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February 08, 2004

Special Providence

Here are my thoughts on Special Providence, fresh from my blog.

It is a stormy night here in the great state of Texas, and the brontosapiens lairing in the apartment above are quite restless. Therefore, I thought I would get to work on this book review while I'm waiting for them to plop down for the night

I must admit that when I read this review by Vinod, I was intrigued. I picked up a copy of Special Providence at the library, and I'm about 1/3 way through. Vinod gives a raving review, and I do not intend to repeat his efforts.

In the interest of originality, I concerned here with the way that the different foreign policy schools compete and compromise in order to react to the changing face of the planet. It is very illuminating to read the book with a neutral perspective on foreign policy.

With that, I discuss the idealistic goals which each school functions, followed by how the schools can fail in a pragmatic sense. In order for our foreign policy to function in the way that it does, one must be able to argue both for and against the various school's main line of thinking. In deciding which course of action to take on a foreign policy objective, the school who's philosophy is best suited for the task naturally exerts the greatest influence.

It is therefore crucial to demonstrate that the different schools can function in both a benevolent way and a sinister way. This is how our two party republican government maintains the balance of power, and this is how the same balance of power is maintained among the four schools of foreign policy thought.

Here are the altruistic ends of the four schools


  • Hamiltonians: Hamiltonians believe that libertarian ideals are best spread through the world via commerce. In order for capitalism to thrive, they argue, a government which recognizes civil liberties must be in place.
  • Wilsonians: Wilsonians believe that our values are best spread throughout the world via engagement and communication. Missionary and missionary style work is crucial, as is diplomacy.
  • Jeffersonians: Jeffersonians primarily function in defense of our own liberties. They attempt to undermine those regimes that do not respect civil liberties, and to support those who do.
  • Jacksonians: Laissez faire foreign policy at it's best, the Jacksonian is probably the most "neighborly" of the foreign policy schools. To each his own. Let each country function as they see fit.

In contrast, there is a world of (mostly theoretical) discussion as to the malevolence of the various schools, usually to discredit the dominant school and maintain the balance of power. Because each school has at best a plurality, the conventional wisdom on these issues can change overnight. This is in contrast to the political system in which such whimsical flopping around would render the domestic political structure impotent.

The dynamic behind the systems of checks and balances for the 4 foreign policy schools is, nevertheless, the same. People align themselves with a school not because they disagree with the altruistic aims of the school of thought, but because they believe that school of thought is less malevolent than the others.

Move on the extended entry for the remainder...

OK, here is the second part of my Special Providence book review. I have now completed the book.

I am by no means a die-hard for any of the schools. However, I do tend to favor some over the others. If I had to rank my preference, it would be


  1. Hamiltonian
  2. Jacksonian
  3. Jeffersonian
  4. Wilsonian

It is certainly situational. For instance, I strongly felt at the time of the first Gulf War, that a Jacksonian approach was warranted. As we know the Wilsonian path created a truckload of problems culminating in 9-11. Iran is ripe for a paradigm shift, for which I feel that a Hamiltonian approach is now warranted. North Korea demands a pure Jacksonian Approach - if they demonstrate that they are a threat (i.e., testing a Nuke), we wipe them off of the map.

With that, I list the main problems with each of the schools. First, the one I tend to think causes the most problems:


  • The Wilsonian school is dangerous for a number of reasons. There is always a danger that the Wilsonian school, using post-modernist arguments, will lend too much favor to the "world community," that is the governments of the world. More over, the humanitarian element is frequently used against them in times of conflict, e.g. the recent war on Iraq.
  • The Jeffersonian school: The Jeffersonians and their minimalist foreign policy is just not pragmatic in times of war, and it tends to undermine the preventative strength of our military and our intelligence agencies. It is utterly ridiculous that we had better info on the USSR during the cold war than we currently have on the Middle East. Intelligence should have been the first benefactor to advances in technology (like those of the nineties), yet they are clearly worse off than they were in the 70's and 80's. Why? The Jeffersonian approach of the Clinton Administration ran them into the ground.
  • The Jacksonian school: one does not want a foreign policy run by populist rage. The classical example of Jacksonian Policy going awry is Jackson himself, defying the Supreme Court, and sending the Cherokees to Oklahoma on the trail of tears. I cannot exclude the possibililty that had the Jacksonians, been in power on 9-11, the entire Middle East would be smoking crater. Moreover, the Jacksonians tend to support populist defense strategies that just aren't feasible: SDI, The missile defense system, etc. Jacksonians are fine with a false sense of security, which turns my scientific stomach.
  • The Hamiltonian school. This one is the hardest for me, I have distinct Hamiltonian underpinnings, but the drawbacks of the school cannot be ignored. Hamiltonian's inevitably protect U.S. interests at the expense of the rest of the World. This can lead to severe problems. The economic upheaval after WWI was caused, in part, by Hamiltonian refusal to relieve the war debt acquired by the European Nations. This inevitably drug the U.S. into the worst economic depression in our history.

The final point of the book, which I think is worth mentioning is that our foreign policy functions best when a clear and present danger exists, and is noted by the various schools. An important point indeed. In the absence of a threat, the elite Wilsonian and Hamiltonian schools run unchecked. This rampant idealism runs headlong into pragmatic problems, which tend to generate threats, and undermine the goals of the two schools.

This phenomenon led, e.g. to the rise of National Socialism in Europe in the 30's (Hamiltonian idealism unchecked), and the rise of Al Queda in the 90's (unchecked Wilsonianism). The absence of a threat allows the Jeffersonian scaleback of the defense infrastructure, which leaves us vulnerable to the inevitable.

Posted by chrisg at 06:30 PM