TCS Daily

Needed: A New American Tradition

By James Pinkerton - November 15, 2001 12:00 AM

Editor's Note: This article is the first of two parts.

What is America? Is it an idealistic font of liberation? Is it a commercial republic of profit-maximization? Is it a country aimed at elevation of itself and others? Or is it a nation reluctant to fight but ready to mete out devastation, even annihilation, upon its enemies? The answer to those four questions, of course, is "yes." And if that answer seems confusing, then the questions are worth exploring, because solving the riddle of America's national character has even more to do with our long-run success in the Terror War than does opting toward the right military doctrine.

This quartet of questions is inspired by Walter Russell Mead's essay in the Winter 1999 issue of The National Interest, "The Jacksonian Tradition And American Foreign Policy," which ranks as one of the most significant contributions to contemporary political science.

Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, began by noting three recognized "traditions" in American foreign policy making: first, the anti-interventionist liberalism that traces its roots back to Thomas Jefferson; second, the bottom-line oriented pragmatism of Alexander Hamilton; and third, the high-minded interventionism of Woodrow Wilson. But a fourth tradition exists, Mead declared: the Jacksonian tradition. That's "Jacksonian" as in Andrew Jackson, renowned duelist, Indian-fighter, vanquisher of the British at the Battle of New Orleans, and oh yes, the seventh president of the United States. As Mead noted:

"An observer who thinks of American foreign policy only in terms of the commercial realism of the Hamiltonians, the crusading moralism of Wilsonian transcendentalists, and the supple pacifism of the principled but slippery Jeffersonians would be at a loss to account for American ruthlessness at war."

Ruthless in War, Embracing Killing Technology

Those who are ruthless at war, Mead argued, are the Jacksonians; these are the mostly white, middle and lower-middle class Protestant folk who fill up the Heartland. They are isolationist by instinct, but once roused, they are the beak and the talons of American hawkishness. If the Jacksonians aren't well known, Mead maintained, it's because due to their class and region, not many of them end up in opinion shaping citadels of New York and Washington.

But the Jacksonians are numerous, and once they do weigh in on an issue -- typically by voting, as opposed to, say, op-ed-writing -- they have enormous impact. Their flair for warfare, eagerly embracing the latest killing technology, means that they inflict enormously disproportionate casualties, both military and civilian, on U.S. enemies. Which is to say, in times like now it's a bloodily bad idea for an enemy to have the Jacksonians clawing at him.

As Mead put it, "This mass popular patriotism, and the martial spirit behind it, gives the United States immense advantages in international affairs...Without the Jacksonians, the United States would be a much weaker power."

Yet the Jacksonians, great as they are at fighting, are not always helpful at making peace. Indeed, their instinct is to clobber the enemy and then head back home. Thus the Jacksonians usually work against the other three American traditions, which are inclined to dream up "globally oriented, order-building schools of thought" that "see American power as a resource to be expended in pursuit of these far-reaching goals." Which is to say, the Jeffersonians, Hamiltonians, and Wilsonians want the Jacksonians to bear the national burden, not just once in a while, but all the time. No wonder the Jacksonians tend toward crankiness.

Mead's piece was sympathetic to the Jacksonians, yet he warned that differences in the four traditions "reflect profound differences in outlook and interest in American society" and added, "It is the job of our institutions to adjudicate these disputes and force compromise rather than to eliminate them." Of course, under some circumstances -- Mead specifically mentioned a "terrorist act in peacetime" -- the Jacksonians would be incited into the full furious forefront.

Needed: A New Tradition

Jim Chapin, political analyst for UPI, argues that this quartet of traditions is the source of American strength, because the U.S. can rotate these four modes of thinking like a Gatling gun, firing whatever barrel or barrels are needed to blast the challenge at hand. "America is shifting from the Jeffersonian-Hamilton era of the last 20 years to a new Wilsonian-Jacksonian era," Chapin says. That is, the social liberalism and relative economic libertarianism of the last two decades is about to be supplanted by a new commitment to crusade-like, high-minded foreign policymaking and crushingly violent war making. Not everyone will be cheered by these shifts, of course; economic libertarians, for example, cannot be entirely happy about the back-burnering of much of their agenda.

But at the moment, there's a war to be won, and after that, a peace to be secured. And none of Mead's four traditions quite fit the bill.

The Jeffersonians, for example, can help in terms of advancing a secular agenda of human rights and international law, but they often founder on the shoals of relativism and multiculturalism. Indeed, the Jeffersonians' sunny vision of positivist humanism was a big loser on September 11, when the world came to know that humanity was not entirely united in the march of rational progress.

As for the Hamiltonians, they have the right idea about the expansion of free markets and private property around the world, but the invisible hand is sometimes stayed by a visible hand of ethnic politics and culture. And yes, capitalism is great, but capitalists alone can't keep America safe.

The Wilsonians are great at enunciating high-minded ideals of self-determination and nation building, but the weird wars of the 21st century are likely to have many Machiavellian low points. Today, for example, as in World War II, the U.S. is lining up an echelon of lesser evils to fight what President Bush calls "the Evil One."

As for the Jacksonians, who say little -- indeed, they are best spoken for today by the taciturn men and women unleashing firepower in Afghanistan -- they seem incapable of articulating a long-term vision beyond winning the war. That failure of follow-through, that failure to realize that it wasn't enough simply to defeat the enemy and not worry about what would replace it, was the mistake that a Jacksonian U.S. made in Europe after World War One; nobody wants a repeat of that disaster.

It could and should be argued that America needs a synthesis of the four traditions. But that synthesis deserves a name of its own.

A new name, that is, for a new tradition. A name that embraces the idea that the U.S. must embrace conservative tradition as well as liberal rationalism (a paradox sure to annoy ACLU-ish Jeffersonians), a name that incorporates both a market-orientation and a security-orientation (bad news for Hamiltonians, eager to export anything to everyone), a name that connotes both morality and pragmatism (take that, Wilsonians), a name that celebrates beating swords into plowshares as well as beating plowshares into swords (sorry, Jacksonians).

So what's the name of this new tradition -- a new approach to guide America in a new century? And what does it mean for this war, and the next peace?

Find out next week.

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