Reading Herring has made Erik irritable:
I think I am just more outraged by this period in American foreign policy than Rob. Rob was able to focus on a lot of important issues that I didn’t much explore–normalization of relations with Britain, probably a slightly more traditional discussion of the Monroe Doctrine than I gave, etc. Perhaps this is how you survive as a defense scholar–you have to suppress the outrage. Everything Rob says is important, but I can’t get past the revolting ideological foundations of American foreign relations (and perhaps of the nation itself), the racism and hypocrisy of our interactions with other nations, the violence we used, the self-serving justifications, the belief that we were and are expressing God’s will.
Every bad thing about U.S. foreign policy today has its roots in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I’d like to think that Bush was an aberration. But the more I read, the less I think that. Bush was expressing fundamental tenets of American ideology, at their extremes perhaps, but there’s a reason so many supported him, even in 2004. They would have still supported him, at least until the economic crisis, if he was winning in Iraq. It would have been onto Iran with significant public support. Without an unlikely rejection of national ideology and mythology, I have little reason to hope that some other president in the next 20 years will ride that J.Q. Adams-Reagan-Bush horse into power and again try to fulfill our national destiny by running roughshod over the world.
Meh. I would say that it’s academic distance that slows the boil, but I’m not sure that’s quite it. Pretty much every country has its own story of exceptionalism, and its own narrative of a relationship with God, and its own history of how these have interacted to horrible effect. And it wasn’t American exceptionalism that drove Tony Blair to join the crusade into Iraq. That isn’t to excuse the behavior of the US then or now, but simply to place it in context; I suppose maybe that is rather the academic distance talking. And so, I have trouble finding Erik’s outrage in my own reading of Herring.
I also think there’s a problem with asserting that there’s only a single narrative to America’s approach to the world; this would be the “Adams-Reagan-Bush” approach that Erik alludes to. This isn’t to question whether John Quincy Adams would have favored the war in Iraq, because such a question can’t make any sense. Rather, it’s to reinforce that many of the important foreign policy questions that have faced the United States have produced vigorous, often bitter debate. Becoming familiar with these debates (the big differences between Clay and Adams on the proper US attitude towards the Latin American republics, for example) is one of the reasons we read books like From Colony to Superpower. Even when these debates don’t structure the political landscape (as they did in 1798, 1950, or 2002) they still exist within the foreign policy elite, the general public, and the hierarchy of the political parties. It’s kind of interesting, then, to watch as Monroe and Adams give up on certain elements of the idea of American exceptionalism (the hostility to the forms of traditional diplomacy, for example), and then watch Jackson (and even more so, Polk) return to them.
To change the subject a bit, it’s also somewhat interesting to think about how the United States interacted with the Latin American republics and the states of the Far East in the absence of any information about them. Diplomats dispatched to South American capitols did not have the benefit of Wikipedia, after all; in this context, it’s probably less than surprising that Americans managed to irritate and insult their hosts. Given the number of times European diplomats managed to direly insult Americans in Herring’s narrative, I’m guessing that such gaffes were quite more common in the early diplomatic service than they are today, and perhaps also a bit more excusable as a lack of information, rather than as evidence of American bluster and parochialism.
Tomorrow, on to Polk…