Imaginary Isolationists

It’s pretty remarkable if a new book about American foreign policy that barely mentions terrorism, much less Osama bin Laden, can stand up after September 11. This one does, brilliantly.

Walter Russell Mead, a prolific and engaging writer, has produced a history of American foreign policy turning upon American ideas and practices since the days of the Founders. At its core is a myth-breaking proposition that the U.S. has been actively, and mostly successfully, involved in the world economically and diplomatically since the early days of the Republic. American isolationism, the author argues, is a myth propagated to rally public opinion for engagement in the early days of the Cold War. The time spans when the U.S. seemed out of sync with the world, for instance in the decades after World War I and to some degree in the post-Cold War decade, are not the product of isolationism but the consequence of domestic gridlock among the four major schools of American policy. The author reminds that there would have been more than the necessary two-thirds of the Senate ready to ratify U.S. membership in a League of Nations with powers equivalent to the current United Nations had President Wilson been prepared to negotiate with Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. It was this deadlock, not the small bloc of isolationists, that scuppered ratification.

The gridlock theory is as pertinent as any in explaining why the 1990s now starkly loom as one of the great wasted opportunities of American foreign policy. China proved remarkably resistant to the lure of democracy, while Russia and other former Soviet republics had trouble absorbing democracy or capitalism. American public support for humanitarian interventions was shaky at best. The post-World-War-II consensus for expanded free trade began melting after NAFTA gained narrow congressional approval in 1993. Congress only finally committed to paying back UN dues after the September 11 attacks. So much for the New World Order. Mead acknowledges he is on tricky ground with conventional historiography when he propounds his four-schools matrix. To over-simplify a highly textured presentation, he basically divides policy impulses among Hamiltonians, Wilsonians, Jeffersonians, and Jacksonians. The first two are globalist in outlook, the Hamiltonians to promote primarily economic engagement, the Wilsonians to promote American values, at gunpoint if necessary. The latter two derive from a certain skepticism about the world and the dangers of international involvement for American democracy. The Jeffersonians are particularly interested in limiting American engagement, the Jacksonians similarly inclined but ready to respond with overwhelming force if they feel provoked.

To those of us who studied U.S. diplomatic history (at least in mid-century) probably at the feet of Wilsonian professors, Mead’s exploration of the other schools is thought-provoking. To cite two examples: the influence of British commercial and foreign policies over the Hamiltonians; and the demonstration that the Jacksonians political and cultural influence, once thought to be waning, has regained such strength as to make it politically impossible for a U.S. president to pursue a limited war. Even those of us who studied under the Wilsonians are reminded that Wilsonianism really pre-dates Woodrow and is rooted in the immensely important role of missionaries over two centuries of U.S. policy. Think of China, for starters.

Mead’s historical review leads to several current points, still valid even if September 11 has broken the post-Cold War policy deadlock in Washington. First, this book is a ringing affirmation of a democratic foreign policy process, as much as this confuses and bedevils both foreign and American elites. Policies can strengthen at home and abroad when the tensions among the four schools are worked out, absorbed and synthesized in democratic debate. Democratic foreign policy is more constant over decades, even centuries, Mead argues, than those that rely on the skills or force of a single great leader.

His second point is that democratic processes need to be engaged more fully as this country moves beyond the Cold War. Mead is worried, and with good reason, that a new elite has taken over from the old elite. While more ethnically diverse, it is even more cut off from ordinary Americans than the much-derided WASP elite in class, education, income and in the absence of such common experiences as serving in the military. He argues provocatively that the more years this neo-elite spends in prestige schools, the less its ability to speak and write in ways that average, less-privileged citizens find convincing.

Finally, Mead raises two basic questions that will outlast any current consensus on the war on terrorism: Namely, to what degree is this country ready to share sovereignty and decision-making with allies and international organizations. And second, that we have not had the necessary debate over the implications of the current American hegemony, a combination of military, economic, technological, and cultural power unmatched in history?

Alas, in contradiction to Mead’s own admonition to the neo-elites, hegemony is not a word that fits easily in the American vernacular. Indeed, it rolls far more readily off tongues at the foreign ministries in Paris and Beijing, two places, among many, where this book should be required reading.

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