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From Colony to Superpower IX: Teddy

[ 0 ] January 30, 2009 |

Some kind, anonymous soul picked up my bag off the street and delivered it to my office, meaning that I didn’t have to buy another copy of Herring’s From Colony to Superpower. Thank you! And so we return to the series at chapter 9, which covers the Roosevelt and Taft administrations, the Great White Fleet, the Roosevelt Corollary, and so forth. See Erik’s commentary first.

Imperial consolidation is the motivating concept of the chapter; the United States consolidated control over both its formal empire (Philippines, Caribbean, South Pacific), and its informal imperial interests in Latin America and Asia. The United States also undertook the modernization and professionalization of its diplomatic corps. This helped the United States achieve a number of notable diplomatic successes, including Roosevelt’s brokering of the Russo-Japanese War. I think it could be argued that the United States achieved full membership in the European Great Power system under Roosevelt, completing a process that had been initiated nearly a century before.

Herring continues to give short shrift to the independent influence of Alfred Thayer Mahan. I think I would have preferred this account to pay greater attention to the intersections between a foreign policy history of the United States and a military history of the United States. By this I don’t mean more detailed attention to the wars that the United States has undertaken, but rather closer scrutiny on the history of the military organizations, and there relationships both foreign and domestic. They are key foreign policy organs, after all, and the popularity of Mahan (and other figures like him) is important, I think, to analysis of US foreign relations during the Roosevelt period. But then the book is still only half over, and I’ll be particularly curious to see how Herring treats the “globalization” of US military power after 1945.

US intervention in the Russo-Japanese War is interesting for several reasons. As discussed earlier, the United States and Imperial Russia maintained unusually cordial relations in the nineteenth century. These relations began to deteriorate as US foreign policy took a more overtly ideological tint, and as American Jews became increasingly concerned with the plight of Eastern European Jews living under Russian governance. While it would be wrong to suggest that Roosevelt and the larger elite foreign policy establishment were unmoved by the plight of Russian Jewry, the primary concerns weren’t precisely altruistic; Americans worried that continued repression of Russian Jews would lead to mass emigration to the United States. Nevertheless, it’s kind of interesting that, given the hysteria that greeted the possibility of Japanese Pacific expansion, US policy on the war was relatively even-handed. Herring suggests that Roosevelt may have been more personally impressed by the Japanese than by the Russians.

More soon….


Herring Mishap

[ 0 ] January 5, 2009 |

This week’s Herring installment will be delayed due to the fact that I apparently left my copy of From Colony to Superpower on the trunk of my car shortly before driving from Lexington to Cincinnati. And it was a signed copy. Damn.

From Colony to Superpower VIII: American Century

[ 0 ] December 29, 2008 |

Chapter VIII of From Colony to Superpower deals with the second Cleveland and first McKinley administrations, covering the Spanish-American War and the beginning of serious US involvement with China.

Herring touches on the influence of Alfred Thayer Mahan, but I think he gives insufficient attention to the US military buildup between 1893 and 1898. As we discussed last time, the USN in 1890 was demonstrably inferior to even second tier European navies. By 1898 it was capable of crushing the Spanish Navy (really at the bottom of the second tier) and was competitive with any force not named the Royal Navy. The development of the Army was somewhat slower. Herring goes pretty easy on the performance of the Army in the Philippines, although (unsurprisingly, given his thesis) he doesn’t waste time implying that the Spanish-American War was anything but an imperial project. I think a fair argument could be made that an independent Philippine Republic would have fallen victim to either German or Japanese imperialism, but of course this didn’t require a long term occupation by the United States; a defensive treaty allowing for some military cooperation would have sufficed.

Herring briefly mentions the issue of post-war military reconciliation. He suggests that the Spanish-American War provided military professionals from the North and South with an opportunity to heal the rift, so to speak. This is an issue that I’m quite interested in, but unfortunately know almost nothing about. The timeline doesn’t seem quite right to me; some very senior officers in the Spanish-American War must have served in the Civil War, but the numbers would be quite small. I would imagine also that the Indian Wars would have served as the cauldron in which the US Army was, so to speak, reforged. But maybe not; I’ll be tracking down some of the cites that Herring gives on this point.

Herring also gets into US involvement with China, including participation in the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion. American missionaries and merchants had already extensively visited China, but the late McKinley administration made the first serious efforts at military and political involvement. US concern was motivated mainly by the need to maintain access to China, and thus to prevent its direct partition by Japan, Russia, and the European powers. Although Americans tended to interpret this as altruistic, this belief was not shared by the Chinese. The acquisition of the Philippines and the increased involvement of China were not, of course, coincidental.

More later on the Venezuela Crisis and the promotion of US ministers to ambassadorial rank…

Charlton Heston? Really?

[ 0 ] December 27, 2008 |

I have never pictured Jack Aubrey as looking even vaguely like Charlton Heston, but apparently Patrick O’Brian did. I suppose that I might be more open minded about that possibility if I hadn’t seen Master and Commander before reading the first Aubrey-Maturin novel; the film obviously has its failings, but in general they concern the Maturin character (which is a completely and utterly different animal in the film than in the books), and the related issue of Aubrey being just a trifle too clever. Physically and in mannerism, though, I thought Crowe captured Aubrey almost perfectly. Even Crowe’s performance in Gladiator isn’t particularly Heston-esque, and his turn as Jack Aubrey just didn’t remind me at all of Heston.

From Colony to Superpower 7.2

[ 0 ] December 23, 2008 |

Paul reminds me of one of the most interesting parts of Chapter VII; the 1891 war crisis between Italy and the United States. The good people of New Orleans saw fit to lynch eleven Italians for roughly the same reasons that the good people of New Orleans ever see fit to lynch people, and the Italian government took offense. There was concern about the possibility of war, and someone noticed that the Italian Navy was actually larger and more capable than its US equivalent. An apology ensued.

Erik brings a second image argument to the table re: the military capabilities question. Heh; it’s so like an American historian to think that the development of ideas and institutions within the United States have a lasting effect on its foreign policy. So reductionist… Anyway, the argument is that a general skepticism towards the Federal government and preference for private actors permeated nineteenth century American politics, minimizing the interest in a large standing military. This isn’t quite the same as blaming the institutions; the US federal government maintained the capacity to mobilize behind big projects, but simply chose not to.

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…

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