The historian Walter Russell Mead in “The Jacksonian Tradition” (subscribers only) characterized four different traditions in American foreign policy, named after arguably the founding member, or at least most notable member, of that school of thought. Each of the passages is taken from this article by Noah Millman, which I quote at length because, frankly, I’m too lazy to write something in my own words and Millman’s work well enough:

  • Jeffersonians: “The Jeffersonian school is introverted idealist: it is primarily concerned to insulate the United States from being sullied by foreign entanglement. It is idealist because it is our republican virtue that we are trying to preserve. If the central neoconservative insight was that a nation’s political systems affects its foreign policy (totalitarian systems derive their legitimacy from war, and hence must be aggressive), the central, and much older, Jeffersonian insight is that a nation’s foreign policy affects its political system (a republic will lose its republican character if it shoulders the burdens of an empire).”
  • Jacksonians: “The Jacksonian school is introverted realist, by contrast (although this school is not associated with Kissingerian “realism” in foreign policy), because it is primarily concerned with interests (counting honor as a kind of interest, something you keep in an account that can be depleted or replenished), and not especially concerned with having relations with foreigners.”
  • Hamiltonians: “The Hamiltonian school is similarly realist, but extroverted; it is also focused on interests, but understands these interests (being predominantly commercial) to be intertwined with those of other players in the international system.”
  • Wilsonians: “The Wilsonian school is similarly extroverted, but idealist; like the Hamiltonian, it is also intensely interested in what happens in far-off lands, but not because of a perception of how our interests are bound up with such doings, rather because, for a Wilsonian, America is betraying its values if it does not act to defend and promote those values abroad.”

It is, perhaps, no mistake that three of the four (Jefferson, Jackson and Wilson) were presidents and the one who was not (Hamilton) might well have been president had he not been killed in a duel. All of these strains of thought have existed in the USA since the very beginning. While more inwardly focused, what we’re calling Wilsonism was very much behind the spirit of the abolition movement in the 19th Century, for instance, or the missionaries to China. And of course you can have people who are primarily one style but express memorable views of another, e.g., the decidedly Hamiltonian Ike who made one of the most widely quoted statements of modern Jeffersonian philosophy in his Farewell Address, something which you should read in its entirety.

Now Millman makes this into a chart on a two-dimensional plane. There are a number of other such charts to visualize political ideologies and so forth. Back in the old days these tended to be drawn by expert judgment as a pictorial way to represent a conceptual “space.” Now it’s possible to make use of data to back it up, which the “back of the envelope” conceptual charts of the past do not do generally, although when you actually confront them with data you often find what you do, in fact, expect to find, though not always exactly as conventional wisdom would have it. On first blush, I guess I’d rather think of the classification as something each person can have a mix of, or an ordering in terms of style and am not entirely convinced that a two-dimensional Euclidean representation makes sense and don’t know of any systematic efforts to test Mead’s classification, though I’m sure there’s some intrepid international relations student who’s trying.

But forget that nitpicking, I’ll just run with the classification, warts and all.

I’ll start with myself, Mildly Piqued Academician. I am not 100% consistent but I’d say am pretty much a Hamiltonian. Screw ideals, they’re mostly bullshit anyway, make sound deals in the national interest. Most of the time these will be commercial/diplomatic, but if those tools fail you may have to reach for the sword and shouldn’t be too sorry about using it if the day comes. I don’t support an overly narrow definition of “in the national interest” however, which is where my discomfort primarily lies. (Realist philosophies aren’t about being personally happy, they’re about making the best of what’s viewed as an inherently bad deal.)

Angry Military Man comes off as a Jacksonian sometimes but is, deep down inside, a Wilsonian.

Angry Overeducated Catholic wishes he was a Wilsonian but is too cynical for that and thus is a Jacksonian or Hamiltonian depending on which side of the saddle the burr is currently under.

Angry New Mexican and Angry Virginian are both enigmas but I would guess disappointed Wilsonian and thus have Hamiltonian leanings.

Angry Immigrant is suitably conflicted that he doesn’t fit any of the dominant categories well.

Angry Political Optimist is a mixture of Jacksonian and Hamiltonian.

Angry Midwesterner is a Jeffersonian with decidedly Jacksonian leanings, except on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays when he’s a Wilsonian, and on February 29, when his Hamiltonian side comes out.

Angry Biologist cracks gum when saying, diffidently, “You want flies with that, honey? The horsefly meal is only ninety nine cents more and the dragonfly meal is just a dollar ninety nine extra.”

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