Saturday, April 9

US Foreign Policy: Dave Schuler's handy cheat sheet and the lessons of history

Pundita is still stewing that ZenPundit branded ideas put forward in Democracy Stage Show Kit as "Hamiltonian realism." However, never having actually read historian Walter Russell Mead's Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World, which coins the term 'Hamiltonian,' and never having met a Washingtonian who has actually read the book, it occurred to me that I didn't know exactly what a Hamiltonian is.

Add to this, 'realism,' as applied to foreign policy schools of thought, tends to be interpreted variously according to which scholar or wonk and which side of the Atlantic is using the term. A visit to Wikipedia was no help, if one doesn't count learning that the Hamiltonian operator in physics and Hamiltonian cycles in graph theory are named after Sir William Rowan Hamilton.

This left two options. I could read up on the life of Alexander Hamilton and from there figure out what a Hamiltonian is, or I could break down and read Mead's book. There was a third option, of course, but generally it's not wise to tell someone, "Before I can make mincemeat out of your critique, would you mind explaining what you said?"

Thus, I was happy to learn that not only had Dave Schuler at The Glittering Eye read Mead's book, he'd also published a review that serves as a cheat sheet on major US foreign policy schools and their history.

I say to you with great seriousness that we need more book reviews like that.

In a recent essay I looked at the tendency to 'sell' the freedom aspect of democracy while avoiding discussion of its operational aspect. I cynically implied that much of this tendency could be traced to self-interested motives. However, it struck me while reading Schuler's review that there is another reason why Americans, at least, tend to shy away from discussing the mechanics of democratic government: most Americans have only the vaguest idea of the mechanics. Thus, conversations between an American and a person unfamiliar with democratic government tend to go like this:

"So, tell me what your democratic government is."

"It's about freedom. It's about liberty and justice for all."

"That sounds good. How does the democratic government work in your country?"

"It works by everybody exercising their right to vote."

"How does voting work to make the government run?"

"We elect people to Congress and the White House who run the government. If they don't do the job right, we elect new leaders. That's the great thing about freedom."

It's not quite that bad in all cases, and perhaps it's stretching the point to say that "most" Americans are unclear on the mechanics of their government; however, I think it's fair to say that my general point holds true. To grab an American off the street and ask for an extemporaneous discussion of American government is generally to receive a hazy explanation about how the government works.

Yet to really understand how our government works--indeed, how any government works--requires at least a passing knowledge of the history of its development and the schools of thought influencing the implementation of governing principles.

Reading the Constitution and Bill of Rights does not alone produce such knowledge. And such readings do not illustrate the principles of government in action, which were not 'thought up' but hammered into existence on the anvil of fractious debate.

Mead's book, and Schuler's review, stands on that fundamental point. Of course there are many ways to organize a discussion of American foreign policy, and one doesn't have to agree with Mead's interpretations to benefit from his approach, but the historical view provides an objective basis for discussion.

As to whether I am still huffy--now more than ever. I can't believe ZenPundit mistook me for a Hamiltonian. If he'd read even a few of my other essays and fully grasped the points in Democracy Stage Show Kit, he would have pegged me for a neo-Jacksonian.

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