No Words Wasted Sale

The New Republic Online
Thursday, April 18th, 2002


Special Providence: The Secret Strengths of American Foreign Policy


Santayana Syndrome

A review by James P. Rubin

I. It has been a long time since Santayana's maxim about forgetting history and repeating history could be cited without irony. The sentence — which first appeared in 1905 in a chapter on "Reason and Common Sense" in Santayana's book The Life of Reason — has been so often and oppressively quoted that it has itself become the very symbol of cliché, the most common way of teaching a platitude by example. Those who do not remember Santayana's maxim, you might say, are condemned to repeat it. But there is at least one precinct of American life in which the famous admonition still has the power to sting: the American government, and particularly the institutions of American foreign policy.

Until only a few decades ago, when "policy studies" came into its own, the study of the past was still deemed to be the best preparation for the practice of diplomacy. History was the only school of international affairs. It provided the policy-maker with models and precedents and warnings. And those who did not remember history ... etcetera, etcetera. Walter Russell Mead's exceedingly interesting new book is written in such a Santayanan spirit. It is premised on the continued pertinence of the knowledge of history to the fashioning of foreign policy. His goal is to provide a framework for American history that will help policy-makers to avoid the pitfalls of their predecessors. Since "our national ignorance of our own past successes impoverishes our foreign policy process today," Mead believes that "our elites and our policy-makers would benefit from a richer, deeper understanding of the principles and goals of their predecessors."

Mead's historiography of American foreign policy purports to identify four schools of thought, four traditions of American diplomacy: Jeffersonian, Hamiltonian, Jacksonian, Wilsonian. His book contains pithy and useful descriptions of our foreign policy debates from the continental expansion of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries through the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, the infamous interwar years, and of course the international institutions founded after World War II. The book is a treasure trove for modern-day policy-makers seeking historical justifications for their positions.

Mead's approach is to offer an even-handed analysis of the emergence and the endurance of what he calls Jeffersonian, Hamiltonian, Jacksonian, and Wilsonian foreign policies. If nothing else, his account serves two important purposes. It debunks the myth of an America in eternal pursuit of "virtuous isolation," and it explains why the ideas and practices of "realism," the diplomacy commonly associated with Talleyrand, Bismarck, and Metternich, among others, have enjoyed so little appeal in America.

We begin with the Hamiltonians. This school is built on the conviction of the primacy of international economics. To ensure America's independence and prosperity in its early years, the United States had to protect the freedom of the seas, open the door for our exports around the world, and prevent any other power from challenging these principles. But ensuring the freedom of the seas and the open door was no mean task in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Mead chronicles the dozens of times that American ships and soldiers were sent around the world to protect against piracy at sea or to back up our diplomats' insistence on access to trading routes and concessions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The latter task often meant challenging European powers as they sought to divide up the world colonially.

By the turn of the century, the Hamiltonians, led by Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, played a crucial role in building the Panama Canal and establishing America's global role. The construction of the canal was a race with the British that the Hamiltonians were determined to win. It confirmed once and for all America's hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. And meanwhile Washington was determined to prevent the British, the Europeans, and the Japanese from dividing the spoils of potential trade with China. By means of military action in the Spanish-American War and the Philippines, or by means of convening diplomatic talks between Japan and Russia following the Russo-Japanese War, American leaders protected America's access to markets throughout the world, and blocked Japan from becoming a hegemon in East Asia. The Hamiltonians were also determined that America enter World War I on the side of Britain and France, lest all the gains made in past decades under the British umbrella be lost in the aftermath of a German victory in Europe.

The Hamiltonians were Anglophiles; but Mead points out that their approach to America's global role was markedly different from that of the British Empire. They sought a system in which other nations joined international trading systems voluntarily. In their minds, a global system had to be based on the free participation of states. They were the precursors to today's proponents of globalization, because they believed that an effective trading system was far more beneficial than the zero-sum game so popular with European statesmen such as Metternich. Moreover, mutually beneficial commercial arrangements between states would reduce the risks of war. In Mead's account, the American avoidance of the excesses of British imperialism was owed not to moral considerations, but to economic ones.

Mead's account of American policy throughout the nineteenth century is interesting also for another reason. It presents no evidence and provides no support for the stereotypical portrait of the United States as a naturally isolationist state, nestled comfortably in the protections of two vast oceans and seeking to avoid the foreign entanglements of which its first president famously warned in his parting words to his young country. Indeed, Mead argues that "the myth of virtuous isolation ... was in fact a profoundly anti-historical myth." The Hamiltonians made sure that American policy up to World War I was filled with messy diplomatic and military disputes with European powers and with China and Japan. This was engagement of the most intense kind.

Jefferson's school, according to Mead, was (and is: again, Mead believes that these types persist to this day) concerned mainly with protecting American democracy against the dangers of executive power and limiting the costs and the risks of whatever foreign policies were necessary to protect our independence. Idealism at home, realism abroad: this was the Jeffersonian motto.

The Jeffersonians, beginning with Jefferson, feared that Hamiltonian engagement abroad would lead to a standing army and navy, and new powers for the president, and a weaker congressional oversight role, and a greater degree of secrecy in government. When the Hamiltonians looked around the world, they saw opportunity. The Jeffersonians saw danger. They were the early deficit hawks, believing that wars or conflicts abroad aimed at opening markets would increase the national debt, and benefit mainly the bankers, and oppress the citizenry with higher taxes. Eisenhower's concern about the rise of a military-industrial complex was a supremely Jeffersonian concern.

As to the morality of foreign affairs, Jeffersonians had their hearts in the right place. They did see the United States as a "city on the hill." But they did not believe that America should promote freedom and prosperity by exporting our way of doing things. Instead the United States was to teach its values and its successes by example. John Quincy Adams expressed this view definitively when he remarked that the United States "goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."

This did not mean that the Jeffersonians were classical isolationists, though. They were minimalists with a realist streak. Indeed, Mead explains that the first real organizational framework for American foreign policy — the system established by the Monroe Doctrine — owed its success to the support of both the Hamiltonian and the Jeffersonian schools. The Monroe Doctrine, promulgated in 1823, was a grand bargain with our former mother country: we would accept British naval dominance and help to maintain a balance of power on the European continent while Britain would help us to meet any challenge to American dominance of the Western Hemisphere. This modus vivendi with the British was a perfect compact for the growth of the American economy. For the Jeffersonians, this doctrine was a low-cost approach that protected our independence while avoiding dangerous intrigues and interventions on the Continent. The alternative — a never-ending effort to fend off European colonial designs — was worse.

As advocates of the Monroe system that persisted throughout the nineteenth century, the Jeffersonians complained about — but generally acquiesced in — one foreign adventure after the other as the Hamiltonians sought to make the world safe for the American economy. The Jeffersonians did not really seem out of step with mainstream thought until World War I, when they challenged the global ambitions of the Hamiltonians under Roosevelt and the newly minted Wilsonians. Mead is right to emphasize that the failure of the League of Nations was not so much a victory for isolationism as a failure of Wilson and Henry Cabot Lodge (the great Hamiltonian of the day) to make the compromise that would have robbed Senator William Borah and the Jeffersonians of their triumph. But the Jeffersonians were soon in disgrace, as they were the last to acknowledge the danger of Hitler's Germany. As realists, they apparently assumed that the other European powers would unite to stop Hitler's conquest of the Continent. Sometimes it is realism that is unrealistic.

Despite their realist streak, the Jeffersonians' political philosophy was fundamentally in conflict with the practitioners of realism on the European continent. The Jeffersonians wanted brilliant diplomats to solve America's problems with little risk, but they believed that the worst thing that could happen to American government would be the rise of all-powerful, secretive warrior-diplomats of the Bismarckian variety who were so admired in Europe. They wanted more congressional oversight, greater civilian control over the military, open decisions openly debated, and a diplomatic corps that would not conceive of its mission as hobnobbing with the European aristocracy. They desired a diplomacy that would not offend their democratic sensibilities. They feared, and with good reason, that too many European wars were caused by the quarrels and the jealousies of monarchs and aristocrats, rather than by fundamental clashes of interest between nations.

Mead's treatment of the roots of the Wilsonian mentality is particularly fine. He shows how Wilsonianism emerged out of the missionary movement in the United States in the nineteenth century, when tens of thousands of Americans lived abroad and spread the word of God by offering education, rudimentary technology, food and medicine, and the promotion of civil society. American missionaries both served and placed demands on the government. They were the eyes and the ears of their home country, bringing a unique expertise to a rudimentary diplomatic corps. (Their crowning achievement in the twentieth century was the local knowledge that they made available to General MacArthur as he oversaw the re-building of Japan after World War II.) But the missionaries also needed protection, by means of American diplomacy or American troops, if they faced threats of violence in China, Japan, and the Ottoman Empire. At home, their churches and their supporters petitioned the government in much the same ways as Amnesty International and certain religious groups do today, demanding that American diplomats put human rights on the agenda. They also generated the exchanges that brought foreign students to America and educated Americans about the diversity of cultures around the world.

"...America's global dominance in the last hundred years cannot be attributed solely to its military supremacy or its economic power."

The Wilsonian grand strategy became clear during the extraordinary debate over the League of Nations. It was this modern American school of thought about international affairs that was the first to argue what is accepted wisdom today: that democracies make better, more reliable, and more predictable partners than dictatorships. Like the Jeffersonians, the Wilsonians believed that monarchies and dictators did not reflect the enduring national interests of their countries, but were the egregious causes of needless wars provoked by petty personal quarrels and wild policy swings when governments fell.

This notion of democratization as a goal of foreign policy led to the Wilsonians' most important contribution. In seeking to make the world "safe for democracy," they placed the United States on the right side of history as democratic change and independence slowly and fitfully swept across the globe. While Hamiltonians and Wilsonians broadly agreed on issues such as anti-colonialism and a stable world order, it was Wilson who promoted Jefferson's declaration of independence, with its ringing articulation of the natural rights of man, into a document of American foreign policy, and made the promotion of those same rights into a guiding principle of American actions abroad.

About the role of idealism in foreign policy the Wilsonians were right. They were also successful, in the sense that America's global dominance in the last hundred years cannot be attributed solely to its military supremacy or its economic power. If the United States is today a "hegemon," it is not least because of the steadily increasing popularity of the American ideal of life, and of the strategy of democratization that the Wilsonians built into American foreign policy. Most criticism of American policies around the world — save that of Communist China and a few others, which do not pretend to anything higher than their own airless and authoritarian rule — is based not on a repudiation of Wilsonian principles, but on a resentment that certain governments of the United States have been unable or unwilling to apply Wilson's vision in a consistent manner.

It is Wilson's vision that makes us admired around the world in a way that the European powers and empires never were. Unfortunately, the Wilsonian school is now most associated with advocating policy by treaty. In addition to promoting the often ineffectual United Nations, many contemporary Wilsonians have put their energies behind the creation of the International Court of Justice, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the myriad international conventions regulating the laws of war. The inevitable difficulties in negotiating, ratifying, and monitoring the implementation of those documents has now become their main preoccupation. Their notion of American interventionism on behalf of American values rarely includes American military intervention.

Which brings us to the Jacksonians. Mead's account of the Jacksonian model in American foreign policy is controversial; Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has raised serious questions about Mead's scholarship in this area. Schlesinger has objected to Mead's depiction of Jacksonians as "warlike, trigger-happy, fundamentalist, nativist, paranoid, protectionist ... and committed to an anti-internationalist, unilateralist course in foreign affairs," and he has concluded that "nearly everything Mr. Mead ascribes to Jacksonianism was untrue of Andrew Jackson and his administration....He is not at all interested in Jacksonian facts. He is enchanted by a literary conceit that turns into a gross case of historical hijacking." I am not a historian, and I have no reason to believe that Schlesinger's criticism of Mead is incorrect. And yet the current that Mead labels "Jacksonian" will have a ring of familiarity to any student of American foreign policy; and it certainly reflects the tangled and thorny relationship between American politics and American diplomacy.

The Jacksonians, in Mead's account, arose out of the frontier and the folk culture that Andrew Jackson most perfectly and noisily represented. This view of American foreign policy remains most popular in the Southwest, the Deep South, and parts of the Midwest, where the frontier experience was crucial to the development of local politics. The Jacksonians are the warriors of American society. While they prefer to avoid conflict with the rest of the world and often rail at the complications of economic engagement, they believe that if war comes we should deploy all our power in ruthless pursuit of total victory. The Japanese admiral who was said to describe the United States as a "sleeping giant" was referring to America in its Jacksonian mood, a country slow to anger but fearsome in anger.

The Jacksonians, as Mead describes them, are somewhat uncomfortable with representative government. They prefer a populist, Perot-style democracy at home and simple solutions abroad. They are protectionist in opposition to the global trade strategies of the Hamiltonians, and highly critical of the complexities in the patient diplomacy of the Jeffersonians, and contemptuous of the Wilsonians for the naivete of their attempt to promote democratic values abroad. For obvious reasons, this is the American school that Europeans least understand, the American taste for effective action that they regard as crude cowboy diplomacy.

Mead rightly points out that it is this school that provides the political support for the high levels of spending that have made our military so successful. And it is the Jacksonians who are prepared to make the sacrifices in blood and treasure to achieve victory when war breaks out. They are decidedly not isolationist. While they may have a limited view of America's global interests, they are prepared to act — and act decisively — if those interests are threatened. Whether it is in defense of the lives of American citizens and missionaries abroad or the right of continental expansion, or in response to the sinking of American ships in World War I and Pearl Harbor or the loss of vital oil in the Persian Gulf, the Jacksonian impulse has made America's military supreme and our rise to global power possible.

II. Again, I am not a historian, but Mead's framework for the analysis of foreign policy strikes me as at least conceptually adequate. The schools that he portrays do represent the competing currents that a policy-maker in Washington faces today. His framework is certainly more precise than the old categories of hawk and dove, left and right, internationalist and isolationist, unilateralist and multilateralist.

During the first Bush administration and the two Clinton administrations, the United States pursued an international economic policy that can be accurately described as Hamiltonian. NAFTA, GATT, China's accession to the World Trade Organization, the prominence of the World Bank and the IMF: all reflected Hamiltonian preferences. And Mead is surely right that recent presidents have had so much trouble winning congressional support for free trade policies because of opposition from contemporary Jeffersonians, who do not wish to give the executive too much power, and from contemporary Wilsonians, who are concerned about labor and environmental standards, and from contemporary Jacksonians, who favor protectionism.

The first Bush administration's decision to expel Iraq from Kuwait was both Hamiltonian in its focus on the vital significance of oil to the world economy and somewhat Wilsonian in its use of the United Nations and its rhetoric of a "new world order." Similarly, President Bush's decision to intervene in Somalia to save hundreds of thousands of people from starvation, and President Clinton's interventions to restore democracy in Haiti and to bring a halt to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo, were largely Wilsonian in conception and execution.

The difficulty that Bush and Clinton experienced in obtaining congressional support for those uses of military force reflects the continuing power of the different camps that Mead has identified. It is worth remembering that the vote in the Senate about the Gulf War was an awfully close 53 to 47, with many senators reflecting Jacksonian views that Saddam Hussein's irredentism was not our problem. Other lawmakers made Wilsonian and Jeffersonian arguments: they argued that rescue of the autocratic emir of Kuwait was not an American moral priority, and that sanctions should be given more time. In the Balkans, many Jeffersonians believed that some form of "realist" diplomacy was preferable to the risk of another Vietnam. (In the early days of the recent American operation in Afghanistan also, the word "quagmire" was often heard.) Jacksonians did not see any compelling American interest in that part of the world, and then were paradoxically appalled at the limited application of American force.

Similarly, using Mead's framework, it can be argued that American policy toward China was so unstable and inconsistent during the 1990s precisely because none of the four schools was able to establish its dominance over that policy. Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians saw normal relations with China as making good economic and diplomatic sense. Some Wilsonians were appalled by China's abuses of human rights. And most Jacksonians did not like the massive trade imbalance, and wanted to punish Beijing for its Communist government.

The problem with Mead's scheme of classification is the problem with every scheme of classification. It is too neat. Mead's analysis runs into trouble when he avoids or misrepresents a number of modern-day complexities. For one thing, there is barely a mention of a new school of American diplomacy that is proving more influential by the day. This school is Wilsonian in its objective — the promotion of freedom in China, Iraq, and around the globe; but it is not shy of using military force to achieve those objectives, and prefers American military action unencumbered by alliances or the burdens of international approval. It is certainly not Jacksonian, because its advocates have expansive goals for American foreign policy that are not limited to classical definitions of the vital interests of the United States.

This camp — call its members the Pax Americanists — is led in the Bush administration by Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle. On any given day its numbers include more than a few members of the House and the Senate, and of the staff of this magazine and The Weekly Standard. The Pax Americanists want the United States to have a military capable of promoting democracy and freedom across the world. Whether it is a national missile defense to provide the U.S. military with the protection that would be an essential condition of any possible intervention on behalf of democratic Taiwan, or the use of steadily escalating American military forces in support of the Iraqi opposition to end the tyranny in Iraq, or military intervention to stop Slobodan Milosevic, this school has ambitions for democracy that would make even a Wilsonian look on in wonder.

When it comes to the modern-day Jeffersonians, Mead is on his weakest ground. He centers this school on the "realists" who opposed the Vietnam War and other purported excesses of the Cold War; who support the War Powers Resolution's restrictions on the use of force, and fear government secrecy, and dislike covert operations, and advocate stronger congressional oversight, and prefer to solve problems diplomatically rather than through the use of force. Mead proceeds to classify Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger as Jeffersonians, and suggests that George W. Bush has a Jeffersonian streak because in his presidential campaign he called for a new "humility" in our foreign policy.

"...the characterization of Kissinger as a 'Jeffersonian' seems almost libelous. (And libelous to Jefferson, too.)"

Powell certainly has Jeffersonian inclinations. He seems perfectly comfortable with the traditional diplomat's Hippocratic promise to "do no harm." He is reported to have advocated the use of sanctions over the use of force against Saddam Hussein in the lead-up to the Gulf War. He was a consistent advocate of using diplomacy rather than American intervention in the Balkans, because he held the view that the American people would not support a war there. But the Powell Doctrine of defining America's interest so narrowly, and of using only "overwhelming" or "decisive" force, is nothing if not Jacksonian. And he has become as eloquent an advocate of global trade and opening markets in his travels around the world as any Hamiltonian.

I suspect that Henry Kissinger would be appalled by Mead's label. If there is one figure who has consistently bemoaned the damage that congressional oversight has done to our international activities, and argued in favor of stronger executive powers of secrecy and covert operations, it is Kissinger. He has never been one to avoid the use of force at all costs. Given his views on strategic bombing in Vietnam and on arming the contras in Nicaragua or the mujahideen in Afghanistan, and his strong advocacy of the Gulf War, and his Jacksonian call for the use of ground forces in Kosovo to protect the credibility of NATO, and his incessant criticism of Clinton for not conducting massive air attacks against Saddam Hussein, the characterization of Kissinger as a "Jeffersonian" seems almost libelous. (And libelous to Jefferson, too.)

Mead correctly identifies George Kennan as the perfect modern Jeffersonian. But George W. Bush? His campaign call for a new diplomatic "humility" was surrounded, after all, by Jacksonian calls for eliminating the ABM treaty, confronting China, sanctioning Russia for Chechnya, and rejecting negotiations with North Korea, and also by Hamiltonian commitments to expand free trade and respond to the concerns of big business.

III. It is the Jeffersonian school to which Mead attaches himself. At the end of his book, he limns his own idea of a framework for American foreign policy in the twenty-first century. It is crushingly disappointing. What Mead proposes is this: the United States should define our vital interests and our secondary interests, and then adopt a "grand strategy" that "secures all of the vital interests and as many of the secondary interests as can reasonably be achieved with the fewest risks and costs." Well, yes. Who could disagree? But at such a level of generality and abstraction Mead's prescription is useless. Indeed, it is barely a prescription at all. It is only a platitude, even if Mead himself finds in his formula more evidence of the "strategic elegance" of the Jeffersonian tradition, whatever that means.

Mead is surely right when he says that modern leaders armed with a genuinely historical perspective — not Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, or Wilsonian diplomats, but Santayanan diplomats — will make better decisions and be better able to explain their decisions to the American people. As Mead aptly remarks, the task facing "those who aspire to lead the nation is to find within each of the enduring traditions of American statesmanship ways to speak to the aspirations and values of the American people ... and to create policies that deserve the sacrifices that people may someday have to make to see that they are carried out." But in claiming that those in the highest levels of government are ignorant of history, and in asserting that Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton were all lacking his own unique perspective when they made so many mistakes, Mead's self-satisfaction carries him much too far.

Given Mead's statement that "it is only our diplomats and our foreign policy thinkers who find little to inspire them in the record of the past," it seems fair to ask: how would Mead the historian perform as Mead the policy-maker? Not very well, alas. In Mead's case, too, the Balkans were the test: in Bosnia veritas. Intervention in the Balkans was in many ways the defining foreign policy issue for the United States in the 1990s. The reason for its importance was simple: existing American policies offered little guidance in this particular crisis. It was not a question of following through on Cold War commitments. It was not a region like the Middle East, in which most people agree that the United States has vital interests. Many of our closest allies, notably Britain, had staked out a clear position against direct intervention and for accommodation with Milosevic's Serbia. American lives were not endangered. So what was the United States to do?

According to Mead, it is precisely such situations in which the long view of the historian should prove useful. And what were Mead's recommendations? Since he writes a column for the Los Angeles Times, the evolution of Mead's opinions is wickedly easy to track. Early on, he appeared to recognize the importance of the Balkans. In September, 1991, he argued for a strong American policy to put a halt to European bickering, warning that "we ignore [the Balkans] at our peril." By August, 1992, however, Mead's tune had changed dramatically. He put his historian's hat on, asserting that "Americans don't understand history" and that "intervention would be a disaster."

Then Mead pulled a triple Santayana, using the very arguments that became so popular with Bush administration officials and with Clinton in his early years. First, there was the "ancient hatreds" argument. The Balkans had been wracked by ethnic war since the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, through the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires, and culminating in the Croatian slaughter of Serbs during World War II. Then there was the claim that even Hitler had failed to suppress the mighty and battle-hardened Serb guerrillas. And then he threw in a dose of American history — intervention looked like "the slow road to Vietnam: an unwinnable, open-ended ground war against entrenched guerrillas" — and a quotation from Theodore Roosevelt — "if the League of Nations means that we will have to go to war every time a Yugo-slav wishes to slap a Czech-slav in the face, then I won't follow them."

All this was supposed to amount to a powerful and incontrovertible argument against American involvement. But a few months later Mead changed his mind again. In December, 1992, anxious about the rise of "the fascists in Serbia," he called for the establishment of humanitarian safe areas, and advocated "a clear warning backed up by overwhelming force" that "might bring Serbia back to its senses."

By 1994 and 1995, the history lecture on Vietnam and ancient hatreds was back. In the months prior to the NATO air strikes in the summer of 1995 and the resulting Dayton Peace Accords, Mead was arguing that air strikes would not change the military balance; only ground forces could make a difference, but a ground war was a Vietnam-like quagmire. In February, 1994, he even cited European history to extenuate "ethnic cleansing," claiming that it was little different from the forcible removals that were so common throughout European history prior to World War II. He went so far as to praise Clinton for the "new realism" and sophistication that he showed by not following through on air strike threats and recognizing the reality that the Serbs had won.

"The only sensible thing to do is to find a peace proposal acceptable to the Serbs," Mead wrote in May, 1995. But then in early August, 1995, Clinton finally changed his policy. He decided to threaten the removal of U.N. peacekeepers to bring the Europeans on board, and to use NATO air strikes against the Serbs to stop the slaughter in Sarajevo and to force them to accept the West's peace plan, and to leave open the option of lifting the arms embargo if the Serbs remained intransigent. Two weeks before this historic decision was made, Mead became increasingly strident in his opposition. If we pursue such a plan, he wrote in July, 1995, "the grim barbaric slaughter in Bosnia will worsen ... the disintegration of the Western alliance will accelerate — and U.S. prestige will suffer new and heavy blows."

All of this advice was wrapped in another dollop of Santayanism. Clinton's new plan, Mead claimed, would repeat the mistakes of British policy in 1920 toward the crumbling Ottoman Empire, when Turkey refused to back down against a French and British force that was defending the Greeks. The resulting rout of the Greeks by the Turks was a humiliating disaster for the British Empire, which Mead predicted that Clinton was destined to repeat. But the really striking thing, of course, was that none of these "lessons of history" was "repeated." As a consequence of the new American policy, the Serbs backed down, the war ended, and NATO's and America's prestige was restored and even enhanced.

When the Kosovo crisis emerged three years later, Mead, like many other strident opponents of intervention in Bosnia, refused to credit Clinton for actually learning the lessons of history — in this case, the recent history of Bosnia. Following Milosevic's refusal to accept the Rambouillet accord, or even to discuss seriously the details of a NATO peacekeeping force for Kosovo, NATO air power was at last engaged. Eventually there was even a threat to use ground forces. Milosevic capitulated. NATO's central demands were met: all Serb troops left Kosovo, and a NATO-led peacekeeping force was deployed (it is still there), and all those miserable Kosovar Albanians in Macedonia and Albania returned to their homes in the fastest repatriation in the annals of the U.N. High Commission on Refugees.

And what did Mead have to say about this success, based as it was on learning the lessons of Bosnia and recognizing that the Balkans were not Vietnam and that the Serb military of 1999 was not the same as the Serbian guerrilla force of the early 1940s? Mead argued that the Serbs won! In accord with Belgrade's spin, he asserted in June, 1999 that the Kosovo settlement was made on Milosevic's terms, because the force was deployed under a U.N. umbrella, and because the West weakened its support for an independent Kosovo.

Both those claims are absurd. The American government always envisaged that the NATO force would be deployed pursuant to a resolution of the Security Council. Despite strenuous objections from Moscow and Belgrade, the resolution specifically ensured that the NATO commander was to coordinate his activities with U.N. civilian officials on the ground; but in a clear reflection of the lessons of Bosnia, the NATO commander would not answer to the U.N. Security Council or to any U.N. official in the Secretariat. Most observers would agree that this arrangement has worked remarkably well over the last two and a half years. As for independence for Kosovo, the position of the West has remained unchanged. If anything, the idea of Kosovo's independence had greater currency after the war than it did at the time of the Rambouillet accord, when the Albanian delegation nearly scuttled the talks because we would not give them the guaranteed path to independence that they sought. Unlike Mead, moreover, the Serb people thought that Slobodan Milosevic had lost in Kosovo. And I have the strong feeling that even Milosevic himself, sitting in the dock at The Hague, does not quite believe that he outsmarted NATO in the final hours of the air war, even though he believes (to judge by his Orwellian oration in court) many wild things.

During the great debates over the Balkans, history was used as a weapon by both sides. The opponents of American military involvement summoned the lessons of Vietnam, while the proponents conjured up Munich. And it turned out that neither of these precedents was a good analogy. Perhaps the lesson of the Balkans for American policy-makers is that sometimes it is better to be ignorant of history than a prisoner of history. Those who remember Santayana may be condemned to forget much else.

Click here to subscribeTry four weeks of the New Republic Digital absolutely free

For nearly 90 years, the New Republic has provided its readers with an intelligent and rigorous examination of American politics, foreign policy, and culture. Today, we're proud to offer a faster, easier, and more economical way to enjoy the magazine — TNR Digital. Subscribe today and we'll give you 4 weeks absolutely free. That's less than 36 cents/week for every word of content available in the print version, a downloadable replica of the print magazine, and an array of special online-only features!

Click here to sign up.

  • back to top


Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at