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Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World 1st Edition

37 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0375412301
ISBN-10: 0375412301
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

America is perceived as not having a foreign policy tradition, contends Mead (Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition), a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. In fact, Mead contends, there are actually four contrasting schools of foreign policy: a "Hamiltonian" concern with U.S. economic well-being at home and abroad; a "Wilsonian" impulse to promulgate U.S. values throughout the world; a "Jeffersonian" focus on protecting American democracy in a perilous world; and a bellicose, populist "Jacksonian" commitment to preserving U.S. interests and honor in the world. As Mead's detailed historical analysis of the origin and development of these schools shows, each has its strengths and faults if Wilsonians are too idealistic, Jacksonians are too suspicious of the world but each keeps the other in check, assuring no single school will dominate and that a basic consensus among them will be achieved, as was the case during the Cold War. As the Cold War ended, however, and the world became more complex, consensus ended. Hamiltonians and Wilsonians saw the opportunity to mold the economy and morality of the world in the U.S. image, but Jeffersonian doubt about foreign action in places like Bosnia, and Jacksonian popular suspicions of organizations like the WTO soon challenged such grandiose plans. Mead worries that U.S. foreign policy is too unfocused today and suggests we could learn much from the interactions in the past of the four schools, a complex history he ably unfolds. 8 pages of photos not seen by PW. (Nov. 8) Forecast: With foreign policy at the forefront after September 11, this could help shape discussions of U.S. response; expect serious interest.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

A senior fellow for foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, Mead (Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition) follows in the footsteps of Walter McDougall in Promised Land, Crusader State (Houghton, 1997). Like McDougall, he points out that the United States contrary to the received wisdom was awash in diplomacy from its birth throughout the supposedly isolationist 19th century. But Mead sets himself a broader task. Why, he asks, does the United States still suffer from a reputation for na?vet? despite its meteoric ascent to world power? The author traces European puzzlement at Americans' stubborn independence, aversion to state power, and obsession with commerce. Like other historians, Mead discerns several schools of thought that vie for supremacy within the American diplomatic tradition: Hamilton's preoccupation with commerce, Jefferson's watchfulness over the Republic's founding principles, Jackson's obsession with military strength, and Wilson's pursuit of a just world order. The beneficial interplay of these principles, says Mead, has yielded the most successful foreign policy in history. Largely celebratory and sure to be controversial, this work belongs in all library collections. James R. Holmes, Ph.D. Candidate, Fletcher Sch. of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts Univ., Medford, MA
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf; 1st edition (October 30, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375412301
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375412301
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #450,505 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Walter Russell Mead is the James Clark Chase Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College and Editor-at-Large of The American Interest. From 1997 to 2010, Mr. Mead was a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, serving as the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy from 2003 until his departure. Until 2011, he was also a Brady-Johnson Distinguished Fellow in Grand Strategy at Yale, where he had taught in the Yale International Security Studies Program since 2008.

His book, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), was widely hailed by reviewers, historians, and diplomats as an important study that will change the way Americans and others think about American foreign policy. Among several honors and prizes, Special Providence received the Lionel Gelber Award for best book in English on international relations in 2002.

Mr. Mead's most recent book, God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), is a major study of 400 years of conflict between Anglophone powers and rivals ranging from absolute monarchies like Spain and France through Communist and Fascist enemies in the twentieth century to al-Qaeda today.

Mr. Mead is also the author of the "Via Meadia" blog at, where he writes regular essays on international affairs, religion, politics, culture, education, economics, technology, literature, and the media. Mead's writings are frequently linked to and discussed by major news outlets and websites such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, the Financial Times, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, Harper's, the Washington Post, and RealClearPolitics, as well as by foreign periodicals. He also frequently appears on national and international radio and television programs. He serves as a regular reviewer of books for Foreign Affairs and frequently appears on national and international radio and television programs. In 1997, he was a finalist for the National Magazine Award in the category of essays and criticism.

He is an honors graduate of Groton and Yale, where he received prizes for history, debate, and the translation of New Testament Greek. Mr. Mead has traveled widely in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, Africa, and Latin America, and often speaks at conferences in the United States and abroad. He is a founding board member of the New America Foundation. He is a native of South Carolina and lives in Jackson Heights, New York.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

54 of 56 people found the following review helpful By C. Elliott on November 19, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Just wow.
Mead contends that American foreign policy has been the most successful foreign policy in history and this book is an exploration of what Americans need to do to continue that success into the 21st century.
Mead begins by exploring the history of American foreign policy from the founding of the republic to the present. He successfully dispels the myth that the United States spent the 19th century in some kind of virtuous isolation and places many of the political and economic events in a foreign policy context.
Just as Mead dispels the myth of virtuous isolation, he seeks a new myth to explain the success of American foreign policy. A myth, he explains, is a way of condensing complex topics into a set of notions which everyone can easily discuss in a reasonably informed manner. His myth is based on our particular strengths as a democracy, the notion that competing schools fight for control over our foreign policy. The result, he claims, is that every portion of our society is represented in our approach to the world.
The next chapters describe each of the schools in turn. Mead ends the text with a cautionary but hopeful note about where America needs to go to maintain its success.
On top of all this substantive discussion, the book is a compelling read. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By James Tudor on July 26, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Walter Mead's Special Providence belies the historical myth of American foreign policy. Mead challenges the idea that American foreign policy was non-existent or amateurish before World War II. Mead argues and capably supports that the United States has a unique and rich tradition in its dealings in International Relations. Mead asserts that this policy is a product of our American democracy; a form of government that many argue is inferior when dealing in foreign affairs. However as a product of American society, a number of voices and ideals have tempered a policy that has done exceptionally well, judging by our rise to power and status today.
"American foreign policy rests on a balance of contrasting, competing voices and values - it is a symphony - or tries to be, rather than a solo," asserts Mead. Escaping the typical and lacking descriptions of realist versus idealist, Mead illuminates four active voices within America. Each voice is complicated enough that any elaboration I give here will be lacking. However, the names of the schools should give you the idea. The Hamiltonians, Jacksonians, Jeffersonians, and Wilsonians make up the America's collection of competing schools of thought. Mead concedes that the names are not historically accurate. But he makes a strong case, leading the reader to re-evaluate American foreign policy history - providing historical antidotes of each school in action. Mead treats each school with respect and supplies a convincing intellectual argument for each. Special Providence is a delight to read. This paradigm of the four schools provides deeper insight and understanding of American politics in the international arena, and even to a lesser extent on the domestic side. Meads insights are lightly glazed with wit. I found myself laughing out loud numerous times. I recommend this book to anyone with the slighted predilection for international relations or American history.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By John E. Mennel on March 13, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Mead's Special Providence is at its best in describing the four historical schools of American foreign policy. His framework is apt at explaining the motivations and actions of the major political figures and movements and applies in many cases to domestic policy debates as well. It also rings true with my gut feeling that binary classifications - isolationist/internationalist, hawk/dove, right/left, Democrat/Republican - do not really have a lot of explanatory or predictive power, at least since the end of the Cold War.
His conclusions are also thought provoking though not terribly well developed or convincing. Is the American foreign policy elite really much more out of touch with the American "folk" than it was fifty years ago? Have "Jeffersonian" - constitutionalist, small government - voices really been marginalized since the collapse of the Soviet Union? Does the US democratic system still provide a key advantage over Europe in formulating and executing successful policy? These are all really important questions, but I wish Mead had either left them as such or spent more time arguing his conclusions. The last two chapters are the only weak part of the book.
And, although he can't be faulted for it, I found myself wishing that the book were published later in the George W. Bush administration and, particularly, after September 11. He makes the conventional point that there are different voices in the Bush administration. But, is Bush himself a Hamiltonian (commercialist) in Jacksonian (populist) clothing or the opposite? Also, is our reaction to September 11 the key event that points the way forward for America's post-Cold War role in the world or simply a manifestation of the Jacksonian impulse to fight a total war once provoked?
Despite the weaknesses I noted, the fact that Mead has me thinking about these issues and caring what he would have to say about them shows what a really good bock Special Providence is. I highly recommend it.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By R. B. Parker on October 28, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I have found Mead's book very valuable for explaining American foreign policy to Japanese graduate and undergraduate students. The great advantage of the book is that it rises above the battles over particular policy decisions and gives an aerial view of the various historical and social forces that go into the formation of American foreign policy.
The chapters on Jacksonianism and Wilsonianism are especially useful in explaining American reactions to September 11th and conflicting American attitudes about America's role in the world. These chapters are so good that they are worth the laborious process of working through the English text with Japanese students. Mead writes well with an absence of jargon and an impressive array of interesting observations. I hope that a Japanese translation is in the works.
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