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Even more than I realized when I began this book, foreign policy has been central to the national experience. External assistance was essential to the birth of an independent United States; concerns about international commerce and foreign threats decisively influenced the form of government created in the Constitution of 1787. Foreign policy was instrumental in securing the young republic's political experiment, establishing a continental Union, and determining the outcome of its Civil War. During the nation's second full century and beyond, foreign policy has become even more critical to its prosperity and security.

Throughout its history, the United States has taken a distinctive approach toward foreign policy. Americans have held decidedly mixed views about their place in the international order. On the one hand, they have been allured by the riches of the world, and from the Revolution to the present, the pursuit of economic self-interest has produced a high level of global involvement. On the other, from the outset they expressed disdain for traditional European power politics and viewed themselves as a people apart, the harbingers of a new world order.

From Puritan leader John Winthrop's proclamation of a "city upon a hill" through George W. Bush's born-again zeal, Americans have seen themselves as a chosen people with a providential mission. This ideal has spurred a drive to do good in the world, manifested in the work of merchants, missionaries, and educators. It undergirded the Wilsonian dream of the United States as world leader and a world reformed according to American ideals.

This ideal has also spawned a certain arrogance in America's dealings with other peoples that was used to justify the expulsion of Native Americans, the wresting from Mexico of one-third of its territory, and the imposition of colonial rule on Filipinos and Puerto Ricans. From an ill-fated incursion into Canada in 1775 to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, America's sense of its grand historical mission has been used to rationalize the extension of liberty by force. Certain of their righteousness, Americans confidently expected to be welcomed as liberators. The ironic result, in most cases, has been to spark nationalist opposition among the people invaded.

America's democratic system has also given a distinctive hue to its foreign policy. From the beginnings, foreign policy has been the object of fierce partisan dispute. On occasion, an aroused public has pushed the government to act. More often, public indifference or apathy have brought about increasingly sophisticated efforts on the part of leaders to inform, "educate," and manipulate public opinion. The division of powers between executive and legislative branches has added another area of confusion and conflict. The nation's peculiar approach to foreign policy has long bemused and befuddled foreign observers, producing sometimes ingenious efforts to influence the U.S. political process.

Despite its claims to moral superiority and disdain for Old World practices, the United States throughout its history has behaved more like a traditional great power than Americans have realized or cared to admit. U.S. political leaders have energetically pursued and zealously protected interests deemed vital. In terms of commerce and territory, they have been aggressively and relentlessly expansionist. From Louisiana to the Florida, Texas, California, and eventually Hawaii, they fashioned the process of infiltration and subversion into a finely tuned instrument of empire, using the presence of restless American settlers in nominally foreign lands to establish claims and gain additional territory. During the Cold War, when the nation's survival seemed threatened, they scrapped traditional notions of fair play, intervening in the affairs of other nations, overthrowing governments, even plotting the assassination of foreign leaders.

Popular notions to the contrary, the United States has been spectacularly successful in its foreign policy. In the space of a little over 200 years, it conquered a continent, established dominance over the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean areas, helped win two World Wars, prevailed in a half-century Cold War, and extended its economic influence, military might, popular culture, and "soft power" throughout much of the world. By the beginning of the 21st century, it had attained that "strength of a Giant" Washington had dreamed of.

Ironically, as the nation grew more powerful, the limits to its power became more palpable, a harsh reality for which Americans were not prepared by history. The nation's unprecedented success spawned the notion that it could do anything it set its mind to. Success came to be taken for granted. Despite its vast wealth and military power, the United States had to settle for a stalemate in the Korean War. It could not work its will in Vietnam or Iraq, nations whose complex societies and idiosyncratic histories defied its efforts to reshape them, causing frustration and disillusionment at home.

The emergence of a new 21st century threat in the form of international terrorism and the devastating September 11, 2001 attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon underscored another hard reality: power does not guarantee security. On the contrary, the greater a nation's global influence, the greater its capacity to provoke envy and anger; the more overseas interests it has, the more targets it presents to foes and the more it has to lose. America's unparalleled power could not assure the freedom from fear its founders had dreamed of. Post-9/11 difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan underscored a fundamental "lesson" of geopolitics, that power, no matter how great, has limits. America's unipolar moment turned out to be fleeting. By the end of the first decade of the new century, experts were again speaking of a nation in decline.
    -INTRODUCTION: From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776 (Oxford History of the United States) (George C. Herring)

An even casual student of American history isn't likely to find much new in this volume of the outstanding Oxford History of the United States, but the thematic presentation of familiar material does offer some refreshing insights. To begin with, Mr. Herring makes it clear just how central international relations have been to the supposedly isolationist US, beginning with the vital role that obtaining French assistance played in winning the Revolution. Likewise, while we tend to consider Manifest Destiny and the manner in which the original 13 states spread out across the continent and beyond through a domestic lens, it was obviously very much a process that consisted of conflict with foreign nations and peoples. Even the Civil War, which seems at first glance a purely internal matter, saw much jockeying for support abroad. And despite tariffs and bouts of protectionism and nativism, our Anglo-American capitalism has guaranteed that we'd stay involved in international matters. In all these areas, Mr. Herring reminds us that foreign policy was not something that suddenly became an American concern around the time of WWI and thereafter for the rest of the 20th century, but was important even in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The book also makes excellent use of the intertwining American themes of the Empire of Liberty and the City on a Hill--the enduring competition between our universal democratic ideals and our parochial fear of being corrupted by our involvement with alien affairs (see also Walter McDougall's Promised Land, Crusader State. After all the recent hysteria from Democrats, Realists, and the Right about how George W. Bush's campaign to Reform the Islamic World in our own image was antithetical to American history and ideals, it's enormously useful to have a historian trace the direct line from Jefferson and the Declaration through our history to W's democratic evangelism. Indeed, with American history laid out as it is here, it becomes obvious that while we do go through periodic bouts of isolation, xenophobia, what have you, they all end with us being summoned back to our moral duty as we put down aboriginal barbarism, African piracy, our own slavery, European Imperialism, Nazism, Communism, and now Islamicism. Some of these campaigns have required that we be attacked or depended on political leaders manufacturing cases for war out of supposed attacks, but one of the best bits in the book comes when Mr. Herring shows that it was a real sense of revulsion at the amorality of detente that saw us ditch the policies of LBJ/Nixon/Ford and early Jimmy Carter in favor of the intervention and confrontation of Carter's last years and the Reagan administration.

All of which brings us to the final theme that binds the text together, the fact that our foreign relations have been remarkably successful, despite the occasional setback or mistake. For the unavoidable truth of the past several centuries is that the rest of the world has become ever more like us: liberal democratic, protestant, and capitalist. Suppose we were to accept the arguments of anti-Americans foreign and domestic--that we don't and have never cared about liberalization abroad; that we are inept in war and peace; that we are racist, xenophobic, isolationist, etc.; that progress in other parts of the world depend on the brilliance of foreign leaders not our inevitable blundering (as even Mr. Herring sort of argues in elevating Mikhail Gorbachev to a position that reality disproves)--we would nonetheless be confronted by the odd eventuality that not only are we the world's unchallenged uberpower and a magnet for immigrants from every nation, but every one of the ism's that we battled either has been or is in thee process of being defeated on the battlefield and rejected in the streets and at the polls. It's all well and good to complain about a whiggish interpretation of history, but what if the Whigs just keep winning?

When Mr. Herring finished his book folks were still, foolishly, convinced that we were losing the WoT in general and the war in Iraq in particular. Had he read the history he wrote here more closely he might have been more confident.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

George Herring Links:

    -George Herring - Professor Emeritus (University of Kentucky)
    -BOOK SITE: From Colony to Superpower (Oxford University Press)
    -GOOGLE BOOK: From Colony to Superpower
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: George Herring (John J. Miller, National Review: Between the Covers
    -INTERVIEW: Questions for George C. Herring (Amazon Exclusive interview with author George C. Herring and David M. Kennedy, editor of the Oxford History of the United States series)
    -AUDIO LECTURE: George C. Herring, historian, writer (Georgia Center for the Book)
    -LECTURE: My Years with the CIA (George C. Herring, January 1997 meeting of the American Historical Association and published in the May 1997 newsletter of the Organization of American Historians)
    -ESSAY: America and Vietnam: The Unending War (George C. Herring, Winter 1991/92, Foreign Affairs)
    -VIDEO LECTURE: Teaching American History Institute (Dr. George C. Herring, Sept. 2, 2004, BaylorTV)
    -AUDIO LECTURE: George Herring's informative and entertaining lecture highlighting key moments in American foreign policy (Forum on Contemporary Europe)
    -ESSAY: Lend-Lease to Russia and the Origins of the Cold War, 1944-1945 (George C. Herring, Jr., June 1969, The Journal of American History)
    -REVIEW: of Michael Lind's "Vietnam the Necessary War" (George C. Herring, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of A.J. Langguth's "Our Vietnam: The War 1954-1975" (George C. Herring, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of Secrets by Daniel Ellsberg (George C. Herring, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Pueblo Incident: A Spy Ship and the Failure of American Foreign Policy by Mitchell B. Lerner (George C. Herring, Journal of Cold War Studies)
    -REVIEW: of David Kaiser. American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (George C. Herring, H-Net)
    -ARCHIVES: George C. Herring (LA Times)
    -ARCHIVES: George C. Herring (Foreign Affairs)
    -ARCHIVES: George C. Herring (Harper's)
    -REVIEW: of From Colony to Superpower U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 By George C. Herring (New York Times)
    -REVIEW: of Colony to Superpower (Howard W. French, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Colony to Superpower (Josef Joffe, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Colony to Superpower (James Bratt, Books & Culture)
    -REVIEW: of Colony to Superpower (Michael C. Desch, National Interest)
    -REVIEW: of Colony to Superpower (Gabriel Paquette, The National)
    -REVIEW: of Colony to Superpower (Godfrey Hodgson, First Post)
    -REVIEW: of Colony to Superpower (Thomas Schoonover, B&N Review)
    -REVIEW: of Colony to Superpower (Jonathan Rosenberg, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of Colony to Superpower (Cleveland Plain Dealer)
    -REVIEW: of Colony to Superpower (Lawyers, Guns & Money))
    -REVIEW: of Colony to Superpower (Doug Bandow, Anti-War)
    -REVIEW: of Colony to Superpower (Glenn C. Altschuler, Jerusalem Post)
    -REVIEW: of Colony to Superpower (Publishers' Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Colony to Superpower (Mary L. Dudziak, Legal History Blog)
    -REVIEW: of Colony to Superpower ()
    -REVIEW: of America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 by George C. Herring (Gaddis Smith, Foreign Affairs)
    -REVIEW: of George C. Herring. America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (The Mason Historiographiki)
    -REVIEW: of America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (Allison Arizaga)
    -REVIEW: of America's Longest War (History Today)

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