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From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (Oxford History of the United States)
From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (Oxford History of the United States)
George C. Herring
Oxford University Press, USA, 2008
1056 pp., $35.00

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James Bratt


Exceptionalism with a Twist

A new history of U.S. foreign policy.

Americans have always struck outside observers as being a bundle of contradictions. Europeans from Tocqueville on have noted how, in the strange world across the Atlantic, forthright materialists are consumed with spiritual ardors while the mantra of liberty sounds forth from compulsive conformists. From Latin American angle, such beguiling paradoxes shade into dangerous duplicity. Smiling agents of free trade wind up demanding dictatorial governments; the proud pioneers of national liberation forbid "old Europe" from meddling in the hemisphere, the better to turn it into a Yankee domain run on the economics of colonialism.

So too, George Herring's massive survey of American diplomatic history runs along a double track, supplying enough evidence along the way to allow the reader to decide whether the whole amounts to contrapuntal music or clinical bipolar disorder. Perhaps a biological metaphor is most apt, for over its 230-year course of development, American foreign policy has evinced a distinctive consistency that argues the operation of a determinative DNA. One strand is composed of a persistent idealism that wishes the United States to be a blessing to thers—at the same time tending to regard these others as either dangerous sophisticates (Europe) or benighted primitives (most everybody else). Refreshingly free of hypocrisy, then, appears to be the other strand, the raw pragmatism that drives Americans to pursue their national self-interest much like any other country.The problem—or the intrigue—is that the two strands make a genuine double helix, inseparably intertwined. Pragmatism by definition involves adjustment to reality, but the "reality" of a given situation is framed by the idealism with which it was sighted in the first place. Then too, "idealism" itself is composed of mixed quantities: one part good will, one part willed blindness and thus pretense, one part calculated public-relations appeal, thus cynicism—a cynicism that can ...

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