don't mess with Uncle Sam. You write: "It isn't fashionable to say so, but the United States of America is the most dangerous military power in the history of the world." Would you care to elaborate, Professor Chomsky—I mean, Mr. Mead?

    That's it for now. Here's a preview of what I have in mind for next time—so you won't answer it ahead of time! I'm going to ask you to name names of the current politicians who best illustrate your four schools of thought. And, yes, we'll get your views on Afghanistan.

    Best wishes, Jim Fallows

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