The Four Schoolmasters

The Four Schoolmasters

Mini Teaser: Walter Russell Mead's new book deploys the ideas and heirs of Hamilton, Wilson, Jefferson and Jackson to illuminate the future of U.S. foreign policy.

by Author(s): H. W. Brands

Yet most of Mead's provocations are more positive. In calling Wilsonians the Trotskyites of the American Revolution and the Jeffersonians the Stalinists, he makes a point that readers will not soon forget (unless they never knew why Trotsky wound up with an ice pick in his skull. For those who do not grasp the doctrinal wars of the 1930s, Mead provides crib notes--but they will still miss the meaning of the analogy). When he says that Jeffersonians and Jacksonians are both attached to the Bill of Rights, but the former give highest priority to the First Amendment while the latter prefer the Second (or alternatively, that Jeffersonians join the ACLU while Jacksonians join the NRA), he is being glib but not simplistic. When he dubs the United States the "Britain of Britain", in that what Britain was to continental Europe the United States was to Britain, his logic requires some thought but finally makes sense. When he considers the disadvantages democracies labor under in conducting diplomacy, and says, "A dem ocracy can, so to speak, easily have too many drinks and then pay a sordid call on a prostitute; it is much harder for a democracy to maintain a cultivated mistress in a fashionable apartment", he nicely captures the distinction between the adolescent immorality to which democracies often resort and the far more studied amorality of autocracies.

Mead is also persuasive in accounting for the striking contrast between the historic success of American foreign policy and the failure of foreigners--and many Americans--to recognize that success. By any measure, American foreign policy has been the most successful of any great power in history. Two centuries ago the United States hardly rated consideration in world affairs; now it bestrides the globe like no country before it. To skeptics who point out that American power has resulted from America's favored domestic position, especially its control of a large part of a very blessed continent, the obvious rebuttal is that such control came about through the effective conduct of an active and often bellicose foreign policy.

So why have observers failed to give American diplomats due credit? Britain's Bryce was not alone among foreigners in his dismissal; Germany's Bismarck sneered that God has a "special providence" for fools, drunks and the United States of America. (In borrowing Bismarck's jibe for his title, Mead employs it against the Iron Chancellor.) The Europeans failed to appreciate American diplomacy, Mead argues, because it did not conform to the European model of "continental realism'', the pragmatic, security-preoccupied diplomacy of Talleyrand and Metternich (and Henry Kissinger, who is the object of numerous oblique, and sometimes direct, stabs by Mead). American diplomacy has not been unpragmatic, Mead argues, but its pragmatism has been infused with a larger dose of ideology, and especially of economics, than the Europeans were used to. Continental diplomats (and English aristocrats like Bryce) disdained economics; and if Britain was a nation of shopkeepers, America was a whole continent of them.

Americans did not disdain economics, but neither did they generally recognize it as part of foreign policy. The single most consistent goal of the U.S. government in its dealings with other countries has been the protection and expansion of American trade. Occasionally this has required such obvious and undeniable instruments of traditional statecraft as warships, as during the War of 1812 and World War I. But more often it has proceeded quietly, by commercial treaties, reciprocal trade arrangements, and the operation of such impenetrable (to the popular mind) institutions as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Until the anti-globalization protests of recent years, the activities of the economic diplomats rated little notice or respect--sometimes even from those who hired them. "I don't give a shit about the value of the lira", once shouted Richard Nixon, Kissinger's partner in Metternichian realism.

Moreover, during the half century of the Cold War, economic diplomacy often took a back seat to matters of grand strategy. As nuclear warheads and intercontinental bombers and missiles shrank the oceans, American diplomacy came to resemble the diplomacy of continental Europe. Partly for this reason, but also because of the enormous impact of the two world wars on the psyche of at least three generations of academics (among many others), "realism" dominated discussions of international affairs. The histories and politics of individual countries appeared to play little role in determining their actions on the world stage; all that mattered was the configuration of the international system and the power vectors that resulted from it. The unexpected end of the Cold War cast considerable doubt on the more formulaic expressions of the realist paradigm, which certainly had not predicted any such thing; and during the decade since, economics has returned to the main stage of international affairs. No longer the Rodn ey Dangerfield of diplomacy, it now risks becoming the scapegoat for sins it never committed. The politics of protest aside, the resurgence of economic diplomacy allows authors like Mead to rediscover its importance for an earlier era.

AS BIG-PICTURE history, Mead's book works reasonably well, although it is definitely not for those unfamiliar with the subject. He makes four passes over the ground of American foreign policy, once for each of his schools. The effect, at times, is Rashomonian, with each group perceiving the critical moments of American diplomatic history differently. For Hamiltonians, World War I represented the transfer of economic hegemony from Britain to the United States. For Wilsonians it signaled an opportunity--sadly squandered--to remake the world in America's democratic image. The Jacksonians responded viscerally to the insult of German submarine attacks, while the Jeffersonians worried, rightly, about what the military mindset fostered by the war would do to American civil liberties.

Mead is persuasive in contending that the history of American foreign policy can be understood best in terms of the interaction of his four schools, although it is not obvious why four should be a magic number. A social scientist might see, behind Mead's great-man labels, a pair of orthogonal axes, measuring, respectively, nationalism versus internationalism and conservatism versus liberalism. But social scientists are constrained by what can be printed on the page. (Mead's one graphic is a chart showing the prior foreign policy experience of American presidents, which effectively makes his point that presidents before the Civil War had much better training in diplomacy than the presidents of the 20th century.) Mead presumably could have identified three schools, or five, or six.

He might also have said more about how and why the schools interacted as they did. At times, the schools all pointed policy in the same direction. In December 1941, for instance, everyone wanted war: Jacksonians because American honor had been violated, Jeffersonians because American democracy was in danger, Hamiltonians to protect American economic interests, Wilsonians to redeem the world from militant fascism. For much of the Cold War, the indicators were similarly aligned. But on other occasions--at the end of the Spanish-American War when the Senate had to decide whether to annex the Philippines, in 1968 after the Tet offensive in Vietnam--the schools clashed. Why the winners won is something Mead too often leaves unexplained.

This is particularly important in evaluating the moral of Mead's story. After covering 200 years of American history (800 if one counts the four crossings of the ground he undertakes), Mead unveils his prescription for the 21st century. Frankly, it is rather disappointing. After all the work Mead has done, the reader expects a sophisticated synthesis, something combining the strengths of the author's four schools. Instead Mead offers merely a modernized Jeffersonianism-- and not modified all that much. His hero turns out to be John Quincy Adams, whose most famous statement of policy asserted that while America is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all people, she is "the champion and vindicator only of her own", and that while "she might become the dictatress of the world, she would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit."

Mead is entitled to his opinion, and America could do far worse than to find another John Quincy Adams (for secretary of state, not president). But Mead's recommendation would be more compelling if he had shown that the Jeffersonian view has clearly outshone the others, or that the other schools have led America astray. In any event, Mead's own evidence strongly suggests that all four schools will be always with us--regardless of what pundits and American diplomats might desire--for they reflect profound aspects of the American character.

At one point, in a discussion of the influence of missionaries on American diplomacy, Mead distinguishes between the foreign policy of the American people and the foreign policy of the American government. There will always be a foreign policy of the American people--or rather four policies, by Mead's count. The task of American leaders is to negotiate among these policies, not to try--vainly--to select one above the rest. After all, there are definitely snakes in Ireland, and none of the species is endangered.

H.W. Brands is the author, most recently, of The Strange Death of American Liberalism (Yale University Press).

Essay Types: Book Review