The four categories in Special Providence are intended to be suggestive and evocative and the Jeffersonian category is probably the most complex and even elusive of the four. Special Providence is a book of historical reflection, not an act of political science category-building. I’m not a political scientist and while some political scientists have done some interesting work by adapting these categories in various ways, that’s not a game I’m qualified to play.
I don’t try to work this out systematically in Special Providence, but the book discusses three types or maybe flavors of Jeffersonian. (All of the categories have subgroups, by the way: there have been free-trade and protectionist Hamiltonians, liberal and neo-conservative Wilsonians, traditional and crabgrass Jacksonians. Maybe someday I’ll write a sequel.) There are the libertarian Jeffersonians who tend to be skeptical of America’s contemporary global engagements and objectives on classic small-government grounds. The Cato Institute does work that often reflects this perspective. The conservative opposition to George W. Bush’s foreign policy and some of the ‘paleo-conservatives’ who have attacked the aggressively globalist neoconservatives also often fit this description.
There are also left-Jeffersonians. Lori Wallach, Ralph Nader, Naomi Klein, William Greider and other critics of the globalist establishment from a left-populist perspective base their opposition to central bank cabals and the World Trade Organization on the very Jeffersonian view that powerful elites used these international organizations and agreements to impose a corporation-friendly elite project on the American people at large.
Left and right Jeffersonians argue bitterly among themselves about who most deserves the mantle of Thomas Jefferson; that’s not a question I feel compelled to adjudicate. Thomas Jefferson had a complex mind and his views frequently changed as the situation changed around him through more than half a century of public life. But I think both the left and the right Jeffersonians can legitimately claim a vital connection with at least some of the major themes to which he kept returning.
The third type of Jeffersonian that appears in Special Providence is, I think, the most interesting kind. These ‘high’ Jeffersonians think that many of the left and right Jeffersonians are knee-jerk Jeffersonians. That is, their instincts are good but their policy approach is unsound. The high Jeffersonians aren’t particularly happy that the United States has vital strategic interests that connect it to the rest of the world in complex and sometimes unsatisfactory and dangerous ways. Unlike Hamiltonians and Wilsonians, who tend to see foreign policy as a field of dreams and who look forward eagerly to new projects for economic, legal and democratic order building, high Jeffersonians have serious qualms about the costs and the consequences of these projects. High Jeffersonians seek to create strategic architectures that address the nation’s broad and often global interests at the lowest possible risk and cost.
One example I cite in the book is George Kennan, who developed the concept of containment in the hopes that it would allow the U.S. to pursue its legitimate and necessary interest in defending itself and key global power centers from the Soviet Union after World War II. I also argue that John Quincy Adams (the real author of the Monroe Doctrine) was a high Jeffersonian who figured out a way for the U.S. to advance its core interests by making British world power work for us rather than against us. Special Providence also points to Walter Lippmann and his concept of ’solvency’ in foreign policy as an example of Jeffersonian thinking. Both in the book and in the article I point to Henry Kissinger as another figure who sought to build a strategic architecture that recognized both the sharp limits of American power and the global nature of American interests, though the Kissinger case is a complicated one. In Special Providence I also say that while all the schools have legitimate points to make and play valuable roles in the American political process, this high Jeffersonian approach is my own personal favorite.
I understand the distinction Mead is making. Being something of a knee-jerk right-Jeffersonian, I can’t say that I see the individuals he mentions here as holding a Jeffersonian view of foreign policy. If I had to make an exception, it would have to be Adams, but he served under Monroe in one of the Democratic-Republican administrations that succeeded Jefferson and he served in government at a time when no one, regardless of political background, was advocating the sort of entanglements that Jefferson originally opposed. What I do see in his examples of “high Jeffersonians” is a group of men who had either good instincts or at least a few good ideas, and many of the 20th century figures share the fate of have been effectively disowned at one time or another by internationalists of all stripes (e.g., Kissinger because of detente, Kennan because of his later anti-anticommunism and opposition to Vietnam). This makes them more interesting internationalists, but it seems to me that Mead counts them as “high Jeffersonians” because he happens to find them or some of their ideas more attractive than the alternatives available at the time. It now seems to me that he included Obama among them because he finds at least some elements of Obama’s foreign policy more attractive than the alternatives on offer.
So I was mistaken in my earlier post in insisting that Mead was portraying Obama as a Jeffersonian as a way of trying to undermine him. What threw me off, and what I think must have puzzled Klein and Yglesias, was the invocation of Carter. Mild Carter revisionism has some thoughtful proponents, but Mead wasn’t saying that it is a good thing that Obama might be remembered as another Carter because Carter’s record isn’t understood properly. Mentioning Carter in connection with Obama’s foreign policy is bound to provoke hostile responses. Mead has guessed as much in another post. As it happens, I agree with Mead that Obama’s foreign policy has much in common with the “the Nixon-Kissinger policy of retrenchment.”
As I wrote last month:
Every liberal has to be portrayed as a McGovernite (and a caricature of a McGovernite at that!) to cover up the reality that liberal internationalists have largely occupied the policy and political ground on which Nixon and Republican realists once stood.
So there is merit in comparing the policies of Nixon-Kissinger and Obama. What still puzzles me is why this similarity proves Obama’s inner Jeffersonianism. If I set aside the label for a moment, I tend to agree that Obama has been working in a very few areas ” to reduce America’s conflicts with other states to the necessary minimum in order to avoid antagonizing people and involving the US in more crises and disputes than absolutely necessary,” but where Mead sees this as a way of limiting risk to the U.S. I still see it as the perpetuation of an unnecessary and unnecessarily risky and aggressive posture around the world. Regardless, that description doesn’t fully capture what Obama is doing. If he were intent on reducing conflicts with other states to the “necessary minimum,” I don’t understand why he would make climate change agreements a priority when dealing with India and China, I don’t know why he would insist on thwarting Iran’s nuclear program, and I don’t see why he would continue to support NATO expansion even deeper into the former USSR. Someone who was inclined to avoid antagonizing other nations and keeping us out of disputes that are not our concern would never have raised the idea of mediating the dispute in Kashmir. Granted, the administration backed off quickly when India rejected this idea, but it should never have occurred to him to say this. Instead of taking advantage of the DPJ victory in Japan and finding some way to reduce our military presence in Okinawa voluntarily, the basing dispute has become a source of significant tension between the two governments. Indeed, other than scrapping the missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, it is hard to find examples of Obama actually trying to eliminate unnecessary conflicts with other states. The phrase “necessary minimum” must mean something very different to Mead than it does to me.
Like Klein, I see much more of a fusion of Wilsonian and Hamiltonian ideas in Obama’s policies, which I normally take to be very different if not diametrically opposed to the Jeffersonian persuasion. One could make an argument that Obama may be a less aggressive Hamiltonian or a less “idealistic” Wilsonian, and this would account for many of the apparent tensions and contradictions Mead has identified.