The Jacksonian Revolt, Is That What’s Really Happening In Washington-Land

There are some bizarre events taking place in the nation’s capital. The President is tweeting (bizarre enough on its own) outrageous charges about President Obama which impugn the office and are completely baseless, and the President refuses to admit his mistake. The Senate is itching to confirm a new conservative Supreme Court Justice as if it were a long overdue (thanks to obstructionist Democrats) even though the Republican majority refused 12 months ago to consider Merritt Garland. And in Senate hearings, FBI Director James Comey confirmed that the FBI had open investigations focused on possible collusion between Russian operatives and members of President Trump’s campaign staff. Most Republicans dismissed the implications and instead wanted to talk about who might have leaked this information earlier.

How can grown intelligent people act this way?

“Foreign Policy” is carrying an article by Walter Russel Mead titled The Jacksonian Revolt. Mead lays out various US foreign policies (Hamiltonian, Wilsonian, Jeffersonian, and Jacksonian) and their points of emphasis. Broadly, Hamiltonian and Wilsonian have dominated foreign policy thinking since World War II while Jeffersonian and Jacksonian have taken a back seat. Now the prospect that President Trump might be a 21st century Jacksonian is getting people’s attention.

What’s so wrong with Jacksonian foreign policy?

Both Jefferson and Jackson sought a low profile for the US. They believed this posture would be the least costly and the least likely to entangle the US in foreign wars. America first, so to speak.

Hamilton thought the US needed a sturdy presence around the world in order to fend off other countries who might interfere with foreign commerce. Neither school of thought sought conflict and both thought their strategy was superior.

Since the Second World War, US (Hamiltonian) foreign policy sought to build alliances globally and through economic development stabilize foreign actors who might be prone to war otherwise. Wilsonian believers tended to emphasize human rights and rule of law as key components of US foreign policy. With one off exception of Korea and Vietnam, the world has been relatively free of war (regional ones but no world wars) until the Gulf War I.
Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and a coalition of western countries combined to over turn the invasion and expelled Iraqi forces.

In 2003, for reason still unclear, George W Bush’s Administration felt compelled to once again invade Iraq and in doing so, opened Pandora’s box. There are no mitigating explanations for what will be recorded in history as a tragic foreign policy failure but happen it did. Seventy years of broad based foreign policy support began to erode and 19 century world views once again seemed credible.

Mead speculates that Jacksonian Americans saw nothing good about US foreign policy but were more concerned (and felt personally threatened) by a changing US population demographic. Immigration was a direct threat, one cleverly encouraged by Democrats, thought the typical Jacksonian American. Donald Trump was their Andrew Jackson, and had come at not a moment too soon.

Mead’s concerns are strictly foreign policy and domestic policy and its attendant politics are secondary it seems. Mead does not support isolationism, but warns that future efforts on world order must consider to a greater degree the needs of other nations to feel their identities are respected (I think he is saying a little less Wilsonian flavor).

What Mead does not say is also important. Jacksonian Americans are still a minority. The coalition which elected President Trump and who have precipitated the US foreign policy rethink are far from a single mind on future steps. Libertarians and Neoconservatives feel free to plot new courses for the US.

America is not living in the age of sailing ships or horse drawn artillery as Jackson knew it. America is living whether we like it or not in the age of nuclear weapons, missile technology, and cyber warfare. Jeffersonian or Jacksonian foreign policies are incompatible with America’s best interests.

A rethink of Hamiltonian and Wilsonian foreign policy principles is probably necessary but with a President who seems unable (or unwilling) to value truthfulness, the prospects of more neoconservative policies (like invading Iraq) present a greater threat to our way of life.

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