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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat

Jacksonian America: The Sleeping Giant Awakened by 9/11

Jacksonian America 9/11
Image: Creative Commons.

In a previous life, I was the foreign-affairs columnist for the local paper in my adopted hometown of Athens, Georgia. The month after 9/11 the family and I motored over to the Stone Mountain Highland Games, an event much frequented by Americans of Scottish or Scots-Irish descent. The outpouring of patriotic sentiment was overpowering in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The Stars & Stripes, martial regalia, or both adorned most attendees in some fashion or another.

“Jacksonian America” had gathered to listen to bagpipes, toss telephone poles, and swill whiskey. I went home that night and wrote a column observing that Osama bin Laden & Co. had awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve. And so it seemed that fall of 2001, when U.S. forces toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in short order.

What became of that resolve and the fury that drove it?

History furnishes clues. Historian Walter Russell Mead coined the phrase Jacksonian America in a 1999 issue of The National Interest (subsequently expanded into a splendid volume titled Special Providence that’s eminently worth your time). Back then historians were wont to explain U.S. diplomatic history as a product of interactions among contending schools of thought. Mead connected international-relations traditions with key figures among the founding generations. He saw Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian traditions, for instance.

Andrew Jackson, the pugnacious, populist seventh president of the United States, lent his name to an equally ornery strain in U.S. foreign policy. According to Mead, the Jacksonian tradition is less a school of thought than a collection of folkways—an American subculture. Or as he puts it, it’s “an expression of the social, cultural and religious values of a large portion of the American public.” Jacksonian America is “a folk community with a strong sense of common values and common destiny; though periodically led by intellectually brilliant men—like Andrew Jackson himself—it is neither an ideology nor a self-conscious movement with a clear historical direction or political table of organization.”

Jacksonian individualism had its origins with the rural Scots-Irish community found chiefly in Southern states, but over time it sprawled well beyond narrow ethnic and geographic boundaries. Mead espies a social code among Jacksonians that is grounded in such virtues as honor, self-reliance, individuality, equality, and courage. Those who honor the code are accepted into the community over time—regardless of ethnicity, race, or other superficial characteristics.

In foreign affairs, says Mead, Jacksonians hew to bareknuckles realism. They hold that “international life is and will remain both anarchic and violent,” and thus that “the United States must be vigilant and strongly armed. Our diplomacy must be cunning, forceful and no more scrupulous than anybody else’s. At times, we must fight preemptive wars.” And Jacksonian sentiment perseveres over time when the community is convinced vital national interests are at stake, as in World War II, the Cold War, and Desert Storm.

As a corollary, though, Jacksonians evince little interest in foreign enterprises undertaken for reasons not directly related to defending the national interest. Humanitarian intervention is one venture that leaves them cold. Or—in the case of Afghanistan after twenty years of warfare—they may lose interest in enterprises that once seemed worthwhile by realist standards but no longer do.

Jacksonians also harbor strong views about how wars should be fought. Unless a vital national interest is in peril, they insist America ought to mind its own business. If a compelling interest is at stake, the United States ought to use all martial means at its disposal and refuse to stop short of complete victory—preferably manifest in the foe’s unconditional surrender. Yet Jacksonians welcome a magnanimous peace once victory is in hand—witness the clement treatment afforded the erstwhile Confederacy, imperial Japan, and Nazi Germany.

Jacksonian America 9/11

New York, N.Y. (Sept. 15, 2001) — A New York City fireman calls for 10 more rescue workers to make their way into the rubble of the World Trade Center. U.S. Navy Photo by Journalist 1st Class Preston Keres. (RELEASED)

So a Jacksonian verdict on the war on terror twenty years hence might dwell on purpose and power. Purpose: it might be necessary to pursue terrorists to the ends of the earth to safeguard America, but interminable projects such as nation-building in Iraq or Afghanistan distract from genuinely vital interests endangered by the likes of China and Russia. Drawing down peripheral efforts should find favor with Jacksonian America. And power: the sudden collapse of the U.S.-supported Afghan regime and the haphazard evacuation of the country go against the Jacksonian preference for winning big and decisively. They doubtless find the denouement in Central Asia less than inspiring.

To all appearances, then, the giant roused on 9/11 is slumbering again on the twentieth anniversary of that day. But the Xi Jinpings and Vladimir Putins of the world should mute their glee. If Professor Mead is right—if different strains in U.S. foreign policy combine and recombine as circumstances change—China and Russia are precisely the kind of challengers that could summon forth Jacksonian America anew.

With fateful consequences.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a nonresident fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”



  1. Slack

    September 10, 2021 at 10:59 pm

    Heh, to give my two cents’ worth, I’d say after 9/11, America needs to look at itself in the mirror. More than ever.

    Americans are buying guns and ammo like the way other people buy breakfast.

    Police happily pump shots and spray at both suspects and innocents despite body cameras (and nearby cellphones).

    The American public has become accustomed to waddling around with oodles of body fat swashing about themselves (almost all age groups) while laughing about the slim body shape of peole elsewhere (N Korea).

    Americans consume coke by the millions of gallons despite existence of a ‘diabetes belt’ in America thanks to the deep myopia of health authorities.

    US planes and ships are all over the world poking at all available crevices while State Dept, generals, admirals and WH staff pump out tons of megaphone condemnations and denunciations.

    The US imposes asset freezes, trade sanctions, bans, embargoes, financial restrictions and seizures of goods while demanding to control global supply chains and interfere (meddling) in legitimate dealings by foreign nations.

    In other words, an America awakened from a dream sleep has failed or forgotten to visit the washroom mirror before stepping outside the front door.

  2. ADM64

    September 11, 2021 at 11:44 pm

    There are Americans who still support a Jacksonian approach to foreign policy but none of them are within the foreign policy “elite,” not now, and not on 9/11 20 years ago. A Jacksonian response would have hit every city in Afghanistan and the key installations and storage facilities of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program with nuclear weapons on or around 9/13. The sweeping savagery of such a counter-attack would have demonstrated that, as a super-power, we possessed “super” power and could swat an enemy that had chosen to use its equivalent of weapons of mass destruction – in an attack designed to cause mass civilian casualties and kill the leaders of our government and military and destroy our principal financial center – with those of our own. The rest of the world might have screamed, but they would have had no choice but to take it. The Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs would then have appeared fundamentally, relations with China would have been different, and we could have deal with Saudi Arabia’s role in 9/11 decisively too. Alas, we were too squeamish for an actually Jacksonian approach and instead chose to fight the war bin Laden wanted on his terrain while allowing our frenemy Pakistan to provide a sanctuary for him and the Taliban. Meanwhile, we opted to ignore the role of Islamic theology in the attack and chose to put restrictions on our own citizens and institutions. It’s amazing we lasted 20 years before losing – strategically and economically as well as militarily.

    I am not optimistic anyone in our national security apparatus or government generally have learned a damn thing from this. Talking about “sleeping giants being awakened” and Jacksonian responses are simply wishful thinking. The sleeping giant hit the snooze button and went back to sleep. When he next awakened, he learned that the Lilliputians had tied him down and were gradually cutting his throat.

  3. Jimmy John Doe

    September 12, 2021 at 1:38 am

    If America has any legit right to claim being filled by a ‘terrible resolve’, it has to clean up its act asap. Starting from within.

    How? First the chief executive must communicate to the people, (warmongers in) Congress, big military bigshots and media that military campaigns are not the answer. The sword must be reserved and the ploughshare wielded instead.

    Mistakes made by clinton and bush must be avoided. NATO and other nations yearning to ‘prove’ loyalty must be told:’Keep your weapons in your depots’.

    Solving issues that bother America must be done using brain power not brawn power. And conscience (which is totally lacking in america’s pysche).

    Trump, despite comical rhetoric, avoided WW3 and the wars of clinton, bush and obama era though he wrongfully hit syria despite evidence chemical attacks were done by saudi-backed jihadists.

    Biden who erroneously voted in Oct 2002 for war needs to remember his error and therefore must rein in the State Dept, the admirals and others yodeling for war here and there.

    America owns the ‘power of the greenback’ and Biden must exercise this power. Without the dollar, nations are unlikely to oppose America’s advice (so long as their core interests aren’t sacrificed).

    But America today isn’t ready to part ways with waging ruinous foreign wars and hurling bald-headed threats. The caveman spirit is there not the terrible resolve.

  4. Joe Comment

    September 12, 2021 at 2:13 am

    I don’t see much basis for the claim that Jackson “lent his name to a uniquely ornery strain in U.S. foreign policy.” In fact, U.S. foreign relations were quiet during his Presidency, the only major event being the Texas war of independence from Mexico. The U.S. did not intervene, and limited itself to recognizing Texas.

    As for the foreign policy of the past 20 years, it was almost entirely driven by U.S. domestic politics and showed no real understanding of our international interests, let alone any realistic plan for achieving them. I think it could be fairly summarized as, “9/11 was bad so let’s lash back blindly, and make sure to look tough on Russia and China without actually managing to deter them seriously.” At the end of the period, the Taliban is stronger than ever, Russia has Crimea and our relations with them are worse than ever, and China is constantly expanding its power in every direction and our relations with them are worse than ever.

  5. Joe Cogan

    September 12, 2021 at 4:48 pm

    There was never any chance of “winning big and decisively” in Afghanistan, because there were never any possible outcomes that would have constituted a US victory, so Jacksonians were always going to be disappointed, the only question being “when?”.

  6. abhay

    September 28, 2021 at 3:56 am

    Sleeping Giant Awakened by 9/11 and went to bed with pakis………..

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