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What Obama could learn from Jefferson

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Tuesday, 21 April 2009

On the domestic front Barack Obama has said Abraham Lincoln provides him with considerable inspiration and many important lessons. On the international front, who are Obama's presidential forefathers? On his recent trip to Europe, Turkey and Iraq, Obama reminded one of Woodrow Wilson speaking of a new diplomacy after a troubled age.

Wilson was arguably the most feted and popular US president to visit continental Europe. When Wilson arrived in France in 1919 at the end of World War I (the so-called war to end all wars) he was treated as a great saviour by a people who had endured a long and brutal war. He promised to end war forever through an enlightened treaty and a league of nations. Wilson's popularity, boldness and idealism are echoed in Obama. However, Wilson's fine words could not be matched with correspondingly grand deeds; his presidency ended disastrously and, of course, World War I was followed by the even more deadly World War II. Given these facts, better parallels may be drawn with other American presidents.

When looking back to see which former US politicians have left a lasting foreign policy legacy, it is hard to go past Walter Russell Mead's brilliant book Special Providence (2001), in which he argues that the US has had four foreign policy traditions: the Wilsonian, the Hamiltonian, the Jacksonian and the Jeffersonian. The first tradition represents America's messianic tendencies to spread democracy and US values abroad. This history includes the actions of progressive US missionaries in China during the 19th century and Wilson at Versailles in 1919. Obama's rhetoric has occasionally hit these messianic notes; however, the US's economic woes seem to have edited his speeches of the more purple prose evident during his campaign.


Obama's inauguration address and his address to Congress in February were more pragmatic than the Wilsonian rhetoric increasingly indulged in by George W. Bush. It was Bush who promised in his second inauguration speech that "it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world". Now that's an ambitious mission (in fact a mission impossible in the short to medium term). Wilson promised to make the world safe for democracy; Bush promised to make the world into 200-plus democracies (sometimes through the barrel of the gun).

Some of the wisest commentators in the US rightly saw Bush as a combination of Wilsonian rhetoric and Jacksonian practice. The Jacksonian tradition is named after seventh president Andrew Jackson, a major-general in the US Army. This tradition is generally inward-looking and populist; however, if the US is threatened, Jacksonians respond in a highly militaristic and brutal fashion. Curtis LeMay and the bombing of Japan in World War II are examples of these Jacksonian tendencies.

Obama seems the least Jacksonian US president for quite some time.

No understanding of US foreign policy would be complete without emphasising the importance of commerce and that is where Hamiltonians come in. Named after George Washington's close adviser and first secretary of the treasury Alexander Hamilton, the Hamiltonians argue that the first goal of the US should be maintaining and extending the country's economic wellbeing. This will be Obama's first priority in many ways, just as it has been for all US presidents. Hamiltonians tend to view the US's Anglosphere alliances as their most important international relationships. George H.W. Bush is a good example of a Hamiltonian.

Last, there are the Jeffersonians, named after the statesman, founding father and third president Thomas Jefferson. Jeffersonians place the highest premium on preserving American democracy and liberty at home and see the words of the Declaration of Independence as the unfulfilled guiding light for American politics. For them, it is crucial that the US avoid foreign entanglements and going abroad to slay enemies, as they believe that alliance and military commitments will inevitably undermine American democratic beliefs and liberal values.

Jeffersonians lament the US military-industrial complex and the imperial presidency as clear examples of the betrayal of the country's founding democratic values. Jeffersonian ideas have been long ignored and the 20th and 21st centuries have seen few presidents with a serious commitment to such beliefs. Could Obama be different?


To an extent, Obama may be forced to adopt a more Jeffersonian policy as the global financial crisis forces the US to look inward and attempt to put its own house in order. Withdrawing from Iraq and closing down Guantanamo Bay prison are classic Jeffersonian actions. The war against Iraq and terror has shown the enduring truth of Jefferson's concern that waging war compromises the US's commitment to liberty and corrodes the country's image as a shining political light for others to follow. Obama clearly recognises this.

Like Obama, the highly intelligent Jefferson was hardly a saint or without contradictions. Like Jefferson, Obama is one of the few US presidents to have spent important years living abroad and seems to share Jefferson's suspicion of the formalities of traditional diplomacy.

Finally and most crucially, the Jeffersonian tradition of preserving democracy and liberty at home will hopefully be taken more seriously by Obama than it has been by most recent US presidents.

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First published in The Australian on April 17, 2009.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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