An Interview with Walter Russell Mead


Walter Russell Mead is a professor of American foreign policy at Yale and the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College. Mead also serves as an editor and writer for The American Interest magazine. He is perhaps best known for his articles and books on foreign policy and declining of the blue social model in American domestic life.

DPR: You have written in depth about the “death of the blue social model” and what it means for the direction of the country. Could you briefly explain what you mean by “the blue social model” for our readers?

Mead: Think of it as kind of a mix between the new deal state and the great society. But I don’t just mean this in terms of the way the government works. If you think about the American economy of the 1950’s, 1960’s, it was dominated by a small number of large corporations in key sectors. So, we actually had one telephone company. AT&T had a legal monopoly. There were not many airlines. There were the big three television networks, the big three car manufacturers. And most of these companies were heavily regulated in the services they could offer, the prices they could charge, all of this stuff. So if you were the Greyhound bus company, you didn’t just send buses between any two cities you thought of; you had certain routes you were allowed. And the fare you could charge was established by the regulators. It worked very well for a lot of people, in that, if you got a job working for one of these stable monopoly or oligopoly companies it was probably a job for life. If anything, they only grew. Their profits were very predictable. The stockholders got a reasonable rate of return, management got a certain amount….Also, you go through the educational system….It was predictable, and it was stable. We don’t look now, hard, at the problems with it. For one, the cars were really crappy because there was little no foreign competition…. With AT&T it was like, if you don’t like our service, don’t use the phone!… But also, if you were white, the system worked pretty well, and if you were male, the system worked pretty well. But the whole system was geared toward giving a certain defined percentage of the population a stable place in the economy. Over time, social changes, technological changes, global changes have been ripping that system into bits… With women and minorities able to compete fairly in the workplace, there is more competition in the workplace. There’s been a loss of equality, there’s been a loss of security.  

DPR: To me it seems that part of our crisis is a lack of imagination and innovation when it comes to new policy ideas. What can our universities, schools, and politicians do to better train leader of tomorrow?

Mead: I’m afraid one thing the leaders of tomorrow are going to have to is pay less attention to the windbags of today. Because one of the problems is that normally in a society it is people like intellectuals and professors who supposedly have the leisure time to think about where society is going and to start dreaming up new ideas. The justification for tenure is you can come up with unpopular, new ideas and no one can fire you. But the trouble is, institutions– government and universities– are pretty much captured by the blue model. Tenured professors still live like General Motors executives of the 1950’s. Professors’ jobs are safe…. And they don’t want this to change. A lot of the people in our country who should be helping us think about the transition to something new are actually busy fighting to preserve the old system. Think of teachers’ unions fighting against charter schools. I’m not saying charter schools are answer to everything or everything teachers’ unions want are bad, that’s not my point. Again, tenured employment, defined benefit contribution, stable middle class job guarantee. Students spend their entire life with people for whom the blue model is still working…. It dulls imagination. If you think of the way you as a student have been socialized, if you come into the class at the beginning of the year, follow instructions and do the “right thing”, at the end of the year you get a step promotion. That’s the blue model. So, we actually have an educational system that socializes students into a social system that doesn’t exist very much outside the university and government. This is one of the reasons that many students find that transition between the senior year of college and the “real world” to be so terrifying, because the gap between the world that you’ve been educated for and the world you’re going to have to actually go out and make a living has been getting steadily wider for a long time.

DPR: Let’s shift to foreign policy. When it comes to the current status of the United States’ “global commitments,” you often cite alliances as being a core tenet of stabilizing our interests. However, many recent events, like the strengthening of an Iranian-Russian alliance in the face of ISIS’ rampage, have put this in jeopardy, specifically in the Middle East. In the interest of reassuring our allies like Saudi Arabia and European countries, what do you propose should be done?

Mead: I think you have to separate out the issues a little bit in that our alliance system in Asia has been getting stronger, mostly because our allies in Asia are worried about some of the same things. So, if China is looking a little threatening, then people naturally value the alliance more. Asia is maybe in a different basket, and Asia is (for the long-term) probably the most important place for the future of American foreign policy if things go well elsewhere. The Middle East is probably where things are the biggest mess. Many people in the region see what’s going on as a Sunni/Shia war, like the 30 years war, one of these religious wars. They look at America, and they ask, “which side are you on?” Their attitudes towards us are based on where we stand on this. Now, President Obama and his administration don’t want to think about the Middle East that way because it’s a very ugly way to think…. That’s not where we want to be. We really prefer not to get involved in sectarian wars. On the other hand, we have geopolitical issues and commitments. Saudi Arabia and its allies seem to be in trouble, and Iran seems to be gaining ground. Unfortunately, the nuclear deal we made with Iran, whatever its merits as a nuclear deal, is destabilizing geopolitically…. What they want the U.S. to do is to intervene much more aggressively in Syria to contain Iran geopolitically and regionally, which they see as a complementary strategy to the nuclear deal. But, I think the White House, for various reasons, is trying not to do that. That creates a lot of uncertainty and insecurity in the region. I think we’re seeing some of the effects of that now.

DPR: If we’re thinking strategically, it doesn’t seem like European countries are going to the best allies going forward. Their economies are stagnating and as their domestic politics become more conservative, they are turning inwards. Do you see a world in which we can set our differences aside and ally with major world players like China or Russia?

Mead: I think I would be careful not to write off Europe too quickly. Germany may not be growing as fast as China, but technologically, it’s much more advanced. It remains a very, very important country geopolitically. The same is true for France and England. It’s true that in some ways Europe is fading, but it remains big. It’s not at all clear that China’s path will be straightforward, nor India’s. A few years ago, everyone was talking about the BRICs, now the Russian economy is in the toilet, the Brazilian economy is in the toilet, India is probably doing the best, but even China has been having some economy trouble lately…. So, in some ways, the Europeans are looking better. I would also point out that if we’re making a list of rising powers we should include Canada and Australia. These are countries that are commodity powerhouses, their populations are growing, their ability to project force and influence is growing, and it some ways their rise offsets any decline in the United Kingdom…. We don’t have any common institutions for the Anglosphere, but more often than not, the Americans, the Canadians, the Australians, the British, even the New Zealanders sort of throw their weight onto the same side of things. That’s actually huge– we probably don’t think about it enough. It’s probably a little politically incorrect. But in fact, those countries together, even though we’re constantly quarreling with each other over this and that, are a major force in the world. If you look longer term, the American economy continues to grow, the population is younger than most other advanced countries, it’s likely to stay that way…. So many people have this idea that somehow the 21st century is going to see this radical distribution of global power. No doubt some things will change, but actually the U.S. and some of its traditional allies may be in better shape than one might expect.

DPR: Have you ever thought about getting into politics yourself? If not, why not?

Mead: I just don’t think that’s me. If the job of Governor General of the Virgin Islands opens up, maybe I’ll go there. I declare this beach open! Welcome for the beach volleyball tournament, we’re so glad you came. I think something that the republic needs is people who follows these issues carefully, but aren’t trying to get a job in the government so you don’t want to say anything that Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush will object to so you can never get confirmed or get a good job. Or also your vast array of corporate clients, you can’t say what you think because you don’t want Alcoa or whoever it is to be upset. So, I like to think I’m performing a kind of public service by doing my best to think honestly and carefully about the problem that face us, give people my best take on what it is, and let the chips fall where they may. That could change, I don’t know what holds in the future… But, so far it seems to me that the path I have chosen has made me more, and not less, useful over time on the things that I care about and where I hope to make a difference.
* This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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