By Ashley Bray, Intern Extraordinaire
From Colony to Superpower by George C. Herring is the newest edition to the award-winning The Oxford History of the United States series, which has won three Pulitzer prizes, a Bancroft and a Parkman Prize. Herring, Alumni Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Kentucky and a leading authority on U.S. foreign relations, has written the only thematic volume to be commissioned for the series. This sweeping volume studies the history of the United States through the lens of foreign relations, covering everything from the American Revolution to the current war in Iraq as it examines America’s rise to power. The following excerpt discusses America’s approach to foreign policy throughout history, something all Americans should be aware of, especially President-elect Barack Obama as he prepares to take office in January.
By dividing foreign policy powers between the executive and legislative branches of government, the U.S. Constitution added another level of confusion and conflict. The executive branch is obviously better suited to conduct foreign policy than a larger, inherently divided legislature whose members often represent local interests. George Washington set early precedents establishing presidential predominance. In the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the growing importance of foreign policy and the existence of major foreign threats have vastly expanded executive power, producing what has been called the imperial presidency. Congress from time to time has asserted itself and sought to regain some measure of control over foreign policy. Sometimes, as in the 1930s and 1970s, it has exerted decisive influence on crucial policy issues. For the most part and especially in the realm of war powers, the president has reigned supreme. Sometimes, chief executives have found it expedient to seek congressional endorsement of their decisions for war if not an outright declaration. Other times and especially in periods of danger, Congress has witlessly rallied behind the president, neglecting to ask crucial questions about policy decisions that turned out to be badly flawed.
America’s peculiar approach to foreign policy has long bemused and befuddled foreign observers. Referring specifically to the United States, that often astute nineteenth-century French observer Alexis de Tocqueville warned that democracies “obey the impulse of passion rather than the suggestions of prudence.” They “abandon a mature design for the gratification of a momentary caprice.” In the early years, European diplomats tried to exploit the chaos that was American politics by bribing members of Congress and even interfering in the electoral process. More recently, other nations have hired lobbyists and even public relations experts to promote their interests and images in the United States.
Despite claims to moral superiority and disdain for Old World diplomacy, the United States throughout its history has behaved more like a traditional great power than Americans have realized or might care to admit. United States policymakers have often been shrewd analysts of world politics. They have energetically pursued and zealously protected interests deemed vital. In terms of commerce and territory, they have been aggressively and relentlessly expansionist. They exploited rivalries among the Europeans to secure their independence, favorable boundaries, and vast territorial acquisitions. From Louisiana to the Floridas, Texas, California, and eventually Hawaii, they fashioned the process of infiltration and subversion into a finely tuned instrument of expansion, using the presence of restless Americans in nominally foreign lands to establish claims and take over additional territory. When the hunger for land was sated, they extended American economic and political influence across the world. During the Cold War, when the nation’s survival seemed threatened, they scrapped old notions of fair play, intervening in the affairs of other nations, overthrowing governments, even plotting the assassination of foreign leaders. From the founders of the eighteenth century to the Cold Warriors two hundred years later, they played the great game of world politics with some measure of skill.
Popular notions to the contrary, the United States has been spectacularly successful in its foreign policy. To be sure, like all countries, it has made huge mistakes and suffered major failures, sometimes with tragic consequences for Americans—and other peoples as well. At the same time, it has sustained an overall record of achievement with little precedent in history. In the space of a little more than two hundred years, it conquered a continent, came to dominate 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” through much of the world. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, it had attained that “strength of a Giant” that Washington longed for.
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 what a British commentator called the “illusion of American omnipotence,” the notion that the United States could do anything it set its mind to, or, as one wag put it, the difficult we do tomorrow, the impossible may take a while. Success came to be taken for granted. Failure caused great frustration. When it occurred, many Americans preferred to pin it on villains at home rather than admit there were things their nation could not do. Despite its vast wealth and awesome 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.
The emergence of a new twenty-first-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: that 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. Weaker nations can deal with a hegemonic nation by combining with each other or simply by obstructing its moves. Even America’s unparalleled power could not fully assure the freedom from fear that George Washington longed for.