The rise of the United States to global power has been punctuated by a series of great debates about the new nation's place in the world. These debates connect practitioners and pundits with the American Founding, making sense out of a dynamic, unpredictable narrative by underscoring more fundamental continuities. "Idealists" emphasize the redemptive power of the Revolutionary principles that have guided foreign policymakers in their better, more characteristically "American" moments; "realists" emphasize the founders' prudence in guiding the ship of state through perilous waters and securing the Revolution's hard-won liberties. Patrick Garrity, a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, challenges these "originalist" narratives in his provocative new book, In Search of Monsters to Destroy: American Foreign Policy, Revolution, and Regime Change. Focusing on the specific question of foreign regime change, he explodes the binary oppositions that have structured foreign policy thinking: "idealism and realism are not stark alternatives, but rather two sides of the same coin." His great contribution is to illuminate the underlying assumptions that have made combatants in foreign policy intelligible to each other—but opaque to us.
His choice of episodes to explicate from the first 125 years of American diplomatic history may puzzle readers. After a chapter on the Revolution, largely devoted to John Adams's erratic diplomatic adventures in France and the Netherlands, Garrity moves on to President Thomas Jefferson's mixed success in policing predatory North African regencies in the Mediterranean. Overlooking the French Revolution and its reverberations in the great partisan conflicts of the 1790s—the usual point of departure for foreign policy historians—Garrity devotes his title chapter to the controversy between the prudent John Quincy Adams and his more "idealistic" antagonist Senator Henry Clay over when and how to recognize revolutionary states in the crumbling Spanish empire. These debates over the geopolitical future of the Western Hemisphere set the stage for the next chapter on Americans' responses to the European revolutions of 1848. Garrity skips the diplomatic history of the Civil War, turning instead in his final chapter to a compelling analysis of the debate between "imperialists" and "anti-imperialists" arising out of the 1898 Spanish-American War.
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The author's goal is not to explain how the United States consolidated its power and extended its influence around the world, or to illuminate the thinking of policymakers as they made epochal, world-changing decisions. He is instead most interested in capturing moments when Americans debated their place in the world, assessed dangers and opportunities as regimes changed with dizzying rapidity, and assessed the changing character of their own regime. The U.S. was never a fixed point in that world. American independence was itself the unintended consequence of British imperial reform, or what Garrity calls an "effort by the political center to force regime change on the peripheries of empire." As this ambiguous formulation suggests, it is not clear whether Revolutionary patriots successfully resisted regime change, or created a new republican regime that was—or was imagined to be—the antithesis of the imperial old regime. Historians have endlessly and inconclusively debated this question: was the American Revolution "progressive" or "conservative"? Was it, properly speaking, even a revolution? This original ambiguity was echoed in subsequent American reactions to regime change elsewhere, beginning in France. Americans were thus confronted with perennially controversial questions about the character of their own regime. Did the Revolutionaries define the nation's fundamental principles for all time, or did they instead initiate a new epoch in world history as subsequent generations carried on their good work and redeemed the Revolution's promise?
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The character of the European state system as well as of the Revolutionaries' new regime was ambiguous. In declaring their independence, Americans sought recognition as one of the "powers of the earth," and hence inclusion in the great European "republic" or "commonwealth." During the Revolutionary era, John Adams later recalled, "the Nations of Europe, appeared...to be advancing by slow and sure Steps towards an Amelioration of the condition of Man, in Religion and Government, in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity Knowledge Civilization and Humanity." The very fact of the Revolution itself demonstrated the state system's capacity for progressive improvement, with long-term and indirect "ameliorative" effects on member states. The U.S. had neither the capacity nor the inclination to export revolutionary regime change. Quite to the contrary, Garrity explains: American leaders "relied on appeals to the geopolitical and economic interests of existing European governments, and the common goals of the enlightened classes, to gain necessary assistance in their war of independence." As author of a 1776 "model treaty" that promised to launch a transformative epoch of free trade, Adams was an enthusiastic exponent of this indirect approach. It was in the enlightened self-interest of the European powers—including Britain—to come to terms with America, and in doing so they would promote progressive tendencies in their own regimes.
Long before the French Revolution demolished the European balance of power, the American Revolution's benign effects were difficult to detect. But the prickly, undiplomatic Adams was determined to make a difference, balking at France's domination of its weak American ally and intervening in Dutch politics in order to give the Revolutionary cause a critical boost. In his Memorial to their High Mightinesses, the States General of the United Provinces, issued on April 19, 1781—the anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord—Adams sought to promote the Dutch Patriot cause and pressure the pro-English Orange party that dominated the States General to recognize the United States and risk war with Britain. Widely reprinted across the continent, the Memorial offered Europeans "their first serious exposure to the ideas behind the American Revolution." Adams disingenuously disclaimed any intention of taking part in Dutch party struggles, much less of promoting regime change. But his propaganda barrage was clearly meant to boost progressive tendencies in Britain and other countries as well as in the Netherlands. War weariness in the mother country surely would lead to "a change in public or elite opinion over immediate policy issues," Adams thought, beginning with recognition of American independence; perhaps it might lead to "full-scale regime change." The "tide of public opinion" everywhere "was becoming sympathetic to (what Adams called) ‘democratical principles.'" When the States-General recognized American independence in April 1782, Adams exulted in his great triumph. Not uncharacteristically, he exaggerated his own role in this happy denouement. Dutch recognition, Garrity wryly notes, "came about only after the combined American-French force at Yorktown had forced Cornwallis' surrender."
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Garrity's larger point in this crucially important opening chapter is to underscore the difficulty of distinguishing forthright support for foreign regime change from Adams's less direct efforts to influence domestic politics and manipulate public opinion. That Adams, later a bitter opponent of French Revolutionary interference in the domestic affairs of other nations—including the U.S.—should push up to and beyond the limits of conventional diplomacy during the American Revolution is revealing. When circumstances were propitious, the temptation to interfere was hard to resist. This was particularly apparent in President Jefferson's policy toward the Barbary states. Garrity deftly handles this complicated story, one that has understandably attracted much interest in recent years. The climax came with the famous campaign against Pasha Yusuf Karamanli's predatory regime in Tripoli (now in Libya), orchestrated in April 1805 by General William Eaton in tandem with insurgent forces led by Yusuf's brother Hamet. The power balance in conflicts with Tripoli and the other very loosely connected Barbary states—all nominally under the authority of the Ottoman Empire—was favorable to the U.S. "At the extreme," Garrity writes, "the United States had the option of attempting to enforce a change of behavior by overthrowing the existing rulers and replacing them with friendly or compliant individuals or regimes." This was the option that Jefferson intended to deploy—until it became clear that Hamet could not sustain his insurgency and Yusuf proved willing to come to terms. Under this policy of what Garrity calls "limited liability," the U.S. remained "at liberty to follow its interest and settle its dispute with the present leaders."
John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and John's son, John Quincy Adams, all operated in this ambiguous middle ground. The character of hostile regimes—and of the state system itself—had a direct bearing on vital national interests, and these were inextricably tied to "idealistic" questions of principle. If U.S. interests in the Mediterranean trade underlay Jefferson's belligerent policies in the region, it was also true that the predatory incursions of the Barbary "pirates"—and their enslavement of captive sailors—violated the "civilized" norms of the law of nations. Assessments of the interests and principles at stake, and of U.S. capacity either to shape the behavior of or to overthrow hostile regimes, always took place in the "fog of diplomacy" and along a continuum of options.
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John Quincy Adams's famous oration of July 4, 1821, when as secretary of state he announced that America "goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy," is the centerpiece of Garrity's analysis. Oft quoted as the classic statement of non-interventionist doctrine and harking back to George Washington's Farewell Address and Jefferson's injunction to avoid "entangling alliances," Adams's dictum appears more equivocal on closer examination. In the immediately preceding sentence, he offered heart-felt "benedictions" and "prayers" to those who would unfurl "the standard of freedom and independence" anywhere in the world. There were, after all, "monsters" out there that deserved to be slain, and the U.S. would exercise its influence through indirect means—the enlightened public opinion of the Christian, civilized world—on behalf of regime change through the intercession of God. But Adams feared that the premature recognition of revolutionary Latin American republics that Henry Clay advocated could draw the U.S. into disastrous foreign entanglements and jeopardize its independence. While Adams fended off Clay, British liberals called for collaboration between "the two English-speaking peoples" to "strengthen their natural bonds of affinity" by promoting the revolutionary cause in Latin America.
The thread that ran between Adams's 1821 speech and the famous doctrine he inserted in President James Monroe's annual address in December 1823 was a reflexive distrust of Britain. In the run-up to the American Revolution, anxious provincials insisted on their rights as Englishmen and this notion that Americans were or wanted to be "British" in some idealized sense persisted well beyond independence, despite patriotic assertions that the rupture between the two nations was absolute and world-changing. The binary oppositions that have defined the national imagination and that shaped Garrity's foreign policy debates began with the fundamental, nation-making opposition of America and Britain. This obsession with Britain constitutes another major theme running through In Search of Monsters to Destroy. Just as Jefferson and his fellow patriots protested too much in the Declaration, insisting on the newness of their new regime, the Adamses, father and son, were also animated by powerful Anglophobic impulses, even when the geopolitical interests of the two nations apparently converged, as they did in the case of the Latin American revolutions.
For John Quincy Adams, Britain stood for a "faux liberalism" that barely disguised its quest for "global maritime hegemony." The geopolitical interests of the two nations might temporarily converge in thwarting the Holy Allies' campaign to restore Spanish rule in South America, but it was critical to avoid being drawn into a formal alliance that would drag the U.S. into the vortex of European politics. The Monroe Doctrine famously warned Old World powers against further interference in the New, but Adams placed equal emphasis on "its no-exceptions disclaimer of interference in purely European affairs."
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John Quincy Adams is the central figure, but not quite the hero, of Garrity's study. As he sought to occupy a "practical, yet elevated middle ground between the cold pursuit of material national interests and the hot-blooded advocacy of revolution and foreign regime change," Adams best "defined the terrain" of the recognition debate and subsequent debates over regime change. But he could not transcend the "contentious middle ground" or the assumptions he shared with his contemporaries, and he cannot offer us much guidance today. His diplomacy pivoted on an "airy" and untenable "distinction between sympathy and action," and his core commitments to American independence and republican government betrayed a "civilizational agenda" that "actually constituted interference in the domestic affairs of others."
The discomfiting implication is that Americans' pretensions to national innocence, moral superiority, and "manifest destiny" are delusional. American foreign policy debates reflected the geopolitical complexity and moral ambiguity of a world that defied simplistic and reductive policy prescriptions. They also exposed fundamental conflicts within an increasingly contentious federal union that pointed ominously toward regime change at home. Even as the United States emerged as a great power, with the capacity to encourage and enforce regime change in its hemispheric neighborhood, domestic political divisions threatened to demolish the Union and jeopardize the character of its republican regime. Far from serving as an enlightened exemplar to the world, the disunited states would soon regress into the anarchy of civil war, indirectly reinforcing the legitimacy of monarchical and despotic regimes.
Garrity's study illuminates the changing relationship between a fragile federal union, sectional conflict (largely over slavery and its expansion), and foreign policy-making. John C. Calhoun underscored the nexus between the future of the Union and the Anglo-American relationship when he warned Adams that "the South would be from necessity compelled to form an alliance, offensive and defensive, with Great Britain" if the federal government did not effectively guarantee the future of slavery. As they assessed risks in the larger world, American statesmen were acutely conscious of centrifugal tendencies that threatened to subvert the Union and jeopardize their independence. These tendencies were on conspicuous display in the wake of the European revolutions of 1848, as aggressive "Young Democrats" mobilized support for the exiled Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth and Southerners and conservative Whigs sought to uphold "the perceived tradition of American non-involvement in the political affairs of Europe." Exponents of manifest destiny at home and regime change abroad hoped to deflect energy and attention away from "the domestic crisis over slavery," but foreign policy debates only served to expose the Union's fragility.
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If the union failed, as Abraham Lincoln so memorably warned in his Gettysburg Address, the new nation's bold experiment in republican government would fail as well: "government of the people, by the people, for the people" would "perish from the earth." If that happened, Britain would be there to pick up the pieces, for an independent United States was the only obstacle to the old mother country's quest for universal empire and a "maritime tyranny" that would encircle the globe. The continuing American obsession with Britain reflected 19th-century geopolitical realities as well as the ideological imperatives of nationalist myth-making. Jay Sexton's recent synthesis, The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America (2011), brilliantly underscores the central importance of Britain and its far-flung empire for the history of American foreign policy. Given Britain's continuing domination of the Atlantic and world economies, and the crucial role British capital and credit played in American territorial expansion and economic development, it is hardly surprising that the junior partners in the relationship would be anxious about asserting their "independence"—or that, once the Union triumphed in the Civil War and the reunited nation consolidated its dominant position across the continent and through the hemisphere, Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana and like-minded imperialists would be eager to acknowledge and embrace their British cousins in their shared enterprise of civilizing the world.
Americans continued thereafter to insist on the superiority of their republican regime, but eventually came to acknowledge a "special relationship" between Britain and America. By the end of the century, commentators could look ahead to an Anglo-American century. Beveridge struck a familiar chord in a 1900 speech, exulting in the now self-evident fact that God "has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world." But God also had plans for the British. He "has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration" or, we might add, reciprocal admiration. Beveridge's millennium wound the clock back into the mists of time—and into the forests of Germany—in an Anglo-Saxon racial fantasy that virtually obliterated American independence. British despotism had once served as a foil for American freedom-fighters, the very antithesis of their new republican regime. Now, at the dawn of the 20th century, as statesmen contemplated the future of the United States as a great power with the capacity to extend its imperial reach and shape the future of the world, Anglo-American differences diminished dramatically. For historians of the emerging "imperial school," the American Revolution itself seemed like a tragic failure of statesmanship that belied a more fundamental identity and common purpose. Like the Civil War, the Revolution was a family affair, one of Kevin Phillips's The Cousins' Wars (1999).
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Patrick Garrity's thoughtful and penetrating analysis of the early American foreign policy debates about revolution and regime change offers a salutary corrective to diplomatic originalists' tendency to take the founders' precepts too seriously. Surely he is right that contemporary engagement with these issues follows the well-worn grooves of earlier debates, and that we should be wary of where they take us. But his most important contribution is to encourage us to think historically. When Americans contemplated the world and argued about their global responsibilities, they were looking in a mirror that reflected the ambiguous origins—and uncertain destiny—of their own regime. They also sought to make sense of a world in constant flux. It has been a comforting delusion for Americans to imagine themselves standing astride that world, making their own history. But Garrity's protagonists, blinded by their exceptionalist delusions, were hopelessly entangled in a world that eluded their control and defied their understanding. Immersing ourselves in these debates, we might begin to recognize our own limits.