Special Providence

American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World

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Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

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United States

The United States has had a more successful foreign policy than any other great power in history. Council Senior Fellow Walter Russell Mead attributes this unprecedented success (as well as recurring problems) to a vigorous interplay among four powerful political traditions that have shaped foreign policy since the Revolution. The tension among these competing forces guides American foreign policy toward prudent action. Mead argues that the United States is successful because its strategy is rooted in Americans' concrete interests, which value trade and commerce as much as military security.

The winner of the Lionel Gelber Prize for outstanding writing on international affairs, Special Providence opens with a simple declaration: "This is a book about how and why American foreign policy works." Mead's provocative conclusion is that far from being amateurish and stumbling, American foreign policy has succeeded astonishingly well over two centuries. The United States was dealt a good hand, Mead concedes, but she has played her cards exceptionally well.

Mead attributes this success to four schools of thought, named after four American statesmen: the Hamiltonian (protection of commerce), Jeffersonian (maintenance of a democratic system), Jacksonian (populist values, military strength), and Wilsonian (moral principle). The title of Mead's book comes from a remark usually attributed to Otto von Bismarck, who is alleged to have said, "God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America."

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Reviews and Endorsements

Mead is a clear and original thinker and an engaging writer, and these pages are filled with striking insights and pithy formulations.

Aaron L. Friedberg, the New York Times

Mead's book is an impassioned effort to debunk the view of such American Bismarckians as Henry Kissinger, who once wrote that 'America's journey through international relations has been a triumph of faith over experience'.

David Rieff, Los Angeles Times