In the American intellectual landscape, the literature of grand strategy forms a domain of its own, distinct from diplomatic history or political science, though it may occasionally draw on these. Its sources lie in the country’s security elite, which extends across the bureaucracy and the academy to foundations, think-tanks and the media. In this milieu, with its emplacements in the Council on Foreign Relations, the Kennedy School in Harvard, the Woodrow Wilson Center in Princeton, the Nitze School at Johns Hopkins, the Naval War College, Georgetown University, the Brookings and Carnegie Foundations, the Departments of State and of Defense, not to speak of the National Security Council and the cia, positions are readily interchangeable, individuals moving seamlessly back and forth between university chairs or think-tanks and government offices, in general regardless of the party in control of the Administration.

This amphibious environment sets output on foreign policy apart from the scholarship of domestic politics, more tightly confined within the bounds of a professional discipline and peer-review machinery, where it speaks mainly to itself. The requirements of proficiency in the discourse of foreign policy are not the same, because of a two-fold difference of audience: office-holders on the one hand, an educated public on the other. This body of writing is constitutively advisory, in a sense stretching back to the Renaissance—counsels to the Prince. Rulers tolerate no pedants: what advice they receive should be crisp and uncluttered. In contemporary America, they have a relay below them which values an accessible éclat for reasons of its own. Think-tanks, of central importance in this world, dispense their fellows from teaching; in exchange, they expect a certain public impact—columns, op-eds, talk-shows, best-sellers—from them: not on the population as a whole, but among the small, well-off minority that takes an interest in such matters. The effect of this dual calling is to produce a literature that is less scholarly, but freer and more imaginative—less costive—than its domestic counterpart.

The contrast is also rooted in their fields of operation. Domestic politics is of far greater interest, to many more Americans, than diplomacy. But the political system at home is subject only to slow changes over time, amid repeated institutional deadlock of one kind or another. It is a scene of much frustration, rare excitement. The American imperial system, by contrast, is a theatre of continual drama—coups, crises, insurgencies, wars, emergencies of every kind; and there, short of treaties which have to pass the legislature, no decision is ever deadlocked. The executive can do as it pleases, so long as the masses—a rare event: eventually Korea or Vietnam; marginally Iraq—are not startled awake by some unpopular setback.footnote1 In this enormous zone of potential action, the advisory imagination can roam—run riot, even—with a liberty impossible at home. Whatever the results, naturally various, there is no mistaking the greater intellectual energy that foreign policy attracts in the thought-world of the Beltway and its penumbra.

On the threshold of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there appeared a confident portmanteau of the native resources that for two centuries ensured that American foreign policy had ‘won all the prizes’. Walter Russell Mead’s Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World (2001) can be taken as a base-line for the subsequent literature. Continental European traditions of geopolitical realism, Mead argued, had always been alien to the United States.footnote2 Morality and economics, not geopolitics, were the essential guidelines of the nation’s role in the world. These did not preclude the use of force for right ends—in twentieth-century warfare, America had been more disproportionately destructive of its enemies than Nazi Germany.footnote3 But the policies determining these ends were the product of a unique democratic synthesis: Hamiltonian pursuit of commercial advantage for American enterprise abroad; Wilsonian duty to extend the values of liberty across the world; Jeffersonian concern to preserve the virtues of the republic from foreign temptations; and Jacksonian valour in any challenge to the honour or security of the country. If the first two were elite creeds, and the third an inclination among intellectuals, the fourth was the folk ethos of the majority of the American people. But out of the competition between these—the outlook of merchants, of missionaries, of constitutional lawyers and of frontiersmen—had emerged, as in the invisible hand of the market, the best of all foreign policies.footnote4 Combining hard and soft power in ways at once flexible, pragmatic and idealistic, America’s conduct of world affairs derived from the complementary diversity of its inspirations a homeostatic stability and wisdom.

Descriptively, the tally of native traditions laid out in this construction is often vivid and ingenious, assorted with many acute observations, however roseate the retrospect in which they issue. Analytically, however, it rests on the non sequitur of an equivalence between them, as so many contributors to a common upshot. A glance at the personifications offered of each undoes any such idea. The long list of Hamiltonian statesmen at the helm of the State Department or ensconced in the White House—Clay, Webster, Hay, Lodge, tr, Hull, Acheson, the first Bush are mentioned—can find a Wilsonian counterpart only by appealing to the regularity of mixtures since the Second World War—fdr, Truman, Kennedy and the rest; while of Jeffersonian rulers or chancellors there are virtually none—even the eponym himself scarcely exemplifying abstinence from external ambition and aggrandisement,footnote5 leaving as illustration only a forlorn train of isolates and outsiders, in a declension down to Borah, Lippman, Fulbright. As for Jacksonians, aside from a subsequent string of undistinguished military veterans in the nineteenth century, Polk and the second Bush could be counted among their number, but most of the recent instances cited in Special Providence—Patton, MacArthur, McCain: Wallace might be added—were burst bullfrogs. Popular support for American wars, Mead correctly notes, requires galvanization of Jacksonian truculence in the social depths of the country. But the foreign policy that determines them is set elsewhere. The reality is that of the four traditions, only two have had consistent weight since the Spanish–American conflict; the others furnish little more than sporadic supplies of cassandrism and cannon-fodder.

In that sense, the more conventional dichotomy with which Kissinger—identified by Mead as the practitioner of a European-style Realpolitik with no roots in America—opened his treatise Diplomacy some years earlier, can be taken as read. In Kissinger’s version, the two legacies that matter are lines that descend respectively from Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson: the first, a realist resolve to maintain a balance of power in the world; the second, an idealist commitment to put an end to arbitrary powers everywhere. Though discredited at the time, Wilson’s ideas had in the long run prevailed over Roosevelt’s. American foreign policy would come to conjugate the two, but the Wilsonian strain would be dominant. ‘A universal grouping of largely democratic nations would act as the “trustee” of peace and replace the old balance-of-power and alliance systems. Such exalted sentiments had never before been put forward by any nation, let alone implemented. Nevertheless, in the hands of American idealism they were turned into the common currency of national thinking of foreign policy’, Kissinger declared. Nixon himself had hung a portrait of the Man of Peace as inspiration to him in the Oval Office: ‘In all this time, Wilson’s principles have remained the bedrock of American foreign-policy thinking.’footnote6

The authorship of the dictum is enough to indicate the need to invert it. Since the Second World War, the ideology of American foreign policy has always been predominantly Wilsonian in register—‘making the world safe for democracy’ segueing into a ‘collective security’ that would in due course become the outer buckler of ‘national security’. In substance, its reality has been unswervingly Hamiltonian—the pursuit of American supremacy, in a world made safe for capital.footnote7 But with rare exceptions like Kissinger, the ideology has been a credulous rather than a cynical adornment of the exercise of American power, whose holders—Bush and Obama are only the latest—have always believed that there is no conflict between American values and American interests. That us paramountcy is at once a national prize and a universal good is taken for granted by policy-makers and their counsellors, across the party-political board. Terminologically, in this universe, ‘primacy’ is still preferable to empire, but in its more theoretical reaches, ‘hegemony’ is now acceptable to virtually all. The contemporary editors of To Lead the World, a symposium of eminences from every quarter, remark that all of them agree ‘the United States should be a leader in the international system’, accept Clinton’s description of it as ‘the indispensable nation’, and concur that the country should retain its military predominance: ‘none of the contributors proposes to reduce military spending significantly or wants to allow us superiority to erode’.footnote8