Friday, December 07, 2007

Gift Idea: For those who want to read one book on American foreign policy

Walter Russell Mead's Special Providence provides the cleanest, most comprehensive model that I have seen for understanding the sources of American policy. Many other accounts focus on the specific visions of presidents or the changes wrought by the end of World War 2. Mead argues that four traditions started early in the Republic and continue to drive foreign policy, albeit in differing combinations.

The first tradition, Hamiltonian, emphasizes policies that promote economic growth. The second, Jacksonian, is the populist and nationalist strand that makes the US an unpleasant enemy. The third Wilsonian is the strand that seeks to improve the world, sometimes through treaty and sometimes through force. The last, and often weakest is the Jeffersonian which seeks to make the country a model for others, but is largely disengaged. So for example, the Bush administration is strongly Wilsonian and Jacksonian, while the Clinton administration was strongly Hamiltonian with a less aggressive Wilsonian strand.

While there is an element of abstract analysis involved, the book is readable and fair. Mead is an engaging stylist, injecting humor and telling observations in his story-telling. He is center-right in orientation, so left-oriented people may disagree with some of his eventual prescriptions, but even those who disagree will find his way of looking at foreign policy to be helpful in understanding the cultural constraints and incentives in which American foreign policy is created.

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