A quiet revolution has been taking place in the historiography of American foreign policy. The conventional progressive and realist approaches of the 1930s and 1940s—respectively rooted in the work of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Hans Morgenthau—are being challenged by new ways of interpreting the American past. The new scholarship is already changing the way the history of American foreign policy is taught at many leading universities, and over time it is likely to change the way policymakers think about and craft foreign policy in the 21st century.
The father of the New Look revisionism is Walter McDougall. In 1997, Promised Land, Crusader State challenged two generations of received scholarly wisdom as McDougall took on two basic tenets of Old Look history: that the United States had been largely isolated from world affairs before 1941 (with the brief and luminous exception of Wilson's visionary leadership in World War I) and that American foreign policy could be understood in isolation from broader currents in American life. Subsequent work—by writers as varied in their ideological leanings as Michael Lind, Anatol Lieven, Robert Kagan, and myself—has extended and revised the core critiques in McDougall's work. The discussion of the history of American foreign policy has come to dwell increasingly both on the continuities (including enduring controversies) in policy and on the strong roots of American foreign policy in domestic political events and cultural currents.
Two recent books add to the New Look literature. David C. Hendrickson's Union, Nation, or Empire: The American Debate over International Relations, 1789-1941 examines the history of American thought about international politics and finds in this domestic tradition a source of America's success in managing the international system after 1941. Julian Zelizer's Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security—From World War II to the War on Terrorism is an overview of recent American foreign policy that integrates domestic politics into the story in ways that will leave doctrinaire realists scratching their heads. Like other writers engaged in this systematic rethinking of the history of America's world role, Hendrickson and Zelizer bring their own values and ideas to the discussion. Both authors would probably place themselves on the liberal side of the political spectrum; as with all serious historians, however, their work has a value that goes beyond party.
Hendrickson, who teaches at Colorado College, has one big idea, and like all the really good ones, it is brilliantly simple. The United States, he observes, was surprisingly well prepared to take the lead in a large-scale alliance of democratic states after World War II. What in the American political tradition prepared the country for this role, especially since no such peacetime alliance had ever before endured? His answer is one that no future student of the subject will be able to ignore. In the incessant U.S. debates about federalism, Hendrickson finds a rich literature about the nature of the international state system and its various forms of association. As Americans debated what their Union ought to be—both in relation to the states that composed it and to the foreign states that surrounded it—they developed a nuanced understanding of the interaction between democratic states, which enabled them to respond creatively and flexibly to the questions of international politics after World War II.
Conventional historical wisdom once held that the United States was uniquely unprepared for global leadership in 1945. Hendrickson quite successfully demonstrates the opposite, showing that at least in some respects no country in the world had undergone a longer or better apprenticeship in the new types of international politics that would dominate Euro-Atlantic relations after 1945.
Hendrickson's picture of American history is both like and unlike the vision Robert Kagan offered in his 2006 book, Dangerous Nation. Both figures see American foreign policy primarily as a question of ideology, and both identify what they believe to be the correct ideological view with which all should agree. They differ sharply, however, over what the correct approach involves. For Kagan, there is a line of patriotic foreign policy that moves from George Washington through Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt down to George W. Bush, and a line of queasy, sometimes treasonous misgiving that runs from the later Calhoun through Jefferson Davis, Grover Cleveland, and William Fulbright to John Kerry and, presumably, Barack Obama. In Union, Nation, or Empire the liberal internationalist vision emerges as the lodestar of American foreign policy, and Kagan's assertive nationalism is seen as the negative shadow of the one true creed.
An examination of both books, each with its own richly argued narrative steeped in thoughtful, credible analysis of the American past, reinforces the view I presented in my 2002 book Special Providence, that the American foreign policy tradition consists of several independent and competing world views. They all claim to be the One True Doctrine for foreign policy, but none of them can quite be accepted unreservedly. Hendrickson, Kagan, and I nonetheless all agree that one cannot understand American foreign policy today without an understanding of its deep roots in the full sweep of American history.
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A professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, Julian Zelizer attacks conventional scholarship from another direction in Arsenal of Democracy, aiming his fire at the structural realists, whose claim is that the internal politics of states are largely irrelevant to their foreign policy. It is an attack with which I sympathize; American foreign policy has always been shaped by our domestic politics. As Kagan and others have demonstrated with great precision and acuity, it is impossible to interpret America's approach to expansion before 1860 unless sectional politics are kept firmly in view. The failure to attempt further territorial expansion after the Mexican War was due almost entirely to domestic battles between slave states and free states, as the former wanted to annex slavery-friendly territory like Cuba and parts of Central America, something abolitionist opinion firmly opposed. In the same way, certain post-Civil War decisions—such as that not annex Cuba and what is now the Dominican Republic—were affected more by the domestic racial and cultural momentum within the U.S. than by any consideration of external enemies who were, or were not, in a position to thwart such a move.
Arsenal of Democracy performs the signal service of carrying this analysis through the Cold War, and it demonstrates the degree to which even in moments of great crisis in relations with the Soviet Union, American foreign policy had to respond to domestic political pressures of various kinds. Realists sometimes compare states to billiard balls responding to external events. In Zelizer's account, on the contrary, presidents adjusted policy to reflect inescapable political realities at home. Zelizer shows how the two parties competed to be seen as the more capable guardian of national security and how success or failure in the national security game affected the broader political fortunes of each.
Arsenal is much more than a contribution to political science; it is a compelling and enlightening read. From the time of FDR into our own day, Zelizer provides vital context for understanding both the actions and the motives of American decision-makers. Not everyone will agree with all of his judgments, but most readers will find him a generally fair-minded if not always infallible guide to 60 years of politics high and low.
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If the solid successes of both Union, Nation, or Empire and Arsenal of Democracy demonstrate the vitality of New Look historiography, the problems of both books point to the immense amount of work that remains to be done on the history and nature of American foreign policy. There is perhaps no subject in the world of so much importance to so many people that has been intellectually under-resourced to a comparable degree. Those of us who have tried our hands at "big picture" accounts of this complex phenomenon well know that much of the spadework, on which sweeping historical syntheses must ultimately rest, has yet to be done.
The unfinished business in American historical studies greatly complicates Hendrickson's task of writing what is essentially an intellectual history of American foreign policy. His sources—the speeches and writing of statesmen and political thinkers for the most part—are sound and judiciously deployed. But American politics was, and is, a complicated and raucous business. What is the relationship between what statesmen said for the record and the sometimes uglier motives that animated what they actually did? Books like Michael Holt's magisterial The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party (2003) rather painfully underline the irrelevance of the high flown rhetoric of 19th-century politicians to the actual policies promoted in smoke-filled rooms. How much of the rhetoric that Hendrickson cites was "patriotic flapdoodle" intended to mask intentions and policies and how much of it represented the serious intellectual convictions of responsible decision makers?
In any case, most of the debate that he follows takes place among elites. The relationship of elite debates to American politics changed throughout the period he covers. Are we reading the equivalent of high-minded NPR commentary, expressing the desires and aspirations of a gentry audience but as out of touch with real politics as Henry Adams was with Tammany Hall? Or are we reading the equivalent of talk radio rants, expressions of popular opinion only imperfectly apprehended and reflected in the policy process? More broadly—and this is a question about the state of American historiography more than a critique of Hendrickson's rewarding and excellent book—how do we make sense of the growing mountains of evidence about what Americans in the past thought, said, and did about foreign policy?
Traditionally, historians have had to face the problem of a paucity of sources, building great towers of conjecture on a few dozen inscriptions, a handful of coins, various potsherds, and surviving fragments of manuscript. Once we reach the post-colonial period of American history, the opposite is the case. The volume of "evidence" swells to unmanageable proportions as all classes and conditions of American society produce gazettes and pamphlets and scurrilous libels, and as everyone from senators and presidents to small-town Fourth of July orators express themselves on the questions of the day.
The abundance of evidence combined with the increasingly complicated political life of the geographically and culturally diverse and decentralized American society of the era combine to make the past both dazzlingly bright and difficult to see. You can find nearly anything you want in this sea of evidence; how do you decide what is important?
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Zelizer faces similar problems. Once again, the political history of post-World War II America is so complex, and the stories of domestic politics and foreign policy intertwine in so many ways, that it is hard to decide what matters most. Zelizer says very little, for example, about the foreign policy consequences of the South's longtime suspicion of ambitious Yankee "nation building" dating back to Reconstruction. The quiet opposition of Georgia's Richard Russell to the Vietnam War and William Fulbright's more public dissent rested, in the first place, on widespread Southern white belief that do-gooding Yankee schoolmarm ideas about political change should be viewed skeptically, and in the second place upon deep-seated beliefs that non-white races were not capable of rapid Western-style development. The shift of the white South from its culturally pessimistic and Burkean (and also racist) traditional assumptions to a more activist, optimistic approach probably played a role in the rise of neoconservatism within the Republican Party, while the lingering aftertaste of those old ideas may have helped undermine support for George W. Bush's foreign policy as the Iraq War ground on.
I bring this up not with the intention of rapping Zelizer over the knuckles for some alleged blunder; Arsenal is too serious and accomplished a book to be reviewed in that way and no historian can cover every aspect of the topic. I am trying to help readers grasp the obstacles facing the historian of American foreign policy. Integrating the study of long, slow shifts like this with the analysis of specific political events is something that American historians as a whole need to think more about.
Though the first waves of New Look historians have challenged some myths and illuminated some mysteries, much more work is needed to develop historical methods adequate to the complexity and the importance of the subject. In the meantime, we can expect new and interesting books from the writers mentioned above and from other promising entrants into the fray. The study of American foreign policy remains the still thinly settled California of our time, whose streams run bright with nuggets and whose hills are stuffed with gold.