The world is a complicated place. Writers often like to try to reduce it to a neat little schematic. Oftentimes a schematic of their own devising. Walter Russell Mead has gotten to be pretty well-known largely through his deployment of a schematic that classifies American approach to foreign policy into a four-fold schematic of Jeffersonian, Hamiltonian, Jacksonian, and Wilsonian. This schematic is fun to play around with, but fundamentally it’s an oversimplification of the ideological issues and involves abstract away from all questions of practicality. So it really should come as no surprise to anyone that Barack Obama, who has some ideas but also wants to avoid Bush-style blundering into efforts to do things that simply backfire and fail, can’t be neatly squeezed into one of those categories.
That seems simple enough to me. But to Mead it’s a sign of a dangerous incoherence in Obama’s approach. At root, he sees Obama as a “Jeffersonian.” But he thinks the Democratic Party in general, much of Obama’s team, and to an extent Obama himself also has “Wilsonian” impulses. This conflict, we’re told, could put Obama on a path to failure just like—shudder—Jimmy Carter.*
The fact of the matter is that as best I can tell no modern president has ever constructed a foreign policy that achieves laser-like conceptual coherence. Circumstances change. Different people are in charge of different issues. Some things are done for substantive reasons and others for political reasons. Life is complicated.
* It’s never been clear to me why, exactly, Carter is regarded as such a failure. He Paul Volcker been more of a hack operative, maybe he could have delayed the great Volcker Recession until after the 1980 election and Carter would be regarded as a success.