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Archive for December, 2008

From Colony to Superpower: New Neighbors

[ 0 ] December 1, 2008 |

On to chapter IV of From Colony to Superpower…

Herring clearly prefers the last of the Virginia Dynasty to the previous two. Much of the credit for Monroe’s foreign policy competence goes to John Quincy Adams, who Herring (among others) gives place of honor among US Secretaries of State. Monroe and Adams pursued a far more “realist” line than their predecessors, although it’s fair to argue about whether their form of realism deserves a capital letter. It’s also reasonable to wonder about the division of labor between Adams and Monroe. Monroe seems not to have been overly interested in foreign policy, and thus allowed Adams a reasonably free hand. This suggests that the successes of the administration belong to Adams. On the other hand, the quality of competent delegation is an under-stated Presidential virture, and Monroe deserves credit for picking the best guy and letting him do his job without too much interference. It’s not hard to argue that the interventions of Jefferson and Madison into foreign policy worked out poorly, thus putting Monroe’s hands-off approach in a good light. That said, Washington and the first Adams took a strong personal interest in foreign policy, which generally worked out to their credit.

The United States didn’t win the War of 1812, but the conflict nevertheless led to what amounted to the normalization of US relations with the rest of the world. In part, this is because the rest of the world became more normal; the end of the Napoleonic Wars led to a long period of general peace in European affairs, rendering many of the conflicts that developed in earlier periods of US foreign policy moot. The United States also became more “normal”, abandoning the revolutionary pretense that characterized the Jefferson administration and that was still present in the Madison period. Adams had little patience for revolutionary pretense, and dropped the

This is not to say that the revolutionaries all went away, or that the revolutions ceased. Weakened by the Napoleonic Wars, the Spanish Empire in America substantially crumbled on Monroe and Adams’ watch. Adams tried to maintain an arms-length relationship with the South American revolutions, fearing British intervention and using US support as a negotiating chip with Spain and Russia. Others within the government (including Adams eventual Secretary of State, Henry Clay) preferred a more activist role, seeing the revolutions as a positive good and something that ought to be encouraged by the United States. The Monroe Doctrine was the product of ambivalence as much as empire building; the United States shared with the new Latin American states a genuine fear of European intervention, but at the same time could make only clumsy efforts to act as a regional leader.

From the 1830s on, the United States would expand substantially at the expense of Mexico. For the most part, territorial imperium in the Americas ended there; while some enthusiasts envisioned further expansion to the south, American elite opinion settled, according to Herring, around the idea that Latin American was culturally antithetical to the United States. The United States was an English speaking, largely Protestant country; the Latin American states were full of Catholics with questionable ethnic origins. The idea that Catholic states posed certain key difficulties for US foreign policy persisted for quite some time, and colored US relations with France, Spain, the independent colonies, and even Russia (Orthodox was apparently worse than Catholic, although Herring discusses American enthusiasm for the Greek Revolution). The shared concern over Catholic monarchism probably smoothed over differences in Anglo-American relations during this period, in spite of the fact that the two states continued to have trade and territorial disputes.

Herring mentions, but doesn’t explore at length, the relationship between the United States and Pax Britannica. The United States was born and developed under the umbrella of British maritime dominance. This dominance was occasionally tested by the French, and was in some regions only intermittent, but nevertheless the United States could largely count, from independence until roughly 1900, on ocean transit secured by the Royal Navy. This absolved the United States of certain maritime responsibilities; although the United States Navy grew during the Monroe-Adams period, it did not approach in size or capability the important (and even not so important) navies of Europe. The US, dependent as it was on maritime trade, was in a position to uniquely benefit from this security. Had a multipolar (in the maritime sphere) system existed, the United States might not have been able to free ride on Great Britain’s provision of security, and consequently might have suffered economically.

More later, especially on the Jacksonian period.

How Bipartisan!

[ 0 ] December 1, 2008 |

To follow up on Glenn Reynolds’s impeccable logic, I would like to announce that, as someone with impeccable credentials as a Nelson Mandela Republican, I have no choice but to cross party lines and endorse Jim Martin. I can assure that it’s painful to abandon my long-standing party loyalties like that, but sometimes you have to put principle ahead of partisan interests…

Let the Eagle Soar

[ 0 ] December 1, 2008 |

Steve Conn:

[P]erhaps the nomination which best demonstrated just how inept this administration would prove to be was John Ashcroft. You will recall that Ashcroft got the job of running the Justice Department because he lost his Senate seat in the 2000 election. To a dead man. The reward for failing to beat the deceased Mel Carnahan was the job of Attorney General. It was the first example of what became all too common: for Bush, our MBA president, no failure is so great that it doesn’t deserve a promotion . . . .

Ashcroft’s nomination told us all we needed to know about the coming administration – its contempt for brains, for integrity, for competence, its true-believing zealotry.

This is true, but it’s important not to forget that Ashcroft lost in no small part because he stood up on the Senate floor in October 1999 and denounced Ronnie White, a judicial moderate who had been nominated for a federal district court position. In his bizarre and ultimately successful campaign against White’s nomination, Ashcroft distorted the Missouri Supreme Court Justice’s record and engaged in just enough race-baiting to bring the state’s black voters out in what Eric Boehlert later described (in a fine piece about the whole affair) as “one of the clearest cases of retaliation voting” in recent political history. Ashcroft simply made shit up about White’s views on crime and the death penalty and then — even though he could have crushed the nomination before it reached the Senate floor — allowed White to be humiliated, as he became the first District Court nominee in fifty years to be defeated in a full Senate vote. Then he lost to a dead guy.

Every now and then, I hear someone remarking that for as bad as Ashcroft was, Alberto Gonzales was surely worse. That’s true so far as it goes, but therein lies the essence of Bush’s greatness; just when you figure you’ve scraped the bottom of the well, there was always something even more infuriating a few clicks down the road.

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