Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
 
American foreign policy: heavy, not light
by Colin


American politics has been really weird lately. If you dropped from the sky into DC this week and took your political bearings, you'd conclude that Democrats are a bunch of protectionist xenophobes, Republicans value foreign liberty above domestic security, and the vast majority of the public can't stand the guy in the Oval Office. What the heck is going on, and how did it get so confused?

Much of the problem in parsing politics lately is the tired old bipolar model of party positions. Democrats are liberals, who believe in, well, liberal stuff like government programs and helping the poor and being internationalists. Republicans are conservatives, who like traditional values and business and distrust other countries. Or at least that's what the bipolar model has gotten warped into lately -- if you had thought about it during the Clinton era the liberals would be pro-business and for smaller welfare programs, while during Bush I the conservatives would be internationalists but not that into traditional values. This is all gibberish, because the two-party model of liberal and conservative simply doesn't have enough axes to describe the main poles of American political thought.

Peter Beinart at TNR writes this week about a book that sounds like a good way to start revising this bipolar theory. It's Special Providence by Walter Russell Mead. Mead lays out a theory of American foreign policy positions that has four poles, mutually distinct but in sum covering the whole spectrum of positions.

First, we have the Wilsonian tradition, in which the goal of US foreign policy should be to make the world a safer place for liberty and thus a safer place for America. This is the internationalist position, the intellectual core of things like the United Nations and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Pole two is that of the Hamiltonians, who think foreign policy should focus on trade and commerce throughout the world, arguing that from trade comes security and liberty. From this point of view come the World Trade Organization and NAFTA, and that old saw about no two countries with McDonald's ever going to war. The third pole is the Jeffersonian, which fears that foreign entanglements ultimately threaten American safety and happiness, which is essentially the isolationist position ascendant until after WWII and (remember this?) was GWB's position before 9/11. And finally there's the Jacksonian pole, which believes that America should flex her muscles and aggressively confront those who threaten her safety and liberty, which is clearly the essence of modern neocon thinking.

This kind of quadripolar worldview makes a lot of the ports brouhaha much more intelligible. Most recent administrations have essentially been alliances of two of these positions: Clinton was the Wilsonian and Hamiltonian; Bush I was Hamiltonian with touches of Wilson and Jackon; and Bush II is Hamiltonian and Jacksonian (again, he abandoned his Jeffersonian leanings when the Twin Towers fell). As the two parties tangle and redefine their positions these alliances can shift, and rifts within the parties expose the fault lines between the positions. In the Dubai issue Bush is showing himself more Hamiltonian than Jacksonian, a preference he has not had to emphasize before now because his administration was able to pursue the goals of both traditions with the same, or at least compatible, policies.

And now for a brief analogy. While I'm sure I don't have to remind Saheli of this, some readers of this blog may be slightly slow to recall that electromagnetic radiation (like light and radio waves) is dipolar, oscillating in only one direction. Gravity waves, on the other hand, are quadripolar -- they oscillate like the tides, contracting in one direction while expanding in the other. Clearly, Mead's paradigm is for us to conceive of American foreign policy as more akin to gravitational than electromagnetic radiation, as administrations oscillate between not two but four distinct philosophical and policy poles. You can't describe gravity waves with a dipolar theory, just like American foreign policy really doesn't make sense unless you think of it with more than two positions.

And let that be a lesson to you about just how useful physics is when it comes to foreign policy.
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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