December 17, 2017

Book Review: “Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World” by Walter Russell Mead

Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World by Walter Russell Mead. New York: Random House. 374 pages.

American foreign policy has historically developed in an exceptional way, that has profoundly impacted the world. Special Providence explores and explains the philosophical schools of thought that have shaped American exceptionalism as exemplified in its foreign affairs. The author, Walter Russel Mead opens with the statement that “this is a book about how and why American foreign policy works.” His book, published 15 years ago in 2002, however has become a classic among scholars of international relations as it provides a basic yet comprehensive analytical framework, for understanding how and why America acts abroad the way it does. In 2017, the underlying message of Special Providence has been especially relevant to the present-day, as U.S. foreign policy under President Trump unfolds in bold, new unpredictable ways.

Professor Walter Russell Mead is a distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute who served as the former Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mead wrote his book right around 9/11 and the start of the War on Terror under President Bush though his historical insights remained relevant under President Obama.

After two terms of both Republican and Democratic administrations, Mead most recently made his work relevant again, with a recent lecture during the Fall of 2017, held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. The event titled “Presidential Role Models: Roosevelt, Truman, and Reagan” focused on historical case studies of foreign policy decision-making but also emphasized the present Presidency, arguing that foreign policy decisions have been made based on one of four broad outlooks toward the world and the current administration exemplifies the populist one foremost.

Special Providence explains the nature of American foreign policy from the prism of distinct philosophical approaches to the world, each named after American statesmen:

  • ‘Hamiltonian’, named after Alexander Hamilton is based on the more realist approach toward promoting enterprise and free trade aboard while protecting global commerce.
  • ‘Jeffersonian’, named after Thomas Jefferson is based on a more libertarian approach toward the protection of democracy at home, while advancing national interests abroad.
  • ‘Jacksonian’, named after Andrew Jackson is based on a more populist approach of acting only in the national interest while maintaining military strength for defensive purposes.
  • ‘Wilsonian’, named after Woodrow Wilson is based on the more idealist approach toward advancing internationalism based on human rights and liberal democracy worldwide.

Professor Mead presents this ambitious book by brilliantly contextualizing the historical development of U.S. foreign policy and explaining how these schools of thought came to be and how they overlap on the political spectrum. He acknowledges that although each approach is indeed different, often times more than one or a combination of a few approaches have influenced foreign policy decision-making. The book begins with a background on the American Foreign Policy tradition where Europe’s diplomacy is contrasted with Britain’s, making the claim that the United States was influenced by the British Empire in developing its own unique contradictory yet proud approach to the world, which has marked its exceptionalism.

Mead finds that U.S. foreign policy history prior to the two World Wars is not studied by statesmen as much as it ought to be:

“American policy-makers ignore the lessons for American history because Americans are one of the least historical-minded peoples in the world…Indeed, one of the most remarkable features about American foreign policy today is the ignorance of and contempt for the national foreign policy tradition on the part of so many thoughtful people here and abroad.”

Special Providence is a historical book dealing with approaches to diplomacy foremost although its dynamic content, provides for a lively and engaging experience for the reader. As Mead explores America’s diplomatic history, prior to becoming a global superpower in the aftermath of World War II, he discovers the philosophical roots of the four approaches that have been influencing foreign policy, as explained throughout the book.  Mead argues that:

“because of our geographic situation and the commercial and enterprising nature of American society, globalization has been at the heart of American strategic thinking and policy for virtually all of our history.”

Therefore, he divides the history of U.S. foreign policy into four eras based on the changing relationship with Great Britain:

1) 1776-1822: American Independence resulted in continued conflict leading to the War of 1812.

2) 1823-1913: Pax Britannica allowed for reconciliation during the “Era of Good Feelings.”

3) 1914-1947: World War I and II cause transfer of hegemonic power from London to Washington.

4) 1948-present: Cold War and subsequent War on Terror solidify UK-US “Special Relationship.”

This new paradigm of understanding the dynamics of our foreign policy is deeply rooted in history, Mead uses that historical analysis as a means for informing our perceptions about the present and future, therefore the better we understand these approaches, the better we will be able to deal with our reactions to past and future foreign policy problems.

U.S. foreign policy has always been intrinsically complex at its core, it has never been followed a set path but has been made as a rather diverse coalition of paths, that sometimes contradict. That is Mead’s core argument, although he stresses in categorizing the four schools that most Americans combine different elements of each in their make-up, he also adds that lobbyists on behalf of foreign interests also play a significant role especially in contemporary foreign policy-making and that this cannot be simply explained through his theoretical framework. Furthermore, he defends his work, by stating that:

“Historians may or may not conclude that the four-schools approach can be sustained by the historical record; political scientists may or may not find that it can be reconciled with an intellectually coherent theory of domestic or international politics. But whatever its drawbacks, this approach to American foreign does at least explain why a democratic republic with a notoriously erratic and undisciplined foreign policy process has nevertheless found its way, through many generations and in many varieties of circumstance, to foreign policies that have consistently advanced the country toward greater power and wealth than any other power in the history of the world.”

Special Providence is a highly recommended read for anyone interested in American foreign affairs and/or history in general, as it is very stimulating and enriching on multiple intellectual levels. For Christians, this book esoterically explains why America’s unique exceptional history in contrast to the rest of the world, can be viewed to be blessed and favored even by others. This is most evident in the title of Mead’s book which was inspired by a famous quote attributed to the militant German statesman, Otto von Bismarck, who in referring to the uniquely exceptional history of the U.S., is alleged to have said that: “God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America.” Providence, of course, is a word used to refer to God’s work on Earth and is also used as the title of the IRD’s Providence Journal, making this book review especially relevant to read.


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