Strength through squabbling

A history of American foreign policy through four competing factions

If you've suddenly become interested in US foreign policy - say by the cataclysm of Sept. 11 - and wanted to do some serious reading to understand the US in its historical relationship with the wider world, there's no better place to start than this book by Walter Russell Mead.

"Special Providence" is not only a treasure trove of information put together in an engaging writing style. The book takes a unique look at the formation of policy. Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, believes that throughout most of our history at least four identifiable factions have been at work, each having some voice in the formation of policy. He names these factions after four major politicians, although the descriptions don't fit every one of their actions:

• The Hamiltonians, who from the beginning wanted to use foreign policy to aid in making the nation a viable and then strong international economic power.

• The Wilsonians, including many who came before Wilson, who also had an international outlook, but one that was attuned to spreading American democratic ideals and building international institutions to support them.

• The Jeffersonians, who also believed in democratic ideals, but believed it was enough to support them at home. In fact, the Jeffersonians feared that trying to engage the rest of the world, even for benevolent purposes, would involve the raising of large armies, burdensome taxation to support the armies, and the possible loss of liberties at home.

• The Jacksonians, the most ignored group and yet probably the largest in the nation. Jacksonian democracy was the nation's first populist movement, and the Jacksonians did not fear the use of government power to help the average American prosper. But their interests were more local. The heirs of the Scots-Irish of the hills of western Virginia, they eventually came to include much of heartland America and, today, encompass much of the working middle class. They had and have a high sense of individual responsibility, of independence, loyalty, and honor. It is when this sense of honor is trespassed upon that they are quick to bear arms.

While to the Jeffersonians, the First Amendment right of free speech was the most precious freedom, Mead claims that the Jacksonians emphasize the Second Amendment right to bear arms. And it is in time of war, such as we are now in, that Jacksonians demand total victory.

The disagreements among these factions, carried out in battle between the executive and the two branches of Congress, as well as among various private interest groups, may lead foreigners to think we have no coherent foreign policy. Bismarck's statement that "God has a special providence for fools, drunks and the United States of America" was only one example of European ignorance of the US foreign policy process at work. Yet, says Mead, what nation has been more successful in the past 200 years?

He may have downplayed the unique opportunity that came to this nation during its first century, when it was shielded from at least some foreign concerns by the dominance of Britain in the rest of the world. But the point he wants to drive home is that our internal squabbling, which was simply democracy at work, was actually a strength. It resulted in a policy that - most of the time, at least - satisfied most of the nation's needs.

He quotes Massachusettes Congressman Fisher Ames, who in 1795 said, "A monarchy is a merchantman which sails well, but will sometimes strike on a rock, and go to the bottom; a republic is a raft which will never sink, but then your feet are always in the water."

Writing before Sept. 11, Mead expressed concern that no new consensus on foreign policy had evolved since the end of the cold war. The challenges before us now give urgency for arriving at a consensus fitting for this new era. His book provides a remarkably clear guide to how the country responded in the past.

Richard A. Nenneman is a former editor-in-chief of the Monitor.

Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World

By Walter Russell Mead

Alfred A. Knopf 374 pp., $30

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