The Four Schools of Thought on American Foreign Policy

Given President Obama’s speech at the UN this morning, today seems like a good day to pass this article around. WRM has a nice summary of the four schools of thought in American foreign policy over at Via Meadia (I’ve bolded his description of the four approaches) :

President Obama is not a stupid man. After more than four years in the White House, he cannot be called a naive man or an inexperienced leader. He is not, despite the suspicions of some of his angrier critics, actively seeking to undermine the prestige and the power of the United States. So why has the Syria war been such a “problem from Hell” for this president? More specifically, why did President Obama fail so abysmally to get public opinion and the Congress behind him, when at last and reluctantly he called for a limited American military response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war?

Longtime readers will know that I divide American foreign policy into four schools of thought. Hamiltonians (well represented among the old Republican foreign policy establishment) want the United States to follow the trail blazed by Great Britain in its day: to build a global commercial and security system based on sea power and technological leadership, maintaining a balance of power in key geopolitical theaters and seeking to attract rivals or potential rivals like China into our system as, in Robert Zoellick’s phrase, “responsible stakeholders.” Wilsonians also want the United States to build a world order, but to anchor it in liberal human rights practices and international law rather than in the economic and security frameworks that Hamiltonians prefer. Those two globalist schools dominate the foreign policy establishment’s thought about the world we live in, and have done so since the 1940s.

There are two other schools that are home-focused rather than globalist. They are less interested in changing the world around the United States than in keeping the United States safe from the world. Jeffersonians have historically sought to avoid war and foreign entanglements at all costs; Jacksonians have been suspicious of foreign adventures, but strongly believe in national defense and support a strong military and want decisive action against any threat to the United States, its honor, or its treaty allies. Jeffersonians are generally opposed to almost any war other than a war of self defense following a direct enemy attack; Jacksonians aren’t interested in global transformation but will generally back robust American responses to anything they see as a security threat or a threat to America’s honor and reputation abroad.

Obviously these kind of classification systems are artificial and can be imprecise. But I find these kind of taxonomies to be a helpful first step for starting conversation.

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  • Zameer sharifzai

    dear Mr. Jake Meador, what was the role of isolation in these four classified system that United States remained in isolation almost for a centurey?

    • Joe Alvarez

      The US was never totally isolationist. The 19th century saw an economically globalized, politically isolated US, until the Civil War showed us the sheer potential of our warmaking resources and industry. After the Civil War, we tested the waters of adventurism with the Spanish-American War. Having succeeded there, we showed the world our Great White Fleet, thus announcing our arrival to the world stage as a great naval power capable of controlling international sea lanes to promote and protect commerce.

      The 20th century saw a US that tried to stay out of WWI and WWII. Because of our delayed entry to those wars, we were the only nation to actually come out stronger than we went in, which postured us for our non-isolationist 20th century dominance.

      To answer your question, none of Walter Russell Mead’s four traditions of US foreign policy are totally isolationist. Even the politically isolationist Jeffersonians and Jacksonians are open to economic non-isolationism, and even commercial globalism.