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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 then invoke the rationale of pragmatic adjustment to cloak both the pragmatism and cynicism with the moral warrant of ideal intentions.

Nor, in Herring's telling, does one strand really work without the other. If the high-mindedness of Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter ran aground, first bungling in its innocence, then overcompensating with rationalization, to end in fatal ambiguity, the ruthless realism of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger ran that administration out of office, its proud amorality turning out to be naïve given American sensibilities. The winners in Herring's account are those presidential and diplomatic eagles who are wise enough to hunt only land-able fish, to stay out of the range of other hunters' guns, and to remember that their breed must evoke in American hearts something of the disciplined and noble.

Refusing to choose between the motifs of innocence and imperialism, Herring tries instead to explain how and with what consequences each has fueled the other. The light interpretive touch befits his volume's place in the Oxford History of the United States, which aims to blend thorough treatment and engaging style to bridge the divide between scholarly expert and interested reader. That mandate elevates narrative over analysis and runs the risk of settling interpretive differences at the dead middle of the road. Herring avoids that pitfall by clearly setting forth his own conclusions on controversial points, pointing the reader to divergent opinions in the notes.

As the first volume in this Oxford series to pursue a theme across the nation's entire history, From Colony to Superpower faces a daunting challenge of coverage. Its sensible solutions determine both the virtues and the limits of the volume. A strict chronological order comes at some cost of cross-period comparisons; Herring offers just enough of these to make us want more. Substantively, focus on policy and policymakers makes this a summa of conventional diplomatic history rather than a genuine new opening in (pace the subtitle) American foreign relations. We get a thorough, accurate, detailed delineation of the chief policy initiatives of an era; the global, political, and economic contexts out of which they emerged; and especially the leaders who formulated them, typically presidents, secretaries of state, and (later) national security advisers. Despite Herring's ready acknowledgement that unofficial ventures such as businesses, missions, tourism, and cultural exchange could be more important for American international doings than the formal means of arms and diplomacy, we in fact read little of former compared to the latter. For instance, American Protestant missions during their heyday in the last third the 19th century get no more coverage than the modest initiatives of the contemporaneous Secretary of State, James G. Blaine.

Given these traditional emphases, however, Herring works very well. The foremost presidents and diplomats of each era are memorably sketched, their international vision effectively integrated with their personal character and domestic politics. Vital statistics on commerce and the military come steadily to hand to lend a sense of comparative scale and growth over time. Every important treaty, along with the signal failures and scandals of American diplomacy, is explained in appropriate detail, from the XYZ Affair of the 1790s to the foundational documents of the Cold War to Donald Rumsfeld's infamous utterances about Iraq. The volume regularly returns to American policy toward Africa and Latin America along with the more familiar domains of Europe, East Asia, and, eventually, the Middle East. Kudos to Herring, then, for fashioning a volume which teachers can consult for classroom presentations, pundits for historical angles on breaking news, and concerned citizens for questions to ask of their leaders—and of themselves.

A subject of this scale also presents narrative challenges, and Colony to Superpower deals with them by riding the irresistible tide suggested by its title. Moral, immoral, or amoral, the United States in these pages can hardly help garnering its stupendous gifts of demography, domain, and protective oceans to become a nation more powerful than any other and to pursue, as much as any other, its inherent interests. But given its character as a nation composed of immigrants and founded by a revolution, it cannot help but parade its special qualities, real and presumed, and lift its nobler intentions into a self-concept that infuses, or masks, much of its international conduct with claims of providential destiny. Herring nowhere approaches a Chomsky-like screed about the aggressions committed in the process or the duplicities with which they were covered, but he persistently points these out by way of correcting the "mythologies" and "illusions" to which he believes Americans are subject on this front.

The corrective note sounds already on page 1: "Americans think of themselves as peace-loving, but few nations have had as much experience at war as the United States. Indeed, beginning with the American Revolution, each generation has had its war. Armed conflict has helped to forge the bonds of nationhood, nurtured national pride, and fostered myths about the nation's singular virtue and indomitableness." Herring keeps the theme in view by proceeding to record how fully the nation was occupied with imperial conquest over the course of the 19th century. The first conquest came in seizing a continental domain from retreating, preoccupied, or otherwise bungling Europeans but most of all, and by any means necessary or possible, from native peoples and the recently independent, fellow republic of Mexico. The second conquest came via sea-borne trade across the Caribbean, a precursor to the casual occupations American armed forces would make there in the 20th century. These two, together with contemporaneous ventures of trade and exploration in the Pacific, made the 19th-century past prelude indeed to the more familiar tale of wars and commercial empire to come. The racism, relentless expansionism, and comparatively easy pickings of 19thcentury "manifest destiny" put a deep imprint on American memory—and on American expectations.

Herring takes considerably more space—fully twothirds of his text—to treat the more complicated 20thcentury phases of the story. Again he sets forth a moderate liberal revision of the tale of innocence for those who need it, a compendium of established wisdom for those who already know. The United States did not inadvertently stumble into overseas empire in 1898; it pursued it by a resolute policy and "war by design." if the ensuing disappointments temporarily soured the American people on empire, a significant majority was eager to follow Woodrow Wilson into war in 1917 under a simpler optimism than he himself showed. Nor were the 1920s marked by an "isolationist" turn. The term is over-used in American history, Herring argues, and applies almost exclusively to the early 1930s. The 1920s saw greater American overseas trade than ever, now expanded to include motorcars, movies, and global financial leadership, but on the usual unilateral pattern. Having tipped the balance in World War I, the United States took the blithe but ominous course of global "involvement without commitment."

Things changed fundamentally for America, twice, in the 1940s. As to the first, Franklin Roosevelt did not trick the United States into war at Pearl Harbor, which was a genuine intelligence failure; his artful deceptions occurred instead in the North Atlantic, where he had the United States acting as a belligerent by mid-1941. In fact, he there deployed virtually every stratagem, constitutional stretch, and rhetorical ploy that his liberal descendents would object to during the later Cold War. The Cold War itself represented an even greater departure from historic patterns, one reason that it became more intense or prolonged than it needed to be. Americans had a hard time discerning that Joseph Stalin, while as brutal a dictator as they thought, was more beholden to traditional Russian imperial impulses than to any ideological quest for world domination, and subsequent leaders on both sides found it more politic to rest in preconceptions than to see the world in the fresh terms of decolonization and shifting economic development. Thus the truly transformative figure in ending the Cold War was not Ronald Reagan but Mikhail Gorbachev, who lost his place and his empire for his pains. Had Reagan's term ended a year earlier than it did, Herring offers, his foreign policy would have been remembered as a great failure, marked in equal parts by simplistic moralism, "inattention and mismanagement."

With so much included in one narrative, it might seem churlish to note items passed by. Sometimes Herring's choices are illuminating, as when he records the sacking of Washington, D.C., in 1814—an event regularly recalled in post-9/11 commentary—with just one sentence, while lauing the diplomacy of Henry Clay, Albert Gallatin, and John Quincy Adams ("perhaps the ablest [delegation] ever put together by the nation") in negotiating the Treaty of Ghent the same year. Other omissions are puzzling. Dwight Eisenhower's parting shot on the military-industrial complex has surely been as relevant to the half-century since as George Washington's Farewell Address was in the early republic. Yet Herring gives the latter full attention, the former not even a word. And surely it is a focus on é lites that allows him to opine that "an administration [that of George W. Bush] intent on invading Iraq carried a reluctant nation toward its first preemptive war with remarkably little dissent." In fact, the occasion triggered huge dissent in the blogsphere and in the streets of American cities, just as Right radio greeted it with anything but reluctance. Herring's reliance on traditional sources tends to obscure how long and effectively the populist Right's crusading militarism has registered in Congressional elections, and how dissent from the activist Left began the puncturing of Bushian fantasies.

More broadly, it is remarkable that Reinhold Niebuhr makes no appearance in the text. Not only was he in his time as significant a commentator—and a superior organizer—on American foreign policy as Walter Lippmann (who merits half a dozen index entries); Niebuhr wrote the classic analysis of the categories of innocence, tragedy, and irony at work in this volume. As it is, Herring replicates some of Niebuhr's reflections, but in an informal, glancing manner. Some concerted attention to the model would have made his interpretation deeper and more sustained.

Finally, we might ask a question about the chronological parameters that this book observes—a question, that is, about the conventions of the field and not about the author. To begin the story with 1776 is to accept a political definition of the subject that, however self-evident on one level, begs a more salient question. Is it really state action that determines foreign relations? It shapes and guides them, certainly, but it rides on powerful currents and is constrained by preconditions. Herring's treatment of 19th-century precursors to 20th-century empire proves the point and deserves to be taken back even further. Continental conquest rested on two premises: that Euro-Americans had a huge and growing demographic advantage over native peoples, and that these "tawny" types might be whacked around at will. Yet Andrew Jackson was not the first president to have a past as a genocidal general; Washington ordered the same during the War for Independence—in fact, made devastating the Iroquois his only military campaign of 1779. That decision in turn had ample precedent in the Indian wars of the colonial frontier, one of the most constant, wholehearted, and unifying enterprises of otherwise disparate and quarreling colonists. The masters at the game were from Carolina, Jackson's home turf. Within a generation of their arrival from Barbados, slavery in tow, the founders of the colony used one coastal tribe, the Savannah, to annihilate another, the Westos, only to attack the Savannah in turn. Moving inland, they used the Yamasees to drive out the Tuscarora, the Creeks to defeat the Yamasees, the Cherokees against he Creeks, leaving it to General Jackson eventually to slaughter the latter and President Jackson to remove the former. As one surveys merican expeditions a century later against various "tawny" nations of Central America, and more recent invasions of Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iraq again, one can only wonder how determinative for Americans yet today is the trope of the Indian war—a short blast of shock and awe that exacts happy winnings at little cost, or that encounters guerrilla resistance at great frustration over how so superior a force and so noble a cause get entrammelled by lesser peoples.

Perhaps it is not to Plymouth Rock that Americans should therefore trace their founding but to Barbados. Perhaps they should worry less about John Winthrop's dictum about being a city on a hill (or at least ponder it more accurately; Herring invokes the line several times, missing—as is standard among historians—its original status as an ominous test, not carte blanche, from God) and more about the violence that would be repeatedly stoked at Charleston harbor and has now spread across the gun belt that the hegemonic Sunbelt has become in American affairs. Or perhaps it is not moral action at all but the tides of demography that set our course, in which case the foundational document of American foreign affairs is not Thomas Paine's Common Sense (Herring's nominee) but Benjamin Franklin's Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, written a generation earlier, in 1751. If demography is destiny, as Franklin accurately foresaw of American-British relations and as Jackson and a thousand others put into effect in the 19th century, then America's future may be most determined by how wisely it rides its current paradox: not of innocence and experience but of having more weaponry than all the other nations of the world combined, and greater debts than any.

James D. Bratt is professor of history at Calvin College.

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