Even in good times, the consensus has often been that the United States makes its way in the world by a sort of dumb luck, a position succinctly articulated in a comment attributed to 19th-century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck: “God has a special providence for fools, drunks and the United States of America.” In the early weeks of the war in Afghanistan, this view has been especially prevalent. Yet while Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, takes the title for his elegantly written new book from Bismarck‘s remark, he advances the opposite thesis, arguing that American statesmen have, in truth, generally displayed great skill in conducting business abroad. “We don’t just draw lucky cards,” Mead writes. “We also play the game well.” To doubters, Special Providence offers a bracing corrective, while not incidentally providing reason for hope regarding the outcome of the present crisis.

The explanation for the popular derogation of United States foreign policy, maintains Mead, arises from two sources. First, there has traditionally been a prejudice among academics against the democratically checked and balanced diplomacy practiced by this country; the professoriate prefers the one-man-band brand of statesmanship employed by the nations of continental Europe. Second and more significant, numerous Americans are simply uninformed. While some of the ignorance stems from abysmal schooling (30 percent of the respondents in one poll thought that the 1980s hostilities between American-backed contras and Daniel Ortega‘s Sandinistas occurred in Norway), Mead convincingly asserts that the situation’s real causes can be found in the all-encompassing grip that the “myth of the Cold War” held on the country for much of the past 50 years.

As Mead presents it, the myth of the Cold War was the necessary construct fabricated by such midcentury American giants as Secretary of State Dean Acheson and columnist Walter Lippmann to marshal a World War II–weary nation to the protracted task of checking Soviet aggression around the globe. Mead further posits that to make this myth palatable, these masters of realpolitik created the related but opposing “myth of virtuous isolation” in order to enshrine within the country‘s collective psyche a Grandma Moses–like vision of the innocent land the United States had been in its halcyon youth. These myths served their purposes in that they enabled a resolute people, committed to preserving that simpler picture, to face down a dangerous enemy. But there was a cost in that the myths blinded the nation to the vital fact that in the 150 years prior to the Cold War, its citizens, far from living in virtuous isolation, had actually been engaged in urgent diplomacy on every continent. Simply put, in the process of defeating communism, the United States forgot its complex past.

Well, not quite. According to Mead, since the days of George Washington, four streams of thought have determined American foreign policy, and while these streams ran beneath the surface during the Cold War, with the fall of the Berlin Wall they re-emerged as powerful freshets that can replenish the country’s understanding of its enduring place in international affairs. Though he acknowledges contradictions within the streams and sees instances of commingling among them, each is distinct, and he names them for the figures most closely associated with their separate philosophies — Alexander Hamilton, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.

The Hamiltonian tributary, like the first secretary of the Treasury, has consistently stressed open markets and freedom of the seas (and later of the air) for the transportation of American goods to foreign ports. From 1776 on, Mead points out, both the nation‘s bankers and its farmers were consumed by an interest in international business. Even as British ships blockaded New York, Benjamin Franklin was in Paris negotiating the fledgling country’s inaugural treaty, which gave it Most Favored Nation status for trading with France. Shortly thereafter, in one of the United States‘ initial tests abroad, the Navy dispatched warships to the Mediterranean to combat pirates who were disrupting commerce. Two hundred years ago, in brief, the military already served the dollar. But more than just making America safe for capital, Hamiltonians have always believed that in protecting business, they were building peace. Where in a politically provoked confrontation there will inevitably be a winner and a loser, in a financial transaction there is the possibility of having both a satisfied buyer and seller. In the post–Cold War period, the Hamiltonian stream can be seen in the thinking of those who fought for NAFTA and back the World Trade Organization.

The Wilsonian tributary, like the leader who pushed so hard for American membership in the League of Nations, has conversely placed a premium on human rights and democratic forms of government for the citizens of foreign lands. It finds its headwaters in the Christian missionary movement of the early 19th century. As Mead evocatively describes it, the Wilsonian impulse is “rooted originally in the piety of New England and [was] nurtured in the long, cool afterglow of Calvinism in decline.” Subsequently, he adds, it spilled out of the church and into the body politic. Its adherents believe that “the United States has a right and a duty to change the rest of the world’s behavior.” Wilsonians championed American involvement in Bosnia, support equal rights for women in Africa and back tougher environmental regulations around the world. Such views often bring Wilsonians into conflict with Hamiltonians, but like the free-market advocates, they have no trouble justifying interventionist policies overseas.

The Jeffersonian tributary, like the sage of Monticello, has been steadfastly nativist in outlook, supporting the view that the American experiment is so valuable that it should only rarely put itself at risk abroad. As Mead relates: “Jeffersonians [believe] that the United States could better serve the cause of universal democracy by setting an example rather than imposing a model.” Above all else, statesmen who subscribe to this view counsel the avoidance of war. Imbued with a strong libertarian streak, Jeffersonians argue that self-determination in Tibet is China‘s business, that ethnic murder in Rwanda is Africa’s — not because they support the suppression of minorities or tribal killings but because they feel it is too easy for the United States to get sucked into foreign conflicts or wind up with unsavory allies. When in doubt, they urge the nation to leave well enough alone. When pressed, they will usually go no further than to support economic sanctions.

Finally, the Jacksonian tributary has also been unabashedly nativist, but with a martial twist. Like the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, Jacksonians — who run the gamut from Jesse Helms to John McCain — are proud, vain and ready to rumble. “For foreigners and for some Americans, the Jacksonian school is the least impressive of the four. It is the most deplored abroad and the most denounced at home,” writes Mead. “Yet without the Jacksonians, the United States would be a much weaker power, and the other schools would soon feel their absence more strongly than they now bemoan their political views.” When challenged by an honorable enemy, they fight honorably, but when provoked by a sneak attack, they respond with no holds barred. If “foreign evildoers force” America into war, Mead observes in words that now sound eerily familiar, Jacksonians feel that “whatever casualties the other side suffers are self-evidently the fault of their own leaders.”

With all these streams emptying into the American ship of state, the vessel, in Mead‘s view, more often resembles a leaky raft than a majestic ocean liner. It lists and takes on water as it makes its way. But unlike the noble barges of various monarchies, dictatorships and socialist experiments, it miraculously and continuously floats, allowing the nation to make money even as it does right, to value law even as it wages war.

As for the future, Mead contends that it is not enough for Americans merely to rediscover their foreign-policy heritage. They need to adopt a new myth to replace the outdated Cold War model. History can inform the country, the author believes, but it cannot guide it. Special Providence, which was completed a few weeks before the events of September 11, obviously does not prescribe a solution for the current dilemma. However, Mead, though he professes a preference for the Jeffersonian school, asserts that all four tributaries need to flow into the policies that come next. As he declares near the end of this splendid book: “We must [create] a new picture of the United States as a nation uniquely concerned with the growth and development of world order — with the moral, social, economic and political as well as the security dimensions of that order.”

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.