The Secret Strength of American Foreign Policy

Dec 12, 2001

Many have accused the United States of being negligent in the area of foreign policy, yet, according to Walter Russell Mead, almost no other country has had more success in international affairs over the last 225 years.


JOANNE MYERS: We are very pleased to have as our guest author Walter Russell Mead, who will be discussing his book, Special Providence: America's Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World.

Analyzing the rationale behind American foreign policy is not an easy task. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that a recurring theme in American history has been that many see the United States as a place apart, guided by some divine Providence and without a firm set of principles.

Since the end of the Cold War, this motif, compounded with the confusion over what principles should guide our foreign policy, has only added to the general perception that America does not have a consistent foreign policy tradition.

Now, in the aftermath of September 11th, it is argued that we should rethink the central ideas that have generated our foreign policy in the past, so that we can intelligently think about our future.

Walter Russell Mead believes that one of the best ways to do this is to reflect upon our country's multiple foreign policy traditions over the past 200 years. In Special Providence, our guest provides a history of America's various interactions with the world and explains how American foreign policy has been more successful than conventional wisdom acknowledges and has played a more central role throughout American history than many believe.

Instead of rigidly reflecting a single theory, Mr. Mead believes that American strategy has been shaped by the convergence of several distinct schools of thought that compete for dominance in U.S. foreign policy. He associates these four distinct approaches with four towering figures from America's past: Hamilton and his protectionist attitude toward commerce; Wilson and his overriding sense of moral principles; Jefferson and the maintenance of our democratic system; and Jackson, the advocate of populist values and military might.

Mr. Mead's perspective helps to remind us who we are, who we have been, and who we may become, given the choices that lie ahead.

Walter Russell Mead is a Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Trained as a political economist, he has been engaged in the study of the evolving global economy and its implications for American society and foreign policy.

He was a project director for the Ford Foundation-funded Working Group on Development and Trade in International Finance, as well as for the Study Group on the History of U.S. Foreign Policy. He also was the co-director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Independent Task Force on U.S.-Cuba Relations.

His writings have appeared in Worth magazine, where he is a senior contributing editor, and in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times, where he is also a contributing editor.

In addition to Special Providence, he is the author of Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition.

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our guest this morning, Walter Russell Mead.


WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Thanks for that very kind invitation, and thank you all for showing up at an early hour when I am sure many of you have much more important things to do than listen to a talk on the history of American foreign policy.

The reason that I've been working on Special Providence for about ten years is that when I began to really research American foreign policy, I discovered that just about everything I thought I knew about it was wrong. I, like most people, thought that before the Second World War, or at most World War I, foreign policy just didn't matter very much in American life. I was somewhat flabbergasted to go back and look in the record. To read conventional views on American foreign policy, you would think that America, the "hermit kingdom," slumbered in its ignorance of the world until the Emperor Hirohito blasted us out of out isolation in 1941 at Pearl Harbor.

You would never hear that when Commodore Perry turned up in Japan in 1854 he was doing something purposeful; he wasn't just wandering in the neighborhood. He was sent to Japan by Daniel Webster, a man who thought rather carefully about what he was trying to do in the world, and it was part of a long-term American strategy aimed at maintaining a balance of power in the Pacific that continued successfully for a century and culminated in the open-door policy on China.

Looking back through the record, I found that you could look at the big issues of 19th-century politics, which were all related to foreign policy very directly. Let's begin with westward expansion. People will say now, "Of course you Americans are successful at your foreign policy. You're so large and rich." We were actually rather small when we started, and the greatest powers of the day—Britain, France, Spain—all plotted to prevent us from getting any bigger. Until the transcontinental railroad was built in the 1860s, it was easier to get to San Francisco from London or from Europe than from New York, because Brazil goes so far out into the Atlantic that the Pacific Coast is further from the Eastern Seaboard by sea than it is from London. How, under these circumstances, the Americans managed to wind up with California—and not to mention Hawaii—is rather interesting, and they did not just luck into it.

Then there's the tariff, another great issue of 19th-century politics that bored most of you to tears in secondary school. But it was as NAFTA and the WTO are today, an issue that links domestic and foreign policy: what are the most advantageous terms under which the United States economy can be integrated with the world economy?

During the second half of the 19th century, the question was the gold standard versus free silver, and do we stay in a monetary union with Britain?

And finally, you would say slavery is, of all issues, completely domestic politics. But the South was not blind. They seceded because they believed that blockading the cotton from Britain, plus it's own national interest in dividing the United States, would provoke the British intervention that would win the war for them. That was Jefferson Davis' goal; why Lee went to Antietam; why he went to Gettysburg, to win a battle on northern soil for British recognition. It is also why Lincoln ultimately decided to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, called his "cheap trick," to block British intervention by abolishing slavery in the South.

So foreign policy was dominant in American politics through much of that time. Presidential elections were lost and won on it. If you look at the records of the men who served this country as President before the Civil War, they had far more foreign policy experience than those who have served since the First World War.

The other received notion about American foreign policy is that we're not very good at it. If you go to other parts of the world, you hear comments about "cowboy diplomacy," lack of subtlety and sophistication, and it's certainly true that, as Henry Kissinger has pointed out, the American people are not always particularly well informed on foreign topics. He is fond of citing the poll that in the 1980s 30 percent of the Americans thought that the Contras were fighting in Norway.

So you can make the case that there was not a sustained public debate involving a well-educated public opinion.

Nevertheless, ask yourself this: Who exactly has been more successful in foreign policy than the United States over the last 225 years? There are three European states that had a better 20th century than the United States: Sweden, Switzerland, and the Vatican. You cannot find anyplace else in Europe that was happier or more successful with its foreign policy in the 20th century.

If you look at what this country has accomplished, we've done rather well:

  • We were the real winners of the Napoleonic wars; not only did we induce Napoleon to sell Louisiana to us, but we performed the even more difficult feat of getting the British to recognize the acquisition and accept the transfer.
  • We managed to keep foreigners out of our Civil War, which is a rather difficult thing to do, as Slobodan Milosevic has discovered.
  • We were the real winners of World War I, staying out until the other combatants were largely exhausted and then coming in, with a very small contribution of casualties and money, actually having a disproportionate voice in shaping the peace.
  • And while everybody likes to say, "Oh, Woodrow Wilson and the Versailles Fourteen Points, how naive, how silly," every European state today, certainly west of the old Soviet Union, runs its foreign policy on Wilsonian lines. The Fourteen Points have to a very large degree become the constitution of Europe.

So how have we done so well with an obviously bad process? The Senate is constantly investigating the President. The Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee withholds all ambassadorial confirmation hearings until some particular little crotchet of his gets satisfied. Helms-Burton sails though, and we turn everybody into great consternation about it. George Bush makes all these cowboy statements about Afghanistan: "Wanted, dead or alive." And yet, somehow, things work out.

My theory is that it works because it's a noisy, inchoate process. We have four basic ways of looking at the relationship of the United States and the world in our country. You can find them operating at every time in our history from the 18th century to the present.

Each is rooted in different economic, regional, cultural, and in some cases ethnic groups, and each is a vision of the national interest. They continually struggle in our process of government to control. You have four people fighting to control the steering wheel of a ship. The course the ship takes is not the course that any one of these people would have wanted it to take but is somehow the vector of all of their struggle, and the course that is ultimately set, apparently by random, as if by the workings of an invisible hand, leads to a smoother cruise than you might have if any one of those schools ever got exclusive control of the process.

Power is divided in the American Government, so that the President cannot just set the foreign policy and proceed. Congress can stop him. Even when he has a majority in both Houses of Congress, that doesn't necessarily mean that they do what you want, as many presidents have discovered.

We have a foreign policy process that is very different from the classical model. After all, even de Tocqueville said, "Foreign policy requires all the qualities that democracies lack and none of the qualities that democracies have." John Adams thought that foreign policy would be the weak point of our constitutional system. It's not unusual or anti-democratic to think that our system might not work particularly well.

I looked back at our history and somewhat arbitrarily named the four schools after four statesmen:

  • The Hamiltonianshave their roots in Alexander Hamilton. They have always believed that the American national strategy should be modeled on the British system: use your trade to make money through commerce; government should support large business; your trade policy should be an instrument of your economic development, however that benefits you most; and then, the revenues from your international trade will support your military expenditures and interests while preserving political stability at home.

    Furthermore, the Hamiltonians wanted the United States to support Britain in its efforts to maintain a balance of power on the Continent. Better have all those scorpions locked up in the bottle with Britain holding the cork rather than have them getting out and, after the Napoleonic wars, trying to reestablish Bourbon monarchies across Latin America.

    There was a great debate in American history up until the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine on whether our grand strategy should be to side with the largest continental power against Britain, so that you would have the two land powers on each side of the Atlantic balancing the sea power in the middle, or whether we were there to support Britain.

    Then in 1915, when it was that clear Britain could not win the war without our help, right from the beginning Hamiltonians wanted the United States to support the British Empire. In 1939 it was Hamiltonians again who called for early entry into the war, although this time they didn't want to support Britain; they thought, in Keynes's wonderful phrase, "We will pluck out the eyes of the British Empire," which the United States proceeded to do.

  • Wilsonians have long believed that the United States cannot be safe unless we live in a world of peaceful democratic states who acknowledge the rule of law. This is best achieved by exporting American values, as in the missionary movement of the 19th century. This was a mass movement of Americans: Tens of thousands of ordinary American citizens, supported by voluntary contributions, set out to turn the world into a democratic and, at the time, Christian place. Many elements of American foreign policy were set by missionaries at this time, and the relationships of many foreign peoples to the United States has been profoundly shaped by the missionary presence in the American presence overseas.
  • The third school is Jeffersonian, which is the view: "What's great about our country? What are we trying to preserve anyway in our foreign policy?" The answer is our liberty at home, which we shall lose, say Jeffersonians, if we get too involved overseas.
  • We've heard after September 11 that our excessive support for Israel and for dictatorships in the Arab world led this backlash against America that caused the attacks. And now what are we doing? The CIA is back to hiring assassins and bad people; we're locking up thousands of people without trial; John Ashcroft is infringing on our civil liberties. This is the kind of argument that Jeffersonians have been making for over 200 years.

    The fear that the military-industrial complex will become an enormous economic interest with great influence on government, a vested interest in war and will become ever powerful, this is the classic Jeffersonian view.

  • Finally, you have the Jacksonians. Sometimes their vision of foreign policy is: "You're talking to me?" We've seen this after September 11, that when somebody attacks the United States, Jacksonians know all they need to know: "We've been attacked, and we will do anything to anybody. Osama bin Laden will be found, dead or alive. We will bring them to justice or bring justice to them."

    This is what animated the United States after Pearl Harbor. It is why the sinking of the Maine launched the irresistible movement of public opinion into the Spanish-American War, however dubious the accounts of that attack. In the Cabinet meeting of the Confederacy, when they were trying to decide whether to attack Fort Sumter, Robert Toombs, one of Jefferson Davis' Cabinet secretaries, said, "Don't attack Fort Sumter. It is fatal." He said, "An army of hornets now at rest will swarm out in the millions and sting you to death if you fire the first shot."

    That is only a small part of the Jacksonians view. Jacksonians are populists, not necessarily anti-business, but they have long believed that a central function of the American Government is to transfer wealth from the public coffers to the middle class.

    In the 19th century, the two great examples of this were selling federal land at lower and lower prices, until finally the Homestead Act gave federal land away for free—much to the horror of deficit hawks at the time—and the veterans' bonuses and pensions for the Civil War. In this century, it is the mortgage-interest deduction on housing and Social Security.

These schools are often vituperative in their attacks on one another. Jeffersonians think that the Hamiltonian big business policy, say with WTO and NAFTA, amounts to an evil conspiracy to impose low living standards on American workers. Jacksonians think Jeffersonian concerns are anti-American. The Wilsonian policies of the Clinton Administration, such as humanitarian interventions in Bosnia, in Kosovo—or lack thereof in Rwanda, were enormously unpopular with those who were baying for blood after September 11.

The American political system is rational and predictable, but many people overseas and in American politics underestimate the degree to which there is a method in our madness, and these recurring political struggles continue to inform our policy. After the end of the Cold War, when suddenly it looked as if democracy was triumphant everywhere and free markets could spread, Wilsonians and Hamiltonians had a field day under the first Bush and Clinton administrations talking about expansion of American values abroad, free markets and states. Then September 11 comes, and these aspirations are dropped rapidly, not necessarily by a small policy-making elite, but by the broad public opinion of the country, which follows events and responds according to the inner logic of these schools.

It is not an infallible system. We work ourselves into traps. Vietnam is a spectacular example of a bullet with our name on it, a set of circumstances that led American public opinion into a cul-de-sac. In general, fighting limited wars is tough for the United States because the real popular support for the war comes from the Jacksonians, who say, "Why should American boys have to fight with one hand tied behind their back? What are you talking about? This is war." And it's a very old American instinct, rooted in the Indian wars, that when you make war, you attack the will of the civilians of the other side to fight the war.

Sherman did it to Georgia. It's not something we only do on foreigners. Civilian targets are a legitimate part of war and all force can and should be deployed to achieve your objectives. And the political necessities of coalition politics, or geopolitical realities—"You can't bomb the Soviet ships in Haiphong Harbor because the Soviets have nuclear weapons"; or "you can't cross the Yellow River; otherwise the Chinese will come in, and we can't manage it"—often put Presidents in tough spots. The three U.S. presidents who tried to fight limited wars since World War II all lost their presidencies as a result of that decision: Truman, Johnson, and Nixon.

Our system does not guarantee success, and over our history we've had failures, blunders, crimes, but in the end, it seems to work a little bit better than the alternatives. It's like in baseball: You don't have to hit every ball to be successful; if you have a .330 lifetime batting average, you'll be in the Hall of Fame even though you hit only one out of three balls. The United States' foreign policy record is a hall-of-fame record, and we should give ourselves a little bit more credit than we do. We could understand, respect and appreciate our traditions more than we do.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: One thing you didn't touch upon was the style of American foreign policy-making, particularly now this shallow diplomacy. We tend to become very impatient, and we are seeing it now even with the American envoy to the Middle East. After two weeks they are frustrated in not being able to come up with a solution to the Palestinian and Israeli situation. How does that factor into American policy-making?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: As a people, we do like results quickly. But at the same time, you've got to give us credit for some more persistence than some might think. George Kennan set out a containment strategy in 1947?48, which the United States followed until 1989. Through thick and thin, hell and high water, we contained the Soviet Union.

In the same way, the shuttle diplomacy going on right now is frantic, but this really began with Kissinger and Nixon after Yom Kippur, and has continued under Republican and Democratic, conservative and liberal Presidents. The United States has been trying to get the Israelis and the Palestinians closer, inch by inch, and they are closer than they were. Whether we will succeed in this I don't know, but this is a very good example of how a superficial appearance of franticness and indecision actually is the froth on top of a much deeper and very strong current of what is a subtle bipartisan policy.

QUESTION: One factor that you only touched obliquely was the economics, and from my studies as a European, this was very paramount in so-called American foreign policy.

The factor of economics, the business world was a major element in dictating foreign policy in the United States. Take the example in the middle of the 19th century of Cuba and Spain; or the takeover of the Hawaiian Islands, which was manufactured by the Dole Company; or the Ford Motor Company that established factories in Soviet Russia at the height of the paranoia here in the United States.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: That would be a very good Jeffersonian analysis of American foreign policy, which sees in the alliance of big business and government a perversion or distortion of the policy process. I am trying to be impartially friendly to all the schools.

A Hamiltonian would reply, "But on the other hand, it's a good thing for the American people that they live in a prosperous country." The alternatives for, say, Hawaii, were not peaceful development of the Kingdom of Hawaii, but annexation by Britain, and would that have been better for the United States or for them? Or, if not Britain, Germany, which would surely not have been as good.

There are a couple of differences in that American foreign policy was never as imperialistic. Once we had the contiguous forty-eight states, we somewhat lost our appetite for territory. Briefly, in the last third of the 19th century, when it looked as if the old British system would crumble and you would have a global balance of power with everybody grabbing coaling stations and colonies, we thought, "Okay, we'd better have a few." But the United States has never quite managed the complete fusion between the commercial interests of a small party and the subtle foreign policy of the whole government.

QUESTION: Two very quick questions, unfortunately unrelated.

Your first book was Mortal Splendor, which was about weaknesses of the United States. Your second book is The Secret Strengths of American Foreign Policy. What led you to go from weaknesses to strengths? The second question: You have four schools. Which of these four schools are now in the ongoing debate on Iraq in Washington?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Both good questions. The subject of Mortal Splendor is what I saw as a crisis in liberalism—not FDR liberalism, but the broader liberal tradition—and it was written in the early 1980s when that system was in real crisis. It has overcome the crisis and that we are now looking at a renewed and invigorated Anglo-American spirit of liberalism that has found its footing, as has the United States.

I wrote Mortal Splendor at a time when living standards were falling for average families in this country, even in times of economic expansion, and we were just beginning that restructuring from an industrial to a service-sector economy, and the dislocation was getting worse. It has been amazing the way the country has been able to reinvent the economy and will, we hope, continue to do so.

On the question of what will happen over Iraq, I am not a prophet, and what did I say? "Prediction is dangerous, especially about the future." The question is going to be a Jacksonian response—and if people want to call Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz Jacksonians in a way, I won't argue—that power creates respect and allegiance. You act strongly, and even the people that whine and criticize you at the beginning will come along in the end because success wins you friends.

Many of the Administration's most bitter critics, in Europe particularly, have been unwittingly and unwillingly feeding this, because every time the Administration has tried to do something in the war on terror, they've whined and moaned, "It's going to be so difficult," and then it works, and they say, "Go, go, way to go."

The Administration may have a rational conviction now that a successful toppling of Saddam Hussein—we are a lot stronger and Iraq is not as strong as it was ten years ago—followed by an installation of a pro-Western government, might have a lot of people again surprised by yet another example of the special providence for drunks and fools in the United States of America.

But the reality is that there are serious constraints in the international system on what the President can do, and even with our current hawkish mood, the American people would need to see evidence not simply that Saddam Hussein is a bad guy but that he is related to September 11 for Bush to enjoy the full backing for an Iraqi war that he has in Afghanistan.

The same thing is true internationally—can Bush make a serious case to some of our closest friends and allies that this is necessary? I've been reflexively opposed to an invasion of Iraq for some time. The longer I look at it, the less sure I am of what we ought to do: the status quo is unacceptable in that it does not bar Saddam Hussein from continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction, which he is clearly disposed to use under certain circumstances, but it incurs for us just about as much cost and aggravation as a successful policy would. If the status quo is more or less unsustainable long term—and it is also eroding respect for UN sanctions, which is a very bad thing—you can either retreat, drop the sanctions, and let him win, which would be catastrophic, or you try to push him harder in some way.

My guess is that as the Administration makes this point privately to friends and allies around the world, it will win a greater degree of understanding, if not acceptance or full public support, for a bolder policy. But it's hard to say.

QUESTION: Would you comment on how a new trend toward American-dominated internationalism fits into the construct that you've made. And I am thinking of American companies that now have a global perspective, and that I read recently that there is $800 billion in tax-free accounts offshore, so that American wealth is no longer necessarily just a domestic wealth but has a world view.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: This is not new in American history, in that throughout the 19th century, many of the leading American firms were heavily owned by, in particular, British investors, and there was much suspicion that, for example, the House of Morgan, which functioned really unofficially as our central bank until the time the Federal Reserve was set up, was working hand-in-glove with the British, as in fact they were. A number of U.S. states passed laws against British investors buying too much property.

You do find today again a growing populist suspicion of whether big business is truly patriotic. If you hear the CEO of a Fortune 500 company say, "We're an international company that happens to be headquartered in the United States," then Jacksonians, for one, ask, "So why is it legal for you to make campaign contributions for American political races if you don't think that you are a citizen of the United States whose destiny is indissolubly linked with the American people's?"

John McCain, one of the embodiments of Jacksonian thinking among major political figures of our day, has made campaign finance reform, traditionally a left-wing concern, an important issue. Populist American opinion is beginning to wonder just how loyal is big business, and this is a question which business needs to approach very carefully.

QUESTION: Could we not add domestic policy as a fifth element? Without turning your argument on its head, could one almost not say that all or most of American foreign policy is really a continuation of domestic policy?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I would argue that our domestic system is a bit more complicated. I would say, though, that the visions of the international interests of the United States that these four schools fight for are very closely related to their domestic political values and goals. This often leads people to underestimate the role foreign policy plays. For example, nothing would have been more common in the late 1990s than to hear people say, 'Americans aren't interested in foreign policy', at the very moment that tens of thousands of people are demonstrating in the streets of Seattle against the WTO. The election of 2000 was decided by foreign policy issues in that it was WTO and NAFTA that both persuaded Nader to run on the Green Party ticket and created the public support that he had.

And then the other reason was the little boy named Elian Gonzalez who is living in Cuba, and 60,000 Cuban-Americans who voted for Clinton in 1996 voted for Bush in 2000. That's 150,000 votes in Florida. That's a lot more than all the little old ladies voting for Pat Buchanan in Palm Beach County could do.

All the models that political scientists had for the election based entirely on the state of the domestic economy showed Gore winning strongly. I would argue that public disquiet with the sense of the Clinton Administration's involvements in Bosnia and Kosovo and talking about how it had been a mistake not to get involved in Rwanda were disquieting, particularly the war in Kosovo, where, if Milosevic had not folded right when he did, we would have faced the tough issue of ground troops. That was a place where we dodged a bullet as a country. Some people thought that Bush and Powell would be the safer bet, less likely to send American troops to some harebrained scheme to protect democracy somewhere that you've never heard of before. It's not what foreign policy should be about.

Foreign policy played a much larger role in the 2000 campaign than people generally believed.

QUESTION: Thank you. My question is about international law and multilateral treaties. The Wilsonian school obviously sees advantages in them, but would the others also use them?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Wilsonians would believe that since our long-term national interest is the creation of an international system of law, binding law and democracies, Wilsonians would uniquely in the American system, say, "Even if a treaty is inconvenient, even if the UN won't let you do everything you want to do, you should still work within it because your long-term strategic interest is the growth of the multilateral system."

Hamiltonians are going to say, "It's very pragmatic. There are many things in this world that you don't want to do but you would like to have done, and who better to send peacekeepers to 'Bwanastan' than the United Nations? Terrific idea, and you just write a very small check, and it works out very well. But you do it on a case-by-case basis, and you're pursuing your national interests somewhat impartially through multilateral or unilateral issues."

Jacksonians would say that there is a value to unilateralism in that you need the freedom of action. Although they are the most populist school, many Jacksonian ideas coincide rather closely with some of the dictates of "realism" in foreign-policy thinking, which many political scientists would tell you is the most sophisticated approach.

The Jeffersonian view is a little bit more nuanced. They in that Jeffersonians do not like the idea of unelected bureaucrats, some from communist or dictatorial countries, meeting in secret with corporate representatives to overturn or penalize laws that democratically elected legislatures have passed in the United States.

Jeffersonians don't want to see centralization of power within the United States. They would like to see states and local communities having more power, and then when you start delegating power even further, they get even more suspicious. On the other hand, they are more enthusiastic about disarmament and other policies that tend to reduce the likelihood of war.

The American system does not yield one overall, coherent approach to multilateral institutions.

QUESTION: In the 20th century, with some periodicity, people read our tea leaves wrong four times—the Kaiser, indirectly; Japan/Hitler; Stalin; and Osama bin Laden—with very expensive consequences, particularly to them. Would you comment?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: People do not understand the Jacksonian school and its enormous impact on American foreign policy: when the Jacksonians don't want to do it, we don't do much. Clinton's policy was always constrained, because the military, who are often Jacksonian and Jeffersonian, didn't want to back him up with force.

We look at American politics at a time when Jacksonian security interests are not challenged, and we see a feckless faddism? Kellogg-Briand pacts being signed right and left, and we think that these people have no will, all they ever do is shop.

It is very important for foreigners, who must cope with this bizarre hyperpower with all of its eccentricities, to get an understanding of, for example, when does the American foreign policy process have energy, so that a President can do just about anything? His action doesn't have as much to do with the objective limits on American economic or military strength as on the political tea leaves at home, which give a President authority in foreign policy.

So you're absolutely right. People have misread us frequently, with tragic consequences, for us and for them.

QUESTION: One of the peculiarities of American foreign policy that you discuss is institutional. The Founding Fathers put a Commerce Clause into the Constitution, which meant that certainly for most of that period the United States was unique in not giving the President or the Executive the same degree of control over external economic policy as he had in foreign policy, which made it very difficult for foreigners to deal with the United States.

To what extent is that a factor behind the success that you attribute to U.S. foreign policy, or to what extent was it a weakness? Do you think the outcome would have been different if the Constitution had not weakened the President's hand in that fashion?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: The Constitution would not have been ratified if it had not weakened his hand, so in that sense it was a necessary compromise and to some degree remains one. But the real reason foreigners don't like dealing with a President who doesn't have fast-track authority on trade is because it means we get two chances to negotiate the deal. In other words, our constitutional process, where this hand negotiates and this hand ratifies and amends, has frequently resulted in better results for us than we would have had.

A great example are the two Hay-Pauncefote Treaties. This was a longstanding problem in U.S.-British relations of the isthmian, the canal in Panama. So Hay and Pauncefotoe negotiated a treaty, and the Senate said, "No, it's not good enough, too nice to Britain," so that they had to go back and negotiate again. And Britain, having one eye on Germany and another on Russia, would have signed almost anything at that point. There have been many cases like this, where presidents were able to say, " I would love to do that, but I can never get it through the Congress, dammit."

In that sense it has strengthened us, and, in general, much of my book is an argument that our divided system of government, where people who have key authority over national issues affecting the whole nation are electorally only responsible to local constituencies, means that the full range of the national interest is reflected by our foreign policy mechanism, and therefore, over time, we are steering better than we would otherwise.

QUESTION: Ann Charters. What about the foot soldiers of the State Department? Do they accurately mirror what the President and Congress would like, or do they have their own influence? Are they of one particular school or another?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: The State Department is a big place with many different people who certainly don't accurately reflect the President and Congress, because no one could do that, since the President and Congress are so diverse in themselves.

In general, most of our institutions have institutional cultures and mandates. The State Department tends to be Wilsonian, tends to like treaties, and would love to turn all of international relations into discussions between state departments and foreign ministries.

The USTR, the Trade Representative, is Hamiltonian and really committed. In the State Department you would hear people saying, "We shouldn't necessarily give China full access to our markets unconditionally; we ought to look and see what else we can get for this." And it's the USTR saying, "Go, go, go, WTO for China."

Our bureaucracies tend to reflect different schools, although I would say that within each bureaucracy you will also have divergences. But this four-school model will work fairly well for most of these issues.

You may also like

ChatGPT homepage on a computer screen

MAY 15, 2024 Article

Forecasting Scenarios from the Use of AI in Diplomacy

Read through six scenarios and expert commentaries that explore potential impacts of AI on diplomacy.

MAY 15, 2024 Podcast

Beneficial AI: Moving Beyond Risks, with Raja Chatila

In this episode of the "AIEI" podcast, Senior Fellow Anja Kaspersen engages with Sorbonne University's Raja Chatila, exploring the integration of robotics, AI, and ethics.

MAY 14, 2024 Article

A Conversation with Carnegie Ethics Fellow Bojan Francuz

This new interview series profiles members of the inaugural Carnegie Ethics Fellows cohort. This discussion features Bojan Francuz, a peace and urbanism expert.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation