Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Special Providence

Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World
by Walter Russell MeadWRM - Special Providence

I’ve long been a reader of Walter Russell Mead’s (WRM) blog, but without quite realising why. His politics always seemed different to my own, but I liked being provoked and somewhat led along the thoughtlines of this engaging writer.

Thus, I’d been looking forward to reading this book for a while. I consider myself first & foremost a foreign policy scholar and what nation after my own is more interesting to see under the disciplinary microscope than the US. I’d also heard a lecture while I was in the US which used the conceptual framework of this book to organise the discussion. For the rest of my trip I hunted a copy of this book, but like my own white whale, failed to catch it. Instead I had to turn to the ingenuity of American commerce to eventually land a copy at my door.

At the heart of this book is the argument that US foreign policy has four schools: The most well known are the commercially inclined Hamiltonian’s who built the global economic system, and the Wilsonian lawyers/missionaries who gave us its institutional framework. Less understood (and far more scorned when encountered) are the stay-at-home pessimistic Jeffersonian’s (experiencing a mini-revival under the libertarian umbrella) and the god & country strivers of the Jacksonian school. If the first two schools represent the bankers and missionaries of the North East, the latter may be stereotyped as the aristocrats and red necks of the south.

Between them however, they have managed to provide a ballast and ‘realism’ to American foreign policy that has led this nation to a position of authority, legitimacy and significance unrivaled in human history. I use the term realism deliberately because, for all the wisdom of WRM’s main argument, there’s another just-as-clever theme behind the ‘four schools’ organisation of this book.

Much like Fukuyama’s End of History, it’s easy to just track the ‘big idea’ at the center of this book and miss the elegance and deliberateness with which the author has structured their argument. The first 100 pages or so of Special Providence are not mere throat clearing about the four schools but a very important argument: namely that US foreign policy succeeds precisely because it has not tried to follow that most well known and adored icon of foreign policy: The Continental realist.

For at least the last century to be ‘serious’ in international affairs was to be a realist. Despite Machiavelli’s actual record as a failed diplomat scribbling away in his shed, his robes are still the most desired outfit for wanna-be scholars and practitioners. Just learn a few lines like the ‘failure of Versailles’ and ‘Nixon going to China’ and you can befriend almost any IR post-grad in the security field.

Yet WRM delivers a fairly brutal uppercut to this mythology by noting that American foreign policy seems to have succeeded precisely because it didn’t follow Niccolo’s maxims. Most notably, economics & economic links play a substantially larger role than the Florentine would have understood. Likewise Wilsonian idealism seems a too-obvious punching bag which some like my near-name-sake E.H. Carr made their career’s taking well-aimed shots at. Yet, we live in a Wilsonian world. Likewise Jeffersonians and Jacksonians are responsible for the ingenuity and endurance of the American system when more ‘realistic’ advisers would have simply doubled down or given up and fold their cards.

Special Providence was released in mid-2001, yet it holds up remarkably well. Tensions with China and ill-consequences from arming the mujahideen can all be found in here. I suspect, WRM would also still endorse his call for a greater Jeffersonian voice in US foreign policy (the school I would consider myself also closest to). To be fair, I’m one of those who think politics today is only understood by those who have drank deeply from the past. This seems a somewhat rare view among many in our journalist and academic classes, so this book is a siren call to me. But I can honestly say, I’ve not read a book that will better explain the role & challenges of America today than this 13 year old book which spends most of its time talking about the 18 and 19th century.

Highly recommended.