Can Mead's map help US regain its footing in the world?

Former CIA Director David Petraeus, in an address I recently attended on Nantucket as summer waned, twice made respectful reference to Walter Russell Mead -- arguably this generation's most distinguished commentator on American foreign policy.  

 I reflected that, at this time when our nation's current foreign policy is a source of fierce partisan controversy, those seeking balance and perspective, a map for the way forward, might readily find it in the remarkable body of work that Mead has produced over the last thirty years.

Mead brings top credentials to his task.  Educated at and later a Professor of Foreign Policy at Yale University, he was until 2010 the Kissinger Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.  Currently he is a scholar at the Hudson Institute and writes the Global View column for the Wall Street Journal.   

Among many award-winning books, his classic Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World (2001) described the four principal philosophies that have shaped American Foreign Relations throughout our history: Hamiltonian, Wilsonian, Jeffersonian, and Jacksonian.

The Hamiltonians view economic prosperity as essential for America and beneficial for world peace. Since World War II their particular focus has been promoting international trade.                                                                                                               

The moralistic Wilsonians greatly value the promotion of peace and democracy throughout the world. 

The central concern of the Jeffersonians  is the defense of American democracy and civil liberties at home, while allowing American engagement overseas only when U.S. national interests are directly involved.                                               

The Jacksonians like the Jeffersonians are isolationist when compared to the Hamiltonians and Wilsonians, but are more populist in nature than the Jeffersonians.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            In subsequent writings Mead has developed his examination of the lesser known Jacksonians. He sees them as deeply patriotic, highly suspicious of elites. and wholly committed to American Exceptionalism.  Though less interested in foreign affairs Jacksonians support aggressive military action whenever America is under threat.

With the advent of the Trump Presidency interest in both Jackson and Mead soared as illustrated by the title Politico's Susan Glasser gave her interview with Mead- "The Man Who Put Andrew Jackson in Trump's Oval Office" (January 22, 2018).  In that interview Mead asserted, "If you want to understand Trump's otherwise incomprehensible Presidency, you need to understand America's seventh President".            

Though a Democrat who voted for Clinton, Mead has been severely critical of Presidents of both parties.  Describing the recent failure of the Hamiltonian/Wilsonian impulse Mead told Glasser that the "liberal internationalist approach finally flopped with the Presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama".  Making the Middle East "Safe for Democracy" (Bush) and "Leading from Behind"(Obama) left "wreckage" abroad and unhappy voters at home.  

"The gap between the establishment predictions about where the world would go and the reality of where the world is,” he summed up, “has produced the greatest crisis in American foreign policy since the outset of the Cold War."    

A frequent and stern critic of President Trump's foreign policy which "risks forfeiting America's hard-won position of global leadership," Mead nonetheless insists that major changes were overdue and casts a harsh light on the foreign policy establishment of both parties that created the current crisis well prior to 2016 by allowing an incoherent and unsustainable expansion of America's world-wide responsibilities.

In a seminal Wall Street Journal essay-- "What Truman Can Teach Trump" (July 21, 2017)-- Mead at once illuminates the central foreign policy error that aided the ascent of Trump and points the way to the steps that are needed if America is to regain its international equilibrium.

He takes us back to the origins of the Cold War and celebrates the courage and perspicacity of two men -- Democratic President Harry Truman, and Republican Senator Arthur Vandenburg-- whose bold leadership paved the way for the Marshall Plan, the NATO Alliance, and the birth of the "Pax Americana".

What Truman-- FDR's heir-- and Vandenburg—the GOP powerhouse-- both understood was the absolute imperative of balancing foreign policy and domestic politics, without which the support of the American people would be lost.

Unfortunately the post-Cold War foreign policy establishment lost sight of this enduring truth and were consequently shocked when many Jacksonian and other  2016 voters decisively rejected "business as usual".

Who – if anyone – will emerge as the thoughtful leaders today that can learn from past mistakes and recover the common ground and unity that has always been essential to effective American leadership on the world stage? Might Mead's map help them find the way?


William Moloney is the former Education Commissioner of Colorado.   His columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Denver Post and Human Events.