The Washington Times

Strange question, perhaps: Why is American foreign-policy making so good? The reason the question is strange is that U.S. foreign policy, like Rodney Dangerfield, gets no respect.

Every time we do something, we are immediately rewarded with a chorus of boos. The French think we are simplistic. The Brits think we are heavy-handed. The Chinese think we are an arrogant hegemon. The Russians think we are blatantly disrespectful. Everybody thinks we’re greedy. And this is to say nothing of those who think we are the Great Satan.

Meanwhile, on the home front, have you ever noticed how wretched foreign-policy making is when your party is out of power? The errant misadventures, the squandered opportunities, the scandals bubbling up all over. Given how closely divided the American electorate is between the two major parties these days, it’s probably fair to say that to the extent they think about foreign affairs, half the people think they’re not going nearly so well as they could be were the right guys in charge.

Yes, George W. Bush has sky-high approval ratings for his conduct of the war on terror. But I don’t think Democrats who are supporting Mr. Bush on the war, whether in Congress or among the rank-and-file, are thereby conceding that nobody on their side is up to the job. On the contrary, the more common view is that Mr. Bush is doing pretty well for a Republican.

Then there are the people who think our foreign policy is entirely, completely and utterly wrong in all respects. Patrick Buchanan thinks we should be “a republic, not an empire.” The Libertarians want us to come home. The left is always good for a rant against imperialism. And so forth.

No respect. That’s why Walter Russell Mead’s recent book, “Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World” is such an eye-opening experience. Mr. Mead throws out all the negative prejudices that have gathered around the subject and takes a fresh look, and what he finds is mainly success.

But it’s not success of a kind that is easily recognized from the typical perspectives people take in discussing foreign policy – especially those enamored of the continental school, for whom the heroes of foreign policy are the likes of Metternich, Bismarck and Talleyrand.

“The assumptions of continental realism cannot yield a coherent view of either the strengths or the weaknesses of the American method of foreign policy,” he writes.

For starters, for the continentalists, there is no place for economics in foreign policy. Yet “for most of American history the immediate objects of foreign policy have been economic questions,” not the “high politics” favored by those who see Europe as a chessboard. If the United States has a reputation for a lack of engagement with the world, especially in its first century – a reputation that lingers in a supposed American impulse toward isolationism – it is largely a product of two dubious assumptions: first, a failure to recognize that westward expansion, the pushing out of American territory, was foreign policy; second, an unwillingness to see the role of economics in decisions made by U.S. leaders.

In addition, Mr. Mead writes, the continentalists fail to take into consideration the longstanding global view that the continent-wide United States inherited from island Britain, which always looked far and wide for opportunities, not just to geopolitics of continental Europe. “Call it empire, hegemony, world order, or globalization, the question of economic integration under British or American auspices and the political strategies that advance this great process have been at or near the center of both American and British foreign and domestic policies for centuries.”

Finally, the continentalists have little appreciation for the realities of policy-making in the United States. The search for a Bismarck here is a fool’s errand, and Bismarckian ambition is likely to get you nowhere as a practitioner of American foreign policy. This vision of the great man of foreign policy, “a dark Byronic hero . . . brooding, silent, and bearing vast responsibilities . . . excused from the normal restraints of morality in the service of his titanic, earth-altering vision,” just doesn’t fit in a system where authority is so divided, both between executive branch agencies and between the executive branch and the legislative branch, and the interests so diverse, especially over the aforementioned economic considerations.

In any case, two cheers for simplisticism, incoherence, ham-handedness, arrogance, money-grubbing, confusion and bluster. Because when you strip away the time-honored global tradition of disrespect for American foreign policy-making, as well as the time-honored American tradition of lamenting and deploring our own incompetence, you’re left with a pretty serious question: If the U.S. position in the world today is a product of two-plus centuries of failure, what would success look like?