The tragic, racially motivated terrorism in Dallas last week cannot be ignored by the world since America’s social tension will certainly influence its politics. US elections are watched closely by the world because whatever national security model is chosen is the best indicator of how the US will engage with the world.
No matter how much they might wish it were not true, the US today is the indispensable nation and its actions impact everyone. So what it is that the US – all 320 million of them – think should be their role in this fragile world is a fundamental question not just for Washington but for the rest of the international community as well.
US scholar Walter Russell Mead explains how US national security policies fit broadly into models reflecting four of its most influential historical leadership figures.
The first emerges from statesman Alexander Hamilton’s doctrines which advocate a strong executive leadership in both the formation and implementation of foreign policy. Hamiltonian policy is commercially-focused, boiling down into a simple logic chart: the US cannot be free unless it is prosperous and the US cannot be prosperous unless it is strong.
The 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, would have been a Hamiltonian president. He outlined exactly those ideas during one of his campaign debates against President Barack Obama. And aside from being uncouth, there is a lot of Hamiltonian thought in the ideas by presidential hopeful Donald Trump as well.
The second is Wilsonian, drawing from the progressive ideology and American idealism of US President Woodrow Wilson. Mr Wilson enshrined the concepts of the war-to-end-all-wars a century ago and pushed to make the world safe for democracy. In the Wilsonian view, the US role is to package the idea of American democracy and to spread it throughout the world under the rubric of free markets, people and ideas.
The third is Jeffersonian, connecting to the thoughts of Thomas Jefferson who organised the Louisiana Purchase (essentially creating the modern US landmass) and waged the country’s first war in North Africa. However, Mr Jefferson was remarkably inward-turning, deciding against intervention and entanglement and chose instead to work on building the shining city on the hill.
But during Mr Jefferson’s terms, there was an undeclared naval war taking place off the coast of New England between the French and the British. The US wasn’t involved, but both belligerents were grabbing US merchantmen and sailors. He needed to respond to the predations and asked Congress to pass a series of laws call the Non-Intercourse Acts, giving him the authority to direct American merchantmen to stay in port. His was a national security policy of avoiding trouble.
The fourth is Jacksonian, delivered by President Andrew Jackson – man of the frontier and man of the people. Mr Jackson is considered the first democrat, whether that word is spelled in the upper case or the lower case. Jacksonian policies are succinct and to the point, organised around the immortal line of Robert De Niro’s character in the movie Taxi Driver – “Are you talking to me?”
President George W. Bush was Wilsonian. And some officials who worked with Mr Bush have written he was the most Wilsonian president since Woodrow Wilson himself. But there was more than a little Jackson in Mr Bush’s policy as well.
This writer remembers a television clip of Mr Bush stepping off his personal helicopter, known as Marine One, on the south lawn of the White House after a long week sometime in early 2007. As he’s walking to the building, a journalist from behind the press rope line calls out querying the president’s view of the growing insurgency in Iraq. Mr Bush stops, pivots, points and says: “bring it on.” That was classic Jackson.
Presidents who are a combination of Wilson and Jackson can be adventurous in their national security policy, but not bombastic. President Obama is certainly as Wilsonian as Mr Bush was. His two well-known speeches in Cairo and Ankara envisioned a world of one humanity and democracy. He also gave a speech in Prague where he seriously proposed building a world without any nuclear weapons. It’s hard to get much more Wilsonian than that, especially given the global situation.
Mr Obama is also deeply Jeffersonian. Consider his statements that the “tide of war is receding” and “al Qaeda is on the run”. In a speech this week about increasing US troop levels in Afghanistan, the US president managed to fit the words good war, necessary war, increase and drawdown in the same paragraph. It barely needs to be said that getting the ideas of troop increases and time limits into the same speech is the mark of an inner Wilson struggling with an inner Jefferson.
Some partisans and ideologues in Washington, themselves fitting into the one or multiple of the above models, might think a particular national security policy is appropriate. While still other officials think the opposite policy is preferable. Yet for the rest of the world a consistency from Washington is crucial. Oscillating between extremes is a bad idea, and unfortunately that has been US national security policy for the last 16 years.
In November, US citizens will choose their desired mix to deal with the fragility of this world system. Geopolitics discounts the effects of individuals over the long term, but in the short term individuals can have disproportionate impact. The question is: which mix best fits the world today?