Walter Russell Mead, the distinguished foreign policy analyst and editor of The American Interest, has taken on the subject of the so-called Tea Party – the populist American movement to cut the size of government – and its attitude toward foreign policy, a topic that has been much cause for speculation. A recent op ed in the New York Times summarizes a longer argument made in a piece for Foreign Affairs, but one needn’t have access to the subscription-only Foreign Affairs piece to understand his basic mistake.
Mead’s seminal book, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, gave us a useful prism through which to view the history of American foreign policy: in brief, he divided the various “schools” of thought regarding America’s relation to the world into four categories: Hamiltonians, Wilsonians, Jeffersonians, and Jacksonians.
The first is a calculated elitism that sees US interests primarily in commercial terms: that is, terms most conducive to the interests of the financial and political elites. Hamiltonianism, in short, is little more than crass mercantilism with a thin cosmetic veneer of Anglophilia. The Wilsonians are self-styled “idealists” who believe the mission of the US is to spread democracy and enforce the concept of “self-determination” (the neoconservatives are a good example, although this messianism also exists on the ostensible left). The Jeffersonians, in Mead’s book, are a small archaic minority, who cling to the view of the Founders that we should pursue a policy of entangling alliances with none and trade with all. Think Ron Paul. The Jacksonians – who, in Mead’s view, have determined the course of contemporary American policy – are an inchoate lot, who mix an explosive belligerence with what Mead characterizes as a “populist and popular culture of honor, independence, courage, and military pride.” His exemplars of the Jacksonian spirit span the spectrum, from John McCain to John F. Kennedy.
This last category gives him lots of elbow room to project his own views onto a wide swathe of the American public, and this is the chief weakness of what is otherwise an admirable attempt to analyze the history of US foreign policy in terms specific to the American experience. That weakness comes across loud and clear when he applies his theory to the question of the “tea party” and American foreign policy.
“In foreign policy,” avers Mead, “Jacksonians embrace a set of strongly nationalist ideas. They combine a firm belief in American exceptionalism with deep skepticism about the nation’s ability to create a liberal world order. The Obama administration is trying to steer U.S. foreign policy away from Jacksonian approaches just as a confluence of foreign and domestic developments are creating a Jacksonian moment.”
Mead correctly points out that the two wings of the tea party – which he labels “Palinite” and “Paulite” (after Sarah Palin and Ron Paul) – both oppose “liberal internationalism”: that is, they are suspicious of attempts by modern liberals to create a manageable “world order” and tie the fate of the rest of the world to our own. This is the much-vaunted “American exceptionalism” we hear so much talk about.
So far, so good, but when Mead gets down to specifics he gets it wrong. Because it looks like his “Jacksonian moment” has already passed: a clear majority of Americans want us out of Afghanistan in the next year, and, more broadly, a recent Pew poll concluded that, when it comes to overseas entanglements, most want the US government to “mind its own business.” The militaristic fervor that swept public opinion immediately after 9/11 seems to have run its course. Chastened by the lessons learned in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, the Americans are wary of foreign intervention – and preoccupied with the economic crisis here at home.
Undeterred by such developments, however, Mead plows ever onward, trying to apply his theory to the “Jacksonian” tea party:
“The contest in the Tea Party between what might be called its Palinite and its Paulite wings will likely end in a victory for the Palinites. The Palinite wing of the Tea Party (after Sarah Palin) wants a vigorous, proactive approach to the problem of terrorism in the Middle East, one that rests on a close alliance between the United States and Israel. The Paulite wing (Rand Paul) would rather distance the United States from Israel as part of a general reduction of the United States’ profile in a part of the world from which little good can be expected.
“The Paulites are likely to lose this contest because the commonsense reasoning of the American people now generally takes as axiomatic that security at home cannot be protected without substantial engagement overseas.
“Terrorist attacks and events such as the Iranian effort to build nuclear weapons are likely to keep that sense of international danger alive (recent polls show that up to 64 percent of the U.S. public favors military strikes to end the Iranian nuclear program). Widespread public concern about perceived threats from a rising China will also strengthen public support for a strong military force and global American engagement.”
Theories are fine, but in the foreign policy realm empirical evidence is the clincher. Mead cites some polls which supposedly show support for military action against Iran – but this is assuming Iran really is building nuclear weapons, and not just harnessing nuclear power for energy.
It’s true the Obama administration is trying to steer the country away from a unilateralist (i.e. Jacksonian) approach to world affairs, but the course it is taking is not steering us away from interventionism: quite the contrary. Wars begun by the Bush administration (arguably ultra-Jacksonian in orientation) have been escalated and expanded by Obama, with no more success on the battlefield than his predecessor was able to show.
The same populist disdain for elites Mead cites as emblematic of the Jacksonians kicks in over skepticism of our foreign policy elites, who yesterday assured us Saddam really did have “weapons of mass destruction” – and today solemnly lecture us that, in Afghanistan, we must fulfill our alleged responsibilities as the world’s policeman.
What Mead calls the Jacksonian tendency in American foreign policy thought is not averse to a quick victory, a crushing blow delivered to the enemy followed by an equally speedy withdrawal, but this is nearly always in response to some catalyzing event: the “sinking” of the Maine, Pearl Harbor, 9/11. It is not so much a considered view as an emotional spasm, an episodic condition rather than a school of thought.
Mead defines the Jacksonians as “nationalist,” but nearly all American political tendencies – with the exception of orthodox Marxists, of which there are very few left – are nationalistic in the broad sense: that is, they take pride in and claim to be heirs to the legacy of the American revolution. They see their own views as rooted in our nation’s history, and its logical extension into the present.
Furthermore, there are two possible interpretations of “nationalism,” one an expansionist messianism that seeks to export some version of the “American system” overseas, and the other a more self-contained and introspective nationalism, which is mainly concerned with its own development. The latter sees in “American exceptionalism” the idea that America, unlike the old empires of Europe and Asia, is exceptional in that it does not seek to change the world except by example. It is a magnet, rather than aggressor, an inspirer of libertarian sentiments and not their enforcer.
Mead’s view that the “Palinites” are winning out over anti-interventionists like Ron Paul is based on zero empirical evidence. After all, the two tendencies are just now squaring off, and it’s too early to tell which side will win. There is some anecdotal evidence, however, starting with the political status of Sarah Palin herself. Polls show her coming in way behind the other likely GOP presidential wannabes, and certainly behind Paul, who regularly comes in second – or, in the case of the recent CPAC conference, first.
This conference, a gathering of conservative activists from around the country, registered a sea change in “Jacksonian” sentiment when it comes to foreign policy matters. There were several panels on the perils of interventionism, and the vote for Paul was significant in that it was largely due to the very vocal and visible youth crowd. Young people came out for Paul in very large numbers, and while the neocon mandarins sniffed that this was just a bunch of “college students,” and therefore of no consequence, in reality this youthful chorus sounds the death knell of cold war era Jacksonianism of the sort Mead seems to favor. For the old Jacksonians are passing from the scene, to be replaced by another sort of populist, one skeptical of elites who glory in – and profit from – a foreign policy of constant war. These latter-day “Paulite” Jacksonians see war as the multiplier of government power – a power the tea party seeks to confront and cut down to size.
I would add that the original Jacksonians were galvanized and defined by President Andrew Jackson’s heroic fight against central banking – the core of the “Paulite” ideology. From the idea that “banksters” control our economy and domestic politics it is only a hop, skip, and a jump to the idea that these same financial elites control our interventionist foreign policy from behind the scenes. In this important sense, Paul and his campaign to “End the Fed” are the true heirs and legatees of the Jacksonian tradition in American politics – and Paul’s anti-interventionism is its logical foreign policy corollary.
I would also challenge the centrality Mead gives to US support for Israel in the Jacksonian mindset. This support is primarily a religious phenomenon: it is based on the pre-millennial dispensationalism of a large segment of the “born again” Christian movement. Yet these millennialists are a minority within a minority, and one that is, furthermore, increasingly isolated in American society – just as Israel is itself becoming more isolated in the international community. And while Israel’s lobbyists continually point to polls purporting to show support for the Jewish state, as opposed to sympathy for the Palestinian cause, these same polls, as Daniel Larison points out, also reveal that most Americans don’t want the US government taking sides.
In Special Providence, Mead himself notes that the four “schools” he defines are very broad generalizations, which tend to flow into one another, and that is precisely what is happening with the tea partiers, who combine characteristics associated with both Jacksonians and Jeffersonians. Mead says “the Jacksonians are unlikely to disappear,” but doesn’t see that they may be undergoing a transformation. Given what empirical evidence we have, it looks to me like they are morphing into a tendency combining a populist distrust of elites with a Jeffersonian commitment to militant anti-statism – and a temperamental aversion to overseas meddling.
NOTES IN THE
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