President Obama’s speech at the United Nations last week was “an important turning point in American foreign policy — and in his presidency.” That’s the verdict of Brookings Institution scholar and former Clinton White House aide William Galston, a Democrat who has not been an unqualified admirer of this Democratic president’s foreign policy.
Whether Obama’s decision to launch air strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and Khorasan terrorists is a turning point, it was at least a move in the direction of a tradition in American foreign policy that has been conspicuously lacking in his administration.
That tradition was christened by Walter Russell Mead in his 2001 book, “Special Providence,” as the Jacksonian Impulse, one of four that have together shaped American foreign policy since the founding of the republic. The others, named after American leaders, are the Hamiltonian, Wilsonian and Jeffersonian traditions.
Jacksonians, like their namesake, Andrew Jackson, are generally not much interested in foreign policy. But when Americans are attacked, they respond with righteous fury and a determination to utterly destroy the enemy.
Franklin Roosevelt invoked that tradition when in his Pearl Harbor speech he said, in a line that drew not just applause but whoops and hollers, “The American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.”
That’s not Obama’s style. He came to office pledged to make nice with hostile Iran and unfriendly Russia. Even while announcing air strikes in Iraq and Syria, he made sure to say America needs allies and will not put boots on the ground.
Obama’s reluctance to take a Jacksonian stand is obvious, but ISIS’s beheadings of Americans were something he could not let pass unrebuked. Mead’s analysis in his American Interest blog was headlined, “A President Surrenders.”
Which of Mead’s other three traditions has Obama followed?
Certainly not the Hamiltonian tradition, named for Alexander Hamilton, which seeks to make the world safe for American commerce, accepts amoral concepts like national interest and balance of power and is willing to use force in morally ambiguous situations.
Obama has been willing to let Pacific and Atlantic trade negotiations languish in order to placate labor unions nostalgic for long-gone steel and automotive jobs. He invokes but does not imitate the supposed “realism” of George H. W. Bush. He has allowed the budget sequester to hollow out American military forces.
One might expect Obama to embrace a Wilsonian affection for international institutions and respect for international law. Many Democrats criticized George W. Bush for ignoring them. As a presidential candidate, Secretary of State John Kerry disparaged the “trumped up, so-called coalition of the bribed, the coerced, the bought and the extorted.”
But Bush’s coalition that went into Iraq included more than 30 nations, most of them democracies. Kerry’s and Obama’s coalition against the Islamic State includes maybe eight, mostly autocracies. On Iraq, unlike both Bushes, Obama has not sought authorization from Congress or the United Nations.
He was happy to pocket the Nobel Peace Prize. But unlike Woodrow Wilson, who sought to subordinate the United States to the League of Nations, Obama seeks only applause, not approval, from international organizations.
The one of Mead’s four traditions that Obama comes closest to embracing is the Jeffersonian. Thomas Jefferson wanted to keep a pristine agricultural America apart from the evil European empires. Obama talks repeatedly about “nation building at home,” which appears to mean maintaining and expanding a tottering entitlement system and welfare state.
Jefferson did make accommodations to reality. He swallowed constitutional qualms and purchased Louisiana. He sent the Navy and Marines to quell the Barbary pirates. His successor, James Madison, accepted a Hamiltonian Bank of the United States.
Obama’s actions against the Islamic State, however limited, and his support for the Dodd-Frank Act, which props up the big banks, are in the same spirit.
But the impulse is different. Jeffersonians want to protect virtuous America from a vicious world. Obama has generally sought to keep a too-often vicious America from sullying a supposedly virtuous world. Obama’s foreign policy initiatives — negotiations with Iran, the reset with Russia, mollifying rhetoric for Muslims — were based on the assumption that his own election would make the rest of the world take a benign view of America. That assumption seems to be in tatters.
Mead’s argument is that American foreign policy has been successful because American leaders have, in varying proportions, blended its four traditions together. Obama seems to be aloof, to varying degrees, from all of them.
Michael Barone, senior political analyst at the Washington Examiner, where this article first appeared, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.