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From Colony to Superpower VII: Pacific Dreams

[ 0 ] December 22, 2008 |

Chapter VII of From Colony to Superpower covers the period between 1877 and 1893. Erik talks about missionaries, trade wars, and the generally expansionary US policy in the Pacific. I wish that Herring had dealt in more depth with the tremendous military gap between the United States and the European powers during this period. The United States had a larger population than any European state other than Russia in 1877, and experienced higher population and economic growth than anywhere in Europe between then and 1893. The US industrial base was competitive with that of the UK, and larger than any other European country. Yet US military power was comparatively miniscule. To give a sense of the gap, check this out (average 1877-1893, COW):

Country Military Expenditure/Person % in Uniform
UK $ 0.76 0.73
France $ 0.93 1.47
Spain $ 0.40 0.85
Germany $ 1.02 0.53
Italy $ 0.43 0.72
United States $ 0.22 0.07

That’s a pretty substantial gap, especially given that US GDP, total population, and steel production were all at or near the top of the list during this period. Some of this can be explained by the geographic situation of the United States; France needed more troops because it was next to Germany, for example. This only takes us so far; territorial threat can’t explain why the US retained huge standing military forces post-1945, and in any case the US was certainly developing global interests during this period. Rather, I think there was simply a different understanding of the utility of military force in Europe than in the United States. It would be wrong to say that the US was a pacifist country (as witnessed by the ongoing conquest of the West), but Americans certainly don’t seem to have seen the point of large standing military establishments. To put it another way, the US was economically and demographically capable, even at this early date, of competing for hegemony with Britain and Germany. Americans chose not to. The US didn’t even build a world class Navy, as it would during the 1920s and 1930s.

Apart from the post-war experiences of Germany and Japan (which are obviously dependent on much different factors) I’m not sure there’s another example of a potential hegemon that simply chose not to compete. There are various unsatisfactory explanations for this (Fareed Zakaria’s terrible book comes to mind) but Herring, unfortunately, does not venture much of an effort. In part, this may be because the book’s central thesis is that the United States has never been an isolationist power; this argument is certainly correct to some extent, but there has to be some explanation for the tiny US military profile in the late nineteenth century.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom Bleg

[ 0 ] December 22, 2008 |

Anybody read T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom? I haven’t, but I’m assigning it next term; if you have any thoughts re: boiling down the 700 or so pages down to a digestible chunk for a graduate strategy course, leave them in comments…

…recommendations on editions will also be entertained.

Colony to Superpower: 6.2

[ 0 ] December 20, 2008 |

Erik writes a bit more about the utility of including the Civil War among the 19th century wars of national unification:

Herring argues that the Civil War was part of the nation-building conflicts around the world during the mid-19th century. It’s an interesting idea, though I’m not sure that I agree exactly. Had the North actively tried to limit slavery during the 1840s and 1850s, I think this would be a stronger argument. But the South wasn’t responding to increasingly northern pressure on their peculiar institution. Rather, the North caved on nearly every issue in the 1850s and yet the South still wasn’t satisfied.

However, the result of the Civil War was a much stronger and more centralized United States. Increased control over the west, a more centralized currency system, and a much greater industrial capacity all resulted from the war, and the United States certainly left the war much stronger than it began it. The late nineteenth century is a story of amazing growth in the nation. While this is a story mostly for next week’s discussion of the Gilded Age, there’s no question that the Civil War spurred this amazing period.

I think that this is right. I’m reluctant to concede American exceptionalism, but while the outcome of the Civil War bears some resemblance to the other wars of unification, its cause really didn’t stem from differences of opinion about the strength of central institutions. The South was happy to strengthen the central government, when it believed that a more powerful center was to its advantage. Also, while geographic differences were more pronounced then than today, similarity in language, culture, and institutions was greater in the case of the United States than in Italy or Germany.

Paul goes into a bit more depth on the inadequacy of Confederate diplomacy:

The most striking part of this, for me, is the sketch of the boorish incompetence of the Confederate diplomatic mission. Granted they had a difficult mission (it was an offense to the United States for responsible ministers even to talk to Confederate emissaries), but their greatest success was not even of their doing: Capt. Wilkes, USN, took two of them off the British steamer Trent without any of the appropriate formalities; the British dusted off the American objections to this sort of high-handedness from the War of 1812, and the resulting quarrel might actually have led to British recognition of the Confederacy.

But when Mason was released, and got to Britain, his speeches in favor of slavery and his bad aim with tobacco juice got him nowhere; Slidell did not understand how the French Government operated, or what the ministers wanted; the Confederate emissary to Saint Petersburgh never got there; and the star of the show, John Pickett of Kentucky, sent to Juarez in Mexico, managed to get arrested for brawling on the streets of Mexico City, offended and insulted the Mexican ministers, and eventually had Juarez intercepting his messages home and passing them on to Washington.

Herring describes this as provincialism and extreme cultural insensitivity…

Herring notes, but doesn’t really develop, the idea that because the professional diplomatic corps was tiny, the real diplomatic expertise lay in the backbench of the national political parties. The US had no ambassadors, and chief representatives were invariably political appointees, meaning that most foreign diplomatic representation revolved as the Presidency changed hands between parties. The Republicans largely inherited the Whig diplomatic corps, but apparently the Democratic corps was concentrated among Northern Democrats, who largely remained loyal to the Union. Thus, the Confederacy was forced to learn diplomacy very quickly, and the technological limitations of the time (slow communications, no wikipedia) made getting up to speed very difficult. Thus, I’m willing to excuse just a bit of the Confederate provincialism, although Paul also notes that Cassius Clay had little diplomatic experience but performed fabulously in Russia.

Tomorrow to chapter seven…

From Colony to Superpower VI: Nation Building

[ 0 ] December 16, 2008 |

On to chapter VI of From Colony to Superpower, but first make sure to read Paul’s final thoughts on chapter V (here and here). He takes issue (as several others have) with my effort to ferret out a causal relationship between slavery and the debate over expansion in the 1840s, and discusses James K. Polk at some length. I suppose that I’d argue in response that expansion per se was never really the issue, and thus didn’t furnish the meat of partisan disagreement; it was how slavery could take advantage of that expansion that produced the dispute. Fittingly enough, Herring’s next chapter takes us through the Civil War.

Herring places the Civil War within the context of the various wars of unification in Europe and elsewhere as the nation-state solidified its hold as the primary unit of political organization. I think that there’s something productive in thinking about the war in this way; as Scott has often said, the war was in part about State’s Rights, and State’s Rights lost. That said, I think that the dynamics of national unification were much different in settler societies than in the Old World. In particular, I remain unconvinced that, had slavery not been at issue, the war would have occurred. That said, slavery may have had the effect of transforming local consolidation operations into a grand, regional conflict.

The Confederacy was generally inept in its diplomatic efforts. Faulty assumptions that had guided the early Republic, such as the notion that the world was dependent upon trade with America and would endure economic collapse in its absence, dominated Confederate diplomatic strategy. Although the Confederate cotton embargo hurt France and Great Britain, they were able to make do with stores, alternative suppliers, and cotton that either slipped through the embargo or was exported by the North. With the exception of Russia, the European powers generally preferred the idea of a divided North America, but were unprepared to do anything useful to make it happen. European investment in the North, especially on the part of Great Britain, also made the Europeans reluctant to intervene. These realities were not well understood in the South, leading to a combination of arrogance and cultural insensitivity that made earlier US diplomacy look positively competent. Jefferson Davis in particular didn’t seem to see much value in devoting a lot of attention to the diplomatic corps, believing instead that economic realities would force the European hand.

I would have liked to hear a little bit more about the impact of the war on military planning and doctrine in Europe. The nineteenth century combined fast technological and social development with relative peace, meaning that the art of warfare developed in fits and starts. Most military professionals (to the extent that the term was becoming useful) understood that the next war would be conducted in a considerably different manner than the last, but didn’t have a grasp on quite what the differences would be. Actual wars, therefore, came under considerable scrutiny. Americans such as George B. McClellan served as observers in the Crimean War, while many European observers served alongside both the Confederate and Union armies during the Civil War. Unfortunately, Herring doesn’t talk much about this cross-polination, except in that it affected other relationships. For example, Herring notes that relative friendship between the United States and Russia developed out of the experience of American observers in the Crimean War, and that this cordiality led to the good relationship between the Union and the Russian Empire.

On this point, Herring’s discussion of relations between the Union and the Russian Empire is remarkably interesting. He mentions the deployment of a Russian naval squadron to New York in the middle of the war, ostensibly intended to facilitate the study ironclad warfare, but also meant as a message of Russian support for the Union and, as always, to convey Russian military prestige. The squadron, including the frigate Alexander Nevsky, remained in American waters for seven months. The visit was partially the product of the diplomacy of Cassius Clay, abolitionist and cousin of Henry Clay, and who had been dispatched by Lincoln as Minister to Russia. The solid relations developed between Russia and the Union eventually led to the Russian sale of Alaska to the United States. As always, there were costs; Lincoln and Seward notably tamped down traditional American support for Polish independence during the 1863 Uprising.

Colony to Superpower: 4.3

[ 0 ] December 15, 2008 |

Due to annoying illness and extended work commitments, part 5 of From Colony to Superpower will be delayed until tomorrow afternoon. Until then, see Paul from Subnumine:

Herring does have a thesis: he doesn’t believe that there was ever a real isolationist period in American history; his America has normally been willing to expand, and always to intervene. One of the commentators has come away with the impression that there is no real difference between Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, on one hand, and Reagan and Bush on the other; I think this over-simplifies Herring’s position somewhat.

On the question of extended Texas independence, Josh Trevino writes:

I think it’s fair to say that the prospects of a permanently independent Texas ended in an 18-month window in 1841-1842. In brief, 1841 saw the failure of Mirabeau Lamar’s Santa Fe expedition, which showed that the pro-independence movement was unable to make good its territorial ambitions, and would bankrupt the republic besides; and 1842 saw the Mexicans mount a successful invasion of Texas that withdrew for what can only be described as lack of interest. (Interestingly and irrelevantly, the Mexicans took San Antonio on 9/11!) The Texan riposte to that invasion, the Mier expedition, was a thoroughgoing disaster that was conceived and led mostly by Lamar’s pro-independence compatriots.

So, at the end of that 18-month period, it was fairly clear that an independent Texas would probably be an impoverished wedge of territory squeezed between the Sabine, the Nueces, and the Comanches, without prospects of developing major trade routes, and under permanent threat of “foreign” domination. The choice of that foreign dominator was between Mexico, the United States, and Britain as a distant third. No surprise that a settler population of expansionist Southerners chose the US.

This pretty much accords with what Erik suggests in his latest.

From Colony to Superpower: Don’t Mess with Texas

[ 0 ] December 7, 2008 |

Erik introduces chapter five of From Colony to Superpower (for older posts click on the tag), which covers the period between 1837 and 1861. The customary random observations:

Herring discusses the impact that Texas independence had on US-Mexico relations, and especially the degree to which the decision to admit Texas to the Union precipitated the Mexican-American War. I’m not an expert on Texas history, but the widespread expectation that Texas would enter the United States, rather than remain an independent Republic, strikes me as curious. Herring noted in an earlier chapter that Thomas Jefferson expected American “civilization” to spread across the North American continent, but that this spread need not take place in the form of a single political unit. An independent Texas would have fulfilled this expectation. Of course, changes in communication and transportation technology made a continental empire more possible in 1840 than it had been in 1800, but this doesn’t quite explain why Texas pursued union rather than independence. From the beginning of its existence, Texas was dependent upon the United States, but of course such a state isn’t necessarily indicative of a particular policy; Texas might have made effort to reduce that dependence, rather than to formalize it. Ethnic and ideological affinity for the United States seems to have been the primary motivation within Texas for union, but it’s nevertheless fun to muse about the long term implications of an independent Texas.

This last week in National Security Policy the topic was Strategic Communication. We dealt at some length with the Munich Analogy as a strategic communication/propaganda strategy, concentrating in particular on how effectively it creates roles for participants (enemy=Hitler, dove=Chamberlain, hawk=Churchill). When dealing with the Analogy in the past, I’ve asked students to think about it in terms of the United States during the Polk period. Polk began by making a series of threats against British holdings in the Northwest, asserting American sovereignty over territory on which the US had virtually no legal claim. In response, the British could have fought; there were risks, but the Royal Navy could have made the Americans pay a substantial price for their aggression. Instead, the British chose a more conciliatory route, making clear that they did have clear lines beyond which they would not go (no US sovereignty north of the 49th parallel), but appeasing the US claim to the jointly administered Oregon Territory.

On the one hand, you could argue that the British conducted successful appeasement, and consequently that the strategy of appeasement works in many situations. The United States did not, after all, invade Canada or attack any other British possessions. This is fairly common sense; appeasement fails in the face of incorrigible aggressors, but very few aggressors actually are incorrigible. On the other hand, a proponent of the applicability of the Munich Analogy could draw a direct connection between the Oregon settlement and the theft of half of Mexico; if the British had given the US a bloody nose in 1845, and taken steps to guarantee Mexico’s territorial integrity, then the neighborhood bully would have backed down. I’m actually inclined to think that British resistance on the Oregon question would resulted in the theft of more of Mexico by a frustrated US, but there’s at least a nugget of an argument to suggest a parallel with 1938. US territorial expansion slowed down considerably after 1848, but that has as much to do with US domestic politics as anything else.

On that subject, in comments several people has questioned my suggestion that the 1790s, the 1950s, and the 2000s are the only times in which foreign policy came to dominate domestic political debate. In particular, some people have argued that the 1840s, which included the debate over the Mexican War and the expansion of slavery more generally, represents a fourth period of foreign policy dominance. My response would be that this is an issue of cause and effect; whereas the debates in the 1790s, 1950s, and 2000s came about because of changes in the international environment, the foreign policy debate in the 1840s was the product of disagreement over domestic affairs. Support for and opposition to the Mexican War can’t be entirely reduced to the question of slavery, but it’s pretty close. What we have, then, is not so much a debate about foreign policy, but rather a debate about slavery that had implications for foreign policy.

From Colony to Superpower: 4.2

[ 0 ] December 6, 2008 |

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…

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.

From Colony to Superpower: Tragedy, Comedy, Farce

[ 0 ] November 24, 2008 |

Erik leads off this week’s discussion of From Colony to Superpower. Chapter 3 deals with the period between 1801 and 1815. This period saw the dominance of the Republicans, and of the Virginia planter class. George Herring is considerably less sympathetic to the Republicans than to the Federalists, at least in terms of foreign policy. Both Jefferson and Madison receive criticism, on points both practical and ideological.

On a couple of points, Herring get hilariously cruel. Noting Jefferson’s preference for the language of “natural right” in the Declaration of Independence, Herring points out other instances in which Jefferson understand American interest in terms of natural rights, such as the natural right of American commercial access to the Mississippi (in spite of the French and Spanish property right to same), and the natural right of the United States to have a border along the Gulf of Mexico. Jefferson also made a conscious distinction between the kind of natural rights possessed by native Americans and African slaves, with the former achieving the status of “noble savage” which meant a chance for assimilation and eventual inclusion within the United States. Didn’t really work out that way, but nevertheless…

It’s dangerous to attempt to derive modern parallels for the events of the early nineteenth century. On the one hand, the author most certainly wants to make the history seem relevant. On the other, there is an obvious risk to understanding the past in the context of the present, rather than on its own terms. Herring discusses two incident in particular that reminded of modern foreign policy questions. The first involved continuing violence on the frontier. Herring discusses how the Americans appeared genuinely incapable of believing that Indian violence and attacks stemmed from the behavior of settlers and the US government. Rather, British influence was blamed, virtually without evidence.

Similarly, the US treatment of Haiti seems to lay out a template for 20th century Cuba policy. Adams moderated Haiti policy substantially (partially in response to tensions with France), but Jefferson pursued a very hard initial line. He shifted somewhat when anti-French sentiment rose just prior to the Louisiana Purchase, then returned to the hard line after the completion of his transaction with Napoleon. Because of the influence of Southern slaveholders, the US would not recognize Haiti until the Lincoln administration.

Herring is extremely critical of Madison’s handling of the War of 1812, both in terms of its initiation and its execution. While recognizing that genuine policy conflicts existed between Great Britain and the United States, Herring faults Madison (and Jefferson) for inept diplomacy backed by no military force. Republican nervousness about standing military forces limited US capability, and by necessity produced an unfortunate confidence in the capacity of militia and irregular troops. Naval victories in the Great Lakes, combined with instability in Europe, managed to save the US from a more serious disaster.

Jefferson’s Embargo against France and Britain was one of the most ill-conceived projects in the history of American foreign policy. Jefferson barely bothered to explain the policy to the American people, or to build domestic support. Since many constituencies depended on trade with Britain, there was immediate resistance and efforts at circumvention. Moreover, the embargo had none of its intended effects; the French barely noticed, while the British were able to take advantage of emerging suppliers in Spanish America. As Erik notes, the Embargo depended on a radical over-inflation on Jefferson’s part of the importance of American trade to Europe.

More later…

Colony to Superpower II: Can’t Go Wrong with John Jay

[ 0 ] November 19, 2008 |

Erik writes about the harsh criticism that John Jay received upon returning from Europe on the conclusion of the Jay Treaty.

This was ridiculous. Herring states that Jay probably gave up more than he had to on these issues. Maybe. But this was the United States. And England was England. To think that we could simply state terms to Europe, as we did over and over again in these years, was totally absurd but typical of the arrogance in which the United States carried itself, even from the nation’s infancy. Herring defends Jay as well saying “The most likely alternative to the treaty was a continued state of crisis and conflict that could have led to war” and “Rarely has a treaty so bad on the face of it produced such positive results.”

Quite right. Public and elite opinion in the early Republic seemed to swing back and forth between raw terror that either Britain or France were on the verge of destroying the United States, and crazed optimism about the ability of the United States to dictate terms to and win wars against the major European powers. This isn’t terribly surprising; revolutionary regimes tend to have erratic foreign policies in their early years, and the leaders of the United States were self-conscious revolutionaries. At the same time, I wonder if the temporal proximity of the French Revolution to the American, and the very real differences between those two revolutions, didn’t serve to push US foreign policy in a more conservative direction. Interestingly enough, Herring credits Nelson’s victory at the Nile with making France amenable to negotiations with the United States.

Erik is also correct that the biggest omission from this chapter is an in-depth discussion of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Perhaps Herring considered these to be a domestic issues, but I can’t really see why. Without the pressure provided by the war between France and Britain, and the consequent division of the American political elite, I doubt that the Acts would ever have come about. Of course, it’s also kind of interesting to follow the self-immolation of the Federalist Party during Adams presidency. I had not previously knwn that Timothy Pickering is the only Secretary of State in US history to have been fired, rather than resign. In retrospect, Hamilton’s machinations against Adams really do seem foolish and short-sighted. Without the divisions in the Federalists, Adams probably would have beaten Jefferson in 1800.

I’ve heard it argued, and I think it’s correct, that the 1790s, the 1950s, and the 2000s are the only three eras in US history in which foreign policy played a genuinely critical role in American political competition. It’s too early to say whether Herring holds to this position, and I suppose further that the question depends on whether one terms relations with Native Americans as “foreign policy”. Then again, I suppose it could be argued that there was a broad consensus in the American political elite on the Native American question (kill them and take their land), and as such disputes weren’t really politically salient. It’ll be interesting to see how Herring treats this.

Finally, from the “that probably didn’t mean then what it sounds like now” file, Herring quotes an American official saying “The affairs of Europe rain riches on us, and it is as much as we can do to find dishes to catch the golden shower.” Indeed.

From Colony to Superpower: Part II

[ 0 ] November 17, 2008 |

George Washington composed his Farewell Address in cooperation with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. The process took roughly five years, as the initial text was prepared in anticipation of a 1792 retirement. In one of the drafts of the address, Washington/Madison/Hamilton look forward to a time in which the United States

shall possess the strength of a giant, and there will be none who can make us afraid.

George Herring introduces the second chapter of From Colony to Superpower with this quote, and highlights in in his introduction. Washington’s Farewell Address is a remarkably important document for the study of American foreign policy, but discussion of it tends to focus on other elements, most notably Washington’s injunctions against alliances and other entanglements with Europe. Unlike some such documents, the Farewell Address isn’t a sphinx without a secret; it lays forth a relatively straightforward and coherent vision of what American foreign policy should look like. Fans of hegemonic and liberal internationalist approaches to American foreign policy should, I think, disagree with much of what Washington argues, although they can excuse him for writing under different circumstances than hold today. In any case, the decision to highlight a quote from an unfinished draft of the Address is curious, and I have to suspect that Herring would not have done so if the book had been published prior to the September 11 attacks. Those attacks demonstrated that the strength of a giant was insufficient to protect us from being afraid.

What strikes more than anything about the quote is its naivety. It feels particularly naive in the context of the last ten years of American history, but it was naive at the time, and misunderstands the relationship between fear and power. We fear when we believe that our values are threatened; national security is about the protection of those values. The more things that we have (whether territory, freedom, economic well-being, etc.) the more likely we are to feel fear. It’s hardly accidental that the most notable moments of raw terror over foreign affairs in the United States have come as the US ascended to a new apex of power. During the McCarthyite hysteria of the 1950s and following the attacks of September 11, the United States had great capacity to protect itself than ever before, but this capacity didn’t translate into a feeling of security. The power of the United States depends on an interlocking series of relationships both domestic and international. More stuff translates into more power, but it also means more threats; whereas the United States could be utterly indifferent to the course of a Greek civil war in the 19th century, in the 1950s such a war could potentially threaten the edifice upon which American power was built. Power and fear in the international system are tightly bound together; more of the first almost invariably means more of the second.

This should not have been lost on Washington, as he certainly could see that neither Britain nor France, in spite of their great power relative to the United States, were free from fear. There is also a neoconservative interpretation of the comment; Washington could have meant that as a powerful republic, the United States would reshape the world such that there would be nothing to fear. That’s seems to be a bit of a stretch, however, especially since Washington makes direct reference to size and power, rather than ideology. The notion of a United States reaching out and transforming the world through raw power is also alien to the rest of the Farewell Address, most of which (as alluded to above) is consumed by warnings against entanglement with the Old World.

It’s also possible (perhaps likely) that Washington meant nothing of the sort when he wrote the comment:

That our Union may be as lasting as time for while we are encircled in one band we shall possess the strength of a giant and there will be none who can make us afraid Divide and we shall become weak a prey to foreign intrigues and internal discord and shall be as miserable and contemptible as we are now enviable and happy.

In context, it seems to me much more of an injunction against disunity than a dream about the rise of American power. However, because Herring uses the quote to generate interesting thoughts rather than to illustrate the political vision of Washington/Hamilton/Madison, I can forgive the out of context citation.

The second chapter of Colony to Superpower brings us from the ratification of the Constitution to the election of Thomas Jefferson. The revolutionary spirit still animated American foreign policy to an extent, but it was tempered both by the severe constraints on US capabilities and by the motivating ideology of the American Revolution. While there was some sympathy for the French Revolution, there was also deep concern about its extent. No such confusion existed in reference to the Haitian Revolution; in a pattern that would be repeated ad nauseum throughout US history, the young Republic gave military assistance to the counter-revolutionary planter class of Haiti, and accepted its refugees following the rebel victory. The Haitian revolt played some role in the deep political divide that followed the French Revolution, as the Southern planter class argued for military and financial assistance to France so that the new government could put down the rebellion. This isn’t to say that the Federalists were enthused by the Haitian Revolt, but they didn’t tend to find the idea of a bloody slave revolt as frightening as did the Republicans.

Herring capably covers the familiar story of the conflict between the Federalists and the Republicans throughout the 1790s. I’ve seen it argued that this early battle between supporters of France and Britain raised the political salience of foreign policy to a degree unmatched in American politics until the 1950s, and Herring seems general in accord with that view. Herring is generally sympathetic to the Federalists, suggesting that much criticism of the Jay treaty was unwarranted, and that Adams accomplished a difficult task in keeping the US mostly out of war with France. The Alien and Sedition Acts receive curiously little attention.

I have more, but I’ll pass it over to Erik…

Colony to Superpower I: Things Fall Apart?

[ 0 ] November 12, 2008 |

Erik’s response to my FCTS I (From Colony to Superpower: Chapter 1) post is up. A lot of the discussion we’ve been having regards counterfactuals, which is plenty entertaining but somewhat limiting. I wish Erik would expand on this point:

Also, I think westward expansion as a real reason for Revolution has probably been overhyped since 1776.

It’s not that I disagree; I’m just curious about the nature of the argument. Is Erik suggesting that the British would (eventually) have been just as comfortable with expansion as the colonists? This would seem plausible, although it’s fair to say that the gains from expansion (territory and property) would have been distributed much differently under a different relationship between the colonies and the metropol. That difference in distribution might well have produced a civil war or revolution by itself.

On a wholly different subject, Herring noted that there was a widespread expectation in Europe (particularly in Great Britain) that the United States would disintegrate, probably in five years or less. I’m not terribly surprised that there was such an expectation, but I do wonder about the details. Did the British think that the US would crack into 13 separate states, or along regional lines? Did they think that the recovery (voluntary or no) of the colonies would be possible? Individual states would have been extremely vulnerable to pressure from France or Spain, and might well have found the mother country a better option. Herring doesn’t give us any details, but I wonder whether the idea that Britain would recover the colonies anyway played a role in the debate over the wisdom of continuing the war, and in obdurate British policy following the war. Spanish and French expectations of American disintegration may also have played a role in their enthusiasm (such that it was) for American independence.

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