How American Foreign Policy Changed the World

Walter Russell Mead,a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that America has four contrasting foreign policy traditions:

  • a “Hamiltonian” concern with U.S. economic well-being at home and abroad;
  • a “Wilsonian” impulse to promulgate U.S. values throughout the world;
  • a “Jeffersonian” focus on protecting American democracy in a perilous world; and
  • a bellicose, populist “Jacksonian” commitment to preserving U.S. interests and honor in the world.

“Each has its strengths and faults…

“Wilsonians are moral missionaries, making the world safe for democracy by creating international watchdogs like the U.N. Hamiltonians likewise support international engagement, but their goal is to open foreign markets and expand the economy. Populist Jacksonians support a strong military, one that should be used rarely, but then with overwhelming force to bring the enemy to its knees. Jeffersonians, concerned primarily with liberty at home, are suspicious of both big military and large-scale international projects….

If Wilsonians are too idealistic, Jacksonians are too suspicious of the world but each keeps the other in check, assuring no single school will dominate and that a basic consensus among them will be achieved, as was the case during the Cold War.

“As the Cold War ended, however, and the world became more complex, consensus ended. Hamiltonians and Wilsonians saw the opportunity to mold the economy and morality of the world in the U.S. image, but Jeffersonian doubt about foreign action in places like Bosnia, and Jacksonian popular suspicions of organizations like the WTO soon challenged such grandiose plans.”

— Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, 2002.

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