Four Traditions Inform American Foreign Policy

American foreign policy is successfully shaped by the competition of four schools for influence.

George Washington resigns his commission as commander-in-chief to Congress, meeting at the Maryland State House in Annapolis, December 23, 1783
George Washington resigns his commission as commander-in-chief to Congress, meeting at the Maryland State House in Annapolis, December 23, 1783 (John Trumbull)

America has been ambivalent about its relations with the rest of the world since the birth of the republic. Its first president, George Washington, famously cautioned against foreign entanglements in his 1796 farewell speech. “Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?” he wondered.

The isolationist instinct was a core tenet of “Jeffersonian democracy,” named after the author of the American Declaration of Independence and the nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson. It idealizes the yeoman farmer, free from corrupting city influences, as the defender of the republic and closely guards states’ rights. These republican values resonated especially in the semifeudal manorial society the Southern English Cavaliers had built in the greater Tidewater region.

The Jeffersonians feel something of a Puritan instinct to promote democracy abroad but not at the expense of limited government and low taxes at home. Today, it finds expression in the noninterventionism of the libertarian and Tea Party movements.

It has also inspired the pacifist left although their reluctance for adventurism abroad has less to do with preserving small government at home than an aversion to the use of force altogether. Since George McGovern’s disastrous 1972 presidential election defeat against Richard Nixon on a promise to end the Vietnam War, liberal internationalists, inspired by President Woodrow Wilson’s advocacy of institutions to foster world peace, have been the more dominant foreign policymakers in the Democratic Party.

Liberal internationalists curiously find themselves in the company of the faction they disagree most profoundly with at home: neoconservatives. Both promote a missionary foreign policy but there is a difference. Walter Russell Mead, who identified the four schools of American foreign policy in Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World (2001), argued that right-wing “Wilsonians” believe America has fully lived up to the aspirations of its founders.

We do not need to reform ourselves at home; we can and should attempt to spread the values and practices of American society as they currently exist through the world.

Left-wing or radical Wilsonians disagree and believe Americans must simultaneously act to reform themselves and the rest of the world.

New England or “Yankeedom” Democrats, steeped in a tradition of “perfecting earthly society through social engineering, individual self-denial for the common good and the aggressive assimilation of outsiders,” as Colin Woodard put it in American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (2011), are most likely to interpret an activist foreign policy as benevolent, even altruistic. East Coast Republicans, whatever their thoughts on improving the world, are less ashamed about pursuing the national self-interest.

That makes them natural allies of what Mead called the “Hamiltonians,” a tradition named after Washington’s first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton. Unlike Jefferson, Hamilton advocated a strong central government and a standing army to pursue a foreign policy in pursuit of commercial interests.

Hamiltonians have historically attempted to ensure that the United States government supported the rights of American merchants and investors and have been quick to understand the importance of the British world order for American interests. Hamiltonians have generally supported cooperation with Britain and, when the British Empire fell, were among the earliest and strongest backers of the idea that the United States should take up the British burden.

Despite their different priorities, Hamiltonians and Wilsonians often end up agreeing about what to do in the world. Both seek a rules-based international order, including freedom of the seas and a free flow of money across borders. Hamiltonians see the upsides for business; Wilsonians seeks world peace. The latter see a moral imperative for spreading democracy; the former recognize that democracies usually make the best allies and trading partners.

Hamiltonians may snicker when Wilsonians talk about war to make the world safe for democracy — and Wilsonians groan at the thought of Hamiltonians wanting to make the world safe for plutocracy — but in practice the targets of Wilsonian and Hamiltonian wrath are often the same.

The rhetoric of Hamiltonians and Wilsonians is often similar too and designed to appeal to middle America.

“The young giant of the West stands on a continent and clasps the crest of an ocean in either hand,” declared future president Theodore Roosevelt in 1897 before he marched into the Spanish–American War which spread the “empire of liberty” across the Pacific Ocean. More than sixty years later, John F. Kennedy declared in his inaugural address that the United States would “pay any price” and “bear any burden” to “assure the survival and the success of liberty” — across the globe.

Mead identified a fourth, populist streak in American political culture as well as foreign policy which he named after President Andrew Jackson. It shares the Jeffersonian mistrust of big government and city elites but didn’t emerge from Tidewater’s gentry, rather the warrior ethic of Greater Appalachia and the ruggedness of the Far West. Both are passionately attached to the constitution, he argued, but whereas the Jeffersonians revere the First Amendment and the freedoms of religion and speech, “Jacksonians see the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, as the citadel of liberty.”

Like the Hamiltonians, Jacksonians favored geographical expansion, justifying it in terms of “Manifest Destiny” and later anticommunism. They are as wary of Wilsonian schemes to improve the world as they are of the same Yankees’ moral crusades at home but — other than defending the homeland — do not always have a coherent sense of what foreign policy should be for. Their warrior ethic, however, makes them powerful allies for the other three schools, especially in times of crisis.

Mead argued that although the interest groups, regions and, to some degree, the economic interests that the four school reflect have remained more or less constant through the generations, their policy proposals and priorities have shifted over time.

In the early twentieth century, the decline of the British Empire severely tested the convictions of all four schools. Yet within a generation they had each adjusted. The Hamiltonians recognized that American enterprise would benefit more from free trade than protectionism. The Wilsonians linked their vision of a universal moral order to the concrete needs of American hegemony. World War I did not convince the Jacksonians and Jeffersonians that the United States needed to permanently displace Britain as the guarantor of a liberal, maritime world order. World War II and the specter of international communism did.

At the same time, the old Anglocentric East Coast establishment that had been most in tune with Anglo-American traditions gradually lost power as the Cold War got underway. Strategists from immigrant backgrounds rose to prominence and introduced a distinctly un-American realism into foreign policy.

President Gerald Ford speaks with his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, at the White House in Washington DC, August 16, 1974
President Gerald Ford speaks with his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, at the White House in Washington DC, August 16, 1974 (Thomas J. O’Halloran)

This influence reached its zenith in the 1970s when the German-born Henry Kissinger was America’s top diplomat. Institutions that channeled the views of the various foreign policy traditions were sidelined. Policymaking was concentrated in an “imperial presidency.” Economic issues scarcely mattered. The collapse of the Bretton Woods monetary system, which had underpinned America’s economic leadership in the Western world, was almost completely ignored before it was mishandled while deals were made with Red China and right-wing dictators in Asia and Latin America. Hamiltonians, Jacksonians, Jeffersonians and Wilsonians were all equally appalled.

Under the liberal Democrat Jimmy Carter, the pendulum swung too far the other way. Instead of a morals-free foreign policy, America’s promotion of human rights jeopardized its economic and security interests, alarming everyone but the Wilsonians.

Carter’s Republican successor, Ronald Reagan, did better at restoring balance. Foreign policy thinkers may have dismissed his “peace through strength” rhetoric as simplistic but it was especially popular with Jacksonians and Jeffersonians. The revival of America as an economic superpower satisfied the Hamiltonians. Right-wing Wilsonians respected Reagan’s determination to defeat the Soviet Union.

Given its popularity, Reagan’s successors generally continued his policy of finding a balance between promoting American business and human rights without involving the United States in costly wars. That is, until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq divided the four schools once again.

Yet the competition of the four schools for influence has not — in itself — weakened America internationally, according to Mead. Rather it is the interaction between these four traditions that gives the country a more successful foreign policy than any one vision could on its own.

Alternating among four different approaches, each capable of combining with and complementing the others, American foreign policy benefits from both flexibility in the short term and, in the long run, strong continuities of purpose.

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