Whither, America?

What is America’s role in the world? As a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” we are definitionally committed to philosophical ideas that claim universality. If those ideas are just and true, they make a claim on how we act in the world, and what we try to achieve through our intercourse with other nations. They paint a picture of a kind of world that did not exist in 1776, but which is, miraculously, a reality across much of the planet in 2022—in no small part because of Americans’ concerted effort to make it so. But America’s effort to champion its ideals is not a story of untroubled triumph. Just as often, the ship of good intentions runs aground on the shoals of stubborn reality. And sometimes the ship, which came flying the colors of humanitarianism, is also armed with the cannon of hubris, ambition, and empire.

The story has been told and retold, but sometimes the chronicle gets an exceptionally good bard. The punctuation mark that the end of the Cold War put in American diplomatic history seemed to call forth the best from the historical profession. A number of works came out from the mid-nineties to the mid-aughts that are among the most cohesive and original retellings of America’s story, among which Walter Russell Mead’s Special Providence (2001) and Walter McDougall’s Promised Land, Crusader State (1997) stand foremost.

America’s Four Foreign Policy Traditions

Walter Russell Mead needs little introduction—which is good, because it is hard to summarize his work and influence. He is one of our least conventional but most insightful public intellectuals. His intellect is omnivorous and wide-ranging; disciplinary boundaries mean nothing to him. His undergraduate degree was in English literature and—I note to his credit—he never bothered to jump through the hoops and accept the methodological straightjackets necessary to get a PhD. His books are steeped in history, literature, philosophy, and theology more than political science or international relations. His 2007 book, God and Gold, is on my list of all-time Great Books. He is hard to categorize ideologically: right-of-center, certainly, neither neoconservative nor nationalist, he is something like a Whig, perhaps, and I mean that with all the ambiguity and fuzziness that word conveys. The first half of his career was relatively unremarkable until, in 2001, at the age of 49, he published Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World—a book that, itself, came close to changing the world, or at least the world of American self-understanding.

Mead offered a new framework for understanding debates about American identity and America’s role in the world. Previously, a tired debate between “realists” and “idealists” or “liberal internationalists” had run its course and had little more to say (see, for example, Henry Kissinger’s 1994’s Diplomacy). In place of the overly-simplified dichotomy, Mead offered a tesseratomy describing four traditions of thought: the Jeffersonian, Hamiltonian, Wilsonian, and Jacksonian. In Mead’s description, Jeffersonians cherish the ideal of the farmer-citizen, the self-reliant individual, and ruggedly free society that allows such individuals to flourish. They distrust international commerce, alliances, and standing armies; they are the ancestors to today’s advocates of “restraint” in foreign policy. The Hamiltonians, by contrast, are the industrialists, entrepreneurs, and capitalists that drive America’s economy outwards, much to the Jeffersonian’s regret. They believe in the power of prosperity as the foundation on which democracy rests easy. Foreign policy is largely a matter of clearing away obstacles to international trade and investment.

The other two schools have gotten the lion’s share of attention. The Wilsonians are America’s idealists, humanitarians, democracy-promoters, neoconservatives, progressive imperialists, and international do-gooders. Motivated by the justice of their cause, they cannot help but believe the benighted world is waiting to be blessed by America’s exceptional mission to spread its example of liberty. Wilsonians have commanded the official rhetoric of American foreign policy since before Wilson himself (he was not the first president to endorse democracy promotion as part of American foreign policy). Therefore, they get a large part of the credit for winning the Cold War and inventing the Marshall Plan—and a large share of the blame for things like Vietnam and Iraq.

Wilsonians, along with the Hamiltonian capitalists, are today’s globalists against which the Jacksonians are the nationalist, MAGA-voting rebellion. President Donald Trump was sometimes inaccurately called an isolationist (and even more inaccurately sometimes said to lack any ideology whatsoever). But Trump is better described as a nationalist and the first Jacksonian to win the White House since, arguably, Andrew Jackson. That explains both his relative uniqueness among modern presidents and the deep chord his movement struck among a plurality of Americans. When Trump arrived, only Mead seems to have had a category for him. While others scrambled to make sense of this unconventional figure, Mead’s book—fifteen years old at that point—seemed more prescient and relevant than most of what has been written since 2015. Jacksonians are the closest America has to a blood-and-soil nationalism or an Old World conservatism. They are fiercely proud to be Americans, yet more attached to the tribe than the creed. They can be active and even belligerent on the world stage, but in service of America’s honor more than her ideals.

Mead’s taxonomy and historical synthesis was, and remains, so commanding and persuasive that it still serves as a de facto shorthand or intellectual map for many observers of the American experiment. One can always find quibbles: Mead acknowledges that the Jeffersonian school is a minority tradition and exercises little influence in American foreign policy (aside from a handful of disproportionately influential academic advocates of restraint)—but at what point, after two centuries, is it time to relegate the Jeffersonians from one of four major traditions to a historical footnote, an also-ran that had a vision of America that America never pursued? Do Wilsonians really deserve all the calumny heaped on them for America’s military misadventures when the reasons for America’s failings are just as attributable to mismanagement and poor implementation as to hubris or misplaced idealism? Mead acknowledges that Jacksonians are less a school of thought than a tribal attitude. Is Mead, then, actually inventing Jacksonianism under the guise of interpreting it, giving it an intellectual coherence and a pedigree and, in the process, making Jacksonianism a stronger and more viable political force than it would have been without his construction of it?

We can hope for a revised edition of Special Providence someday. Mead could update the Jeffersonian school with today’s restrainers, such as Steve Walt, Barry Posen, Christopher Layne, or John Mearsheimer—though, historically, Jeffersonians placed a greater emphasis on domestic policy and safeguarding the purity of the American experiment from international adventurism than today’s restrainers tend to. Mead might also update the story of Wilsonianism with reference to the wars in Iraq and (less so) Afghanistan, wars that started almost immediately after Mead’s book was first published. Revisiting the state of Hamiltonianism in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the rise of China would be illuminating and, of course, revisiting the Jacksonian school after the age of Trump is simply a necessity.

To make the upkeep of the free world order an anchor of American foreign policy is hardly a crusade.

Promised Land and the Crusader State

Walter McDougall has more conventional credentials than Mead—a bachelor’s from Amherst, a master’s and PhD from the University of Chicago, and a Pulitzer Prize to boot (for his 1985 book …The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age). He is also a veteran of the Vietnam War, having served in the US Army in the artillery branch in between degrees. Normally I tend to believe that practical experience is an asset to scholars, but in McDougall’s case I wonder if the opposite may be true.

McDougall’s interpretation of American diplomatic history and America’s role in the world is more straightforwardly chronological and returns to a simpler two-fold distinction in Promised Land, Crusader State. In his telling, and making ample use of Biblical language, America’s role in the world unfolded in two Testaments: an Old Testament, occupying the first century or so of American independence, in which the United States saw itself as a promised land and passive exemplar of liberty for the world to behold and emulate, if it so desired, on its own time and in its own way; and a New Testament, dating from the Spanish War, in which America increasingly became a Crusader State, energetically evangelizing for its gospel of liberty abroad, sometimes through force of arms. McDougall’s Promised Land maps onto Mead’s Jeffersonians and, imperfectly, Jacksonians, while the Crusader State maps fairly well onto Mead’s Hamiltonians and Wilsonians.

McDougall plainly sympathizes with the Promised Land. His criticism of the Crusader State crescendos in his final chapters and especially in his treatment of Vietnam, in which the barrier between historian and partisan begins to break down. McDougall sees little merit in the effort to intervene in other nations’ wars, spread democracy, or establish a liberal international order enforced by American hegemony. McDougall implies that such an effort is vaguely un-American in its supposed novelty and departure from the more traditional (in his view) stance of the Promised Land. America is her best self, McDougall believes, when she is a city on a hill, not a crusader on the battlefield. One suspects that some of McDougall’s analysis is inevitably refracted through his experience in Vietnam. McDougall’s interpretation of Vietnam is within the mainstream, but could be strengthened with a more balanced acknowledgment of recent debates, such as the arguments advanced in Lewis Sorley’s A Better War, Mark Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken, and Gregory Daddis’ Withdrawal.

McDougall amplified his critique of America’s ideological crusading in a later work, The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest (2016). Oddly, McDougall’s thesis in the later work is in tension, at least, with his earlier contention that America enjoyed a century as a Promise Land, passively exemplifying liberty without pretensions to spread its creed abroad. In Tragedy, McDougall rediscovers the truth that Americans have always been motivated by their creed, that the nineteenth century was not a halcyon model of restrained foreign policy. Thomas Jefferson’s rhetoric about the “Empire of Liberty,” the movement westward under the guise of “Manifest Destiny,” and even the emancipating fervor of the Civil War all carried the seed from which the Crusader State would flower. The later McDougall seems to acknowledge that the Crusader State is far more encoded into American DNA, a far more a natural outgrowth, than the earlier McDougall seems to have recognized.

Either way, for McDougall, the evidence of America’s activist intentions on the world stage is a cause to lament, not rejoice. McDougall’s change of course is salutary because Promised Land was never very persuasive. It acts more like a parable or a morality play—not to say a wish-fulfillment fantasy—for those who wish to see the United States adopt a more restrained foreign policy. In Promised Land, McDougall was trying to reconstruct for them a useable past, weaving a myth of how the restrainers’ goals were actually the best of America’s tradition from the beginning, before a fall from grace into crusading, idealistic imperialism.

Whatever truth there is to McDougall’s Promised Land thesis was an adaption to the times—in two senses. It was an adaptation by the early republic to the world in which it found itself. The United States of the 1790s and 1820s was simply incapable of spreading democracy, overawed at the time by the British and French superpowers and concerned with more immediate challenges closer to home, such as facing down the Whiskey Rebellion, maneuvering around Native Americans, and negotiating a precarious union between slave and free states. Pragmatism abroad was a necessity, but as American power grew, so too did the realm in which its idealism could roam. But in another sense, McDougall’s thesis was an adaptation to the post-Cold War debate about America’s role in the world. McDougall was giving historical foundation for those who wished to see the United States pull back after its Cold War victory.

Mead’s Special Providence, of course, reminds us that the Hamiltonian and Wilsonian tendencies have always been a part of American DNA. America has rarely been truly isolationist and has always carried a strain of idealism and world-changing ambition about it. Other historians have followed this line of inquiry. Tony Smith in America’s Mission (1994) and Robert Kagan in Dangerous Nation (2006) anticipated McDougall’s later work, though with a more positive appraisal. They, like the later McDougall, saw the outlines of America’s outward posture from its earliest days. For them, however, the story was not only one of betrayal, hypocrisy, or hubris. It was also a story of principle, idealism, and, occasionally, success.

The Historian’s Role

To treat the past as a template for today’s debates is to misunderstand the purpose of history. Historians’ efforts—or, more often, the efforts of their pundit readers—to mine the past for useful talking points in today’s historical debates is an abuse of the historical profession. The purpose of history is to help us understand where we came from, to shed some light, however flickering, on the pathway behind us—not so that we feel bound to follow along in a straight line ahead, but to make a more informed decision about where to go next. There is an important debate to be had about America’s role in the world, but in that discussion, the historical debate is secondary to the strategic one. Maybe America was the fabled Promised Land of restraint in the past—but so what? Time and circumstances change, and what was appropriate for an 18th-century fledging collection of colonies is not a good guide for a 21st-century superpower.

The case for a more engaged American foreign policy—and another weakness in McDougall’s work is the obviously biased framing implicit in the term “Crusader State”—does not hinge on what the founders did or did not say or think about global democracy in their day. It rests on the accumulated evidence that global democracy and the free world order act as an outer perimeter of American security, an engine of American prosperity, and an extension of American influence. Democracies do not fight each other but they also see the world in similar terms. As democracy spreads, so too does a zone of peace and stability that the United States can look to as its natural community of affiliation, a network of relationships that are more stable, deep, and trustworthy. The community of free nations trades together, innovates together, respects similar norms, resolves disputes among each other peacefully and, when necessary, defends one another.

To recognize this, and to make the upkeep of the free world order an anchor of American foreign policy, is hardly a crusade. It is to understand that the Promised Land was never supposed to be limited to America’s shores, that the Promise extends to all people, and that its extension can only redound to Americans’ benefit. Wilsonians, Hamiltonians, and even many Jacksonians would agree. Recognizing the tie between liberty and security, between American power and liberal order, has been the prevailing view of America’s role in the world from the beginning—and with good reason.