Thursday, December 16, 2004

The Jacksonian Tradition

It's a little dated, having been published back in May, but in The Jacksonian Tradition and the War in Iraq , John Moser of the Ashbrook Center looks at a strain of U.S. foreign policy dubbed "Jacksonianism" by Walter Russell Mead.

Mead, author of Power, Terror, Peace, and War, has identified Jacksonianism as one of four major schools of thought that have dominated American foreign policy thinking along with the more elitist strains of Hamiltonianism (economic nationalism), Jeffersonianism (isolationalism) and Wilsonianism (idealistic interationalism). As described by Mead, Jacksonianism is characterized by popular nationalism, self reliance and "rugged" individualism which he traces back to the Scotts-Irish who settled the early American frontier (this same group is the subject of Born Fighting : How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, James Webb's well received new book, which seems to come to the same conclusions regarding their cultural characteristics).

The other defining trait of Jacksonianism, and the wellspring of Moser's piece, is the streak of "near savagery" evidenced in war:

Jacksonians, according to Mead, are not automatic supporters of intervention abroad. In the 1990s the Clinton administration's efforts in Somalia and Eastern Europe, having little to do with tangible American interests, left them cold. However, once they are convinced that war is justified on grounds of national interest or national honor, their sole concern is achieving victory at the lowest cost to American forces. They have little patience for diplomacy, and none whatsoever for the notion of "limited war." They find it difficult to understand why humanitarian concern for the enemy should be allowed to trump the lives of U.S. soldiers and other personnel.

The fiercest Jacksonian outrage is reserved for enemies who are deemed to be dishonorable - that is, those who fight contrary to the recognized rules of war. Ordinary opponents, who honor longstanding traditions such as the flag of truce, and who treat prisoners humanely, are entitled to be treated in the same fashion. On the other hand, terrorists who target women and children, kidnap and execute journalists and other civilians, and commit similar atrocities deserve whatever they get. The Geneva Convention, they believe, exists to protect civilization, not the barbarians who seek to bring it down.
This rejection of "limited war" and desire for achieving "decisive" victory has deep roots in Western culture. In Carnage and Culture : Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power, Victor Davis Hanson identifies this desire for "decisive battles" as one of the contributors to Western military dominance. Hanson traces this desire back to the short sharp wars between the city states of ancient Greece. The hoplite armies of these city states were made up of free landholding farmers who wanted to resolve the conflict and get back home as soon as possible:

In the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. if a small Greek community was self-supporting and governed by its surrounding private landowners, then hoplite warfare, far better than fortification or garrisoning passes, made perfect sense: muster the largest, best-armed group of farmers to protect land in the quickest, cheapest, and most decisive way possible.
Hanson argues that it was certain facets of Western culture, such as consensual government, free inquiry and innovative enterprise, as first expressed by the Greeks, that enabled it to wage war so effectively.

Europe, especially "old Europe" is in the process of losing the very characteristics that allowed its culture to survive and flourish. Taking Hanson's argument forward, given the shift of Europe's political institutions toward an unelected transnational government under the EU, its culture toward moral relativism and its economies toward cradle to grave socialism, its little wonder that the what was once a common attribute of Western culture now seen as predominantly an American characteristic.