The Decline of American Statesmanship
The first great book I’ve read this year is George C. Herring’s From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. Despite being almost 1000 pages, Colony to Superpower provides a fast-paced yet thorough tour of American foreign policy since Independence that shows the areas where different policies form a coherent whole, and where foreign policy has undergone major discontinuities. By the end of it, I felt like I had been introduced to my own country.
Herring takes a decidedly unsentimental look at many the myths promulgated by the triumphalist tradition in American historiography, but he doesn’t descend into the bitterness and anger that mark A People’s History of the United States. If Herring is bothered by the injustice and ruthless self-interest that have often characterized American policy, he goes to pains to understand and explain how the principals perceived their own actions and how those unfair policies may have benefited the country. What does bother Herring is the self-satisfaction and forgetfulness that run rampant through the American narrative. The United States is a sometime villain and sometime hero, and usually something in between. Yet it insists on depicting itself as more principled and a greater force for good than any other nation.
This is not new information, but seeing the history of American foreign policy puts a sharp point on it. While the plight of the Native American tribes is well-documented and regretted, the United States has done a much poorer job coming to terms with its predations against Spain, its outright assault on Mexico while that country was in its infancy, and its constant meddling in Caribbean and Latin American affairs. The chapter on the annexation of Texas and the Mexican-American War was the saddest of any save the last. When you consider how often Americans take a snide and condescending attitude to our “backwards” and “corrupt” hemispheric neighbors, it’s horrifying that the U.S. has never really accepted responsibility for the corrupting and retarding influence it exerted on them.
However, the most profound shift in the book came with the end of WWII and the death of Franklin Roosevelt. Prior to Roosevelt’s death, U.S. foreign policy seemed mostly effective and level-headed. There were administrations who managed foreign affairs in a ham-handed and vicious manner, but the responsible caretakers of U.S. interests were quick to reassert themselves. They conducted themselves professionally abroad, and tended to have a high regard for the processes of diplomacy. The high-water mark seemed to come with Franklin Roosevelt, who did an admirable job of curbing U.S. adventurism within the hemisphere while coming to an early understanding of the threat posed by Hitler. As Herring himself points out, FDR may have used a lot of underhanded and deceptive tactics to bring the U.S. into the war against Germany prior to 1941, but Hitler’s Germany stands as an exceptional case if ever there was one.
The problem, Herring says, is that FDR’s successors used his methods for their own purposes, which were never as noble. Even worse, the country seemed to lose its sense of balance after his death. Herring demonstrates that there was a profound and abrupt reactionary tilt to American policy almost immediately after Roosevelt’s death. Although Roosevelt was as capable as anyone at acting decisively, he was also the sort of man to make decisions in a calm, pragmatic fashion. Truman and the foreign policy team that coalesced around him were not.
Whatever FDR would have done about the Soviet Union’s burgeoning imperialism in Eastern Europe, it probably would have been handled more gracefully than Truman’s instantaneous bellicosity. From the day he assumed the office, Truman took a hard, threatening line against the Soviets that only served to stoke their suspicions that the U.S. was an enemy. Furthermore, Truman’s doctrine of containment placed the United States squarely on the wrong side of history during the retreat of the colonial powers, serving to alienate beyond hope the Chinese, the Vietnamese, and most of Africa and Latin America. Furthermore, he demolished the role of the State Department by creating the National Security Council. American foreign policy, once the domain of diplomatic professionals, would be dominated from then on by a growing class of “defense intellectuals” and military officers.
It is also true that the Cold War bred a cycle of hysteria that afflicts the country to this day. The Republicans and Democrats routinely labeled one another as “soft” on communism, squelching any dissent regarding core assumptions of American policy and only disagreeing about how extreme the U.S. response should be. And so Kennedy took office already boxed in by the anti-Communist rhetoric he used to attack Richard Nixon, and Johnson would commit himself to Vietnam in order to guard his right flank during the 1964 election. Now, terrorism plays the part of communism in the national discourse, with the same effects on policy discussions.
One of the ultimate lessons of From Colony to Superpower, and one of its most troubling conclusions, is that the United States has not been able to debate security policy rationally since 1945. As its economic and military power have increased, the capability and sophistication of its foreign policy apparatus and its polity have diminished, to the point where the latter have begun to destroy the former.