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What Would Hamilton Do? Do We Care?

Mead’s divisions of American foreign policy thinking into the odd quartet of Wilsonian, Jeffersonian, Hamiltonian and Jacksonian, and Noah Millman’s smart plotting of the four on his chart, have never been very satisfying. Years ago, I outlinedmy problems with the use of the term Jacksonian to talk about foreign policy, because there is nothing particularly Jacksonian about Jacksonian foreign policy views. As I have spelled out before, Andrew Jackson’s foreign policy, to the extent that he had one that could be identified with his administration, was more or less the same as Jefferson’s in that both favored contintental expansion and neutrality and did not entangle themselves in foreign conflicts. Even more than Jackson, Jefferson countenanced unconstitutional acts and diplomatic skullduggery to pursue expansionist goals; had many modern “Jeffersonians” been alive then, they would probably have been on the side of my distant cousin William Plumer in denouncing him. The severe limitations of these terms seem clear.

Even to the extent that we grant that these terms refer to a mentality or persuasion rather than an identifiable foreign policy paradigm, we are still stuck with terms that obscure rather than clarify. One could say that Jefferson’s stated concern for neutral shipping rights, to which Wilson paid lip service over a century later, made him more “internationalist” than the Federalists including Hamilton, but no one would say that Wilson was a Jeffersonian because of their shared rhetoric of freedom of the seas. Hamiltonian is the most vexing term of all, because it takes realist internationalists (e.g., Scowcroft, Lugar, etc.) and gives to them the name of a Treasury Secretary, whose view of foreign affairs was limited for the most part to a desire to maintain commerce with Britain.

Millman complicated and confused matters by defining the dominant factors for realism and idealism respectively as interests and values. By and large, we Jeffersonians–if that is the proper name for our view–do not make values the dominant or even a significant factor in our thinking, but on the contrary focus almost exclusively on national interest somewhat narrowly defined. On the whole, we look at so-called hard-headed realists and find people who become rather soft-headed for different reasons than liberal interventionists or neoconservatives do. These realists value stability and tend to pursue what they think will guarantee it. The trouble that they encounter is that they can frequently misjudge what guarantees and what threatens stability, because they are inclined to accept conventional assessments concerning ideologies that stabilize and destabilize. Realists are defined as realists most of the time not because they question the desirability of, say, global democratization–because they generally do not question it–but mainly because they question its practicability. They sometimes disagree about means, but almost never disagree with more aggressive and “idealistic” groups about ends.

Realists, no less than other members of what Bacevich calls the “power elite,” have misinterpreted reality and inflated threats over the decades. The chief thing most realists have had going for them in the postwar period is that they are less prone to overreaction and ideological responses to events, but they are hardly immune from them. If there are no “Hamiltonians,” it is not just because the term Hamiltonian doesn’t mean very much, but because most realist internationalists are inclined to follow conventional thinking at any given time and so they effectively merge into the other groups from which they are supposed to be so distinct. This is not true of all realists (Kennan is an outstanding example of the exceptions to this rule), but it is true of so many that I think it is fair to put it this way. Liberal hawks, neoconservatives and most realists are all preoccupied with values to a large degree, so much so that a genuine language of Realpolitik can scarcely be found outside of what we are calling right-“Jeffersonian” and non-interventionist circles.

This is an awful lot of deck-clearing to get to the more important points, but it seems to be necessary. As I was saying the other day, the so-called “neo-isolationist” option is not understood well at all, so we need more precision in our terminology and our definitions and we need fewer terms that refer to vague tendencies. To take a specific example to illustrate how misleading so much of this terminology is, just consider the relationship of the drug war to U.S. foreign policy. The genuinely hard-headed realist would almost certainly not pursue the drug war in Afghanistan, which is clearly a case of privileging of values over interests, yet this is what current-and-future Defense Secretary Gates, the main Scowcroftian in the new administration, wants to do with NATO forces there. Adding drug interdiction to NATO forces’ mandate is rationalized as a means to secure the country, but what this actually represents is the establishment tendency, shared by such realists, to pursue broad, comprehensive solutions that try to address multiple problems simultaneously while sufficiently supporting none of the constituent parts of the plan. This is why any comprehensive Indo-Pak-Afghanistan solution or a comprehensive Middle Eastern peace process is ultimately misguided and why pursuing either will make it more difficult to resolve any of the individual issues. This tendency derives from an assessment of U.S. power and capabilities that is increasingly unmoored from the real world, and it is justified with a good deal of mushy thinking about the need for American “leadership” and America as the great force for good. Genuinely hard-headed realism would be an interesting change from the legalistic-moralistic view of foreign policy that the Hamiltonians also hold.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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