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 look through 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 6, 2001
fallows@large | Dialogues with James Fallows
From: Walter Russell Mead
To: James Fallows
Subject: Re: The wily champion of the diplomatic world

Dear Jim:

Thanks for the kind words in your letter. Yes, it's been fun to work together on the New America board.

But enough puffery and logrolling. Let's cut to the chase and I'll answer your questions as best I can.

You say that as you read the book, its most interesting point is the claim that while virtually everyone thinks Americans are bumbling fools, we are in fact very clever and skilled at foreign policy. Can I really be the first person in 200 years to notice, as you say, that "far from being the buffoon of the diplomatic world, the United States is actually its champion"?

That is actually one claim to originality I don't make. Plenty of people have noticed that the United States is generally very successful in its conduct of foreign affairs. I am not the first person to have noticed that the emperor is, despite what small boys and cynics say, dressed in a fine suit of new clothes.

Nevertheless, you are right: like all nonfiction writers, I am claiming to have found something that nobody has quite seen before, something that people should pay attention to. And it is also true, as you say, that I am arguing that much of the conventional wisdom about American foreign policy is dead wrong. We weren't isolated from international events before World War II or even World War I; foreign policy played a major political role in American history; the ways our predecessors thought about the world were very similar to the ways Americans think about it now.

Furthermore, I am saying that the conventional ways of describing American foreign policy don't work very well. Dividing the pie into "multilateralists" and "unilateralists," for example, is more confusing than helpful. Many liberal internationalists hailed the Bush Administration's conversion to multilateralism after September 11 without realizing that it was a conservative multilateralism. (In my categories, Hamiltonian rather than Wilsonian.) That is, the Bush team's new multilateral approach is about multilateral cooperation to catch or kill terrorists, stop their money transfers, pressure rogue states, and so on. This is not about landmine treaties, the Kyoto Protocol, or the International Criminal Court.

I find categories like isolationist and interventionist and hawk and dove equally useless these days. Many of the flaming hawks who want to invade Iraq now were deeply opposed to the Kosovo War.

And finally, I am both proposing a new set of classifications that I think work better—the four schools of Hamiltonians, Wilsonians, Jeffersonians, and Jacksonians into which I divide American attitudes toward foreign policy—and arguing that America's success in international relations is the result not of a brilliant national diplomatic plan but of the struggles among partisans of these schools. The four schools are wrestling to control the steering wheel; the resulting course isn't what any of them would have chosen, but over time we get to some pretty good places.

Much of this I discuss at some length in the book, and I don't want to be too repetitive here. But for what it's worth, here are a few points.

First, until very recently, it was almost universally believed that democracies were bad at foreign policy. In the book, I cite de Tocqueville's comments as well as others by men like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Lord Bryce (the author of The American Commonwealth and often regarded as second only to de Tocqueville as a perceptive foreign observer of the American scene).

My argument is that democracies do better than expected even in Hobbesian situations, because the national policy that emerges from the clash of interests and ambitions within at least some democratic states over time and on the average gives a better reflection of the true national interest than policies made by small, isolated elites who inevitably often mistake their own class or economic interest for the general interest of the country. This kind of argument is, I think, very often made in the context of why democratic states are successful in their domestic policy; it is implicit in the system of checks and balances that the Founders put in the Constitution. I am saying that the Founders built better than they knew, and that the machinery they designed for our government demonstrably works as well in foreign affairs as in domestic ones. This was overlooked by the Founders themselves as well as by many thoughtful people largely because of the sheer weight of historical opinion and evidence on the other side.

Second point: Many American (and foreign) statesmen as late as the generation of the 1940s had a very keen understanding of American foreign policy and its history and continuities. Statesmen like Henry Cabot Lodge, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Jennings Bryan were very conscious of standing in traditions that went back to the Federalist era. Many of the ideas in Special Providence would, I think, have seemed quite natural to people of that era—although as far as I know nobody quite laid it out the way I have. Furthermore, the people of that era were in general pretty proud of America's foreign-policy record. Walter Lippmann was quite clear that the United States in the nineteenth century had had a consistently effective foreign policy.

The loss of a sense of continuity with the American past begins after 1919, I think, and it is partly linked to the breakdown of the global economic system of the nineteenth century and to America's changing economic relations with the world. American economic and social development was chronically dependent on foreign capital until World War I when it became a creditor nation.

As memories of those pre-1919 days faded into the past, it was much harder for twentieth-century Americans to understand the passions and concerns of their predecessors. And now that we are once again a debtor nation and once again worry that our prosperity might someday depend on the kindness of strangers, it is becoming easier for us to reconnect with the older history. In some ways, the U.S. of 2001 looks more like the U.S. of 1891 than like the U.S. of, say, 1951, when foreign trade was at a historic low as a percentage of GDP and when U.S. firms faced no serious competitors anywhere in the world.

Third point: during the Cold War, the politics of American foreign policy was pretty simple and straightforward. You had doves and you had hawks; it was pretty easy to predict what both groups would think about any given topic. There was no need to go digging in the musty compost heaps of foreign-policy history for labels; we had labels and they worked pretty well.

At the end of the Cold War, that was no longer true. Half the Cold War doves turned into raving hawks when it came to the Yugoslav wars and Rwanda. Almost as many of the Cold War hawks turned very dovish when it came to questions of whether to support humanitarian interventions in those countries.

Watching the way the old categories had broken down is what really gave me the impetus to write this book the way I did. If hawk and dove, isolationist and interventionist, realist and idealist, multilateralist and unilateralist weren't very satisfying, what was?

The four schools only gradually came clear to me, and I expect that as time goes on I will want to make more modifications to the picture. Watching the struggles over trade policy in the Clinton Administration really helped me see the differences between Hamiltonians and Wilsonians. Both were globalist, wanting to extend American influence, but they had very different ideas about global strategy. One wanted to bring China into the WTO, and the other wanted to impose sanctions on China to promote human rights. Both were internationalist and more or less multilateralist—but it turns out that there is more than one kind of internationalist.

It was only gradually that I reached the conclusion that Jeffersonians were different from Wilsonians. Again, the political struggles of the post-Cold War years forced me to think this through. In Yugoslavia, the Cold War doves divided. Some of them wanted war; some were horrified by the thought and warned about quagmires. All of these people were committed to what some might call an idealist approach to the world, but their foreign policy leanings seemed very different.

Here it was actually the historical record that helped me clarify my thoughts. Some of the debates over U.S. entry into World War I read a good deal like the debates people had in the nineties over Yugoslavia. I first started calling the stay-home-school "Bryanites," after William Jennings Bryan, the three-time presidential candidate and Secretary of State in the Wilson Administration, until further reading led me to trace it back to Jefferson.

At this point I had three schools, but as I looked at this and other foreign policies of the Clinton years I noticed that these three schools didn't cover everything. What was missing was what Europeans think of as American cowboy diplomacy: suspicious of big business and international coalitions, wary of messy humanitarian interventions, and quick to act when American interests and prestige are at stake. This last school was best captured by Andrew Jackson, who was one of the fiercest commanders in the Indian Wars and became regarded as the symbol of American toughness.

To close what is probably already too long an answer, I think that with the end of the Cold War and the change in America's economic position from creditor to debtor, the political categories we all used in the middle and late twentieth century no longer work. I happened to be a guy with a contract to write a book on American foreign policy at a time when the gap between the political categories and the political process was widening, and so my effort to think and write systematically about American foreign policy meant coming up with some kind of a new typology. It was natural to look for that typology in American history; Special Providence is my best shot at saying something coherent about what I thought I saw there. While many of the ideas in it aren't new, and in particular some of the discussion of Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians would fit in with much American political discussion at the turn of the twentieth century, much of what is new about it comes from being one of the first post-Cold War books to look at American foreign policy systematically and as a whole.

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