Monday, December 01, 2008

From Colony to Superpower, Part IV

This is the fourth installment in the 20 part series Rob Farley and I have commenced to review George Herring's From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. See the Herring Review tag below for previous entries. You can read Rob's piece this week here.

This week covers 1815-1837. What's remarkable about this chapter is the clarity which we can draw lines between the Bush administration's policy and that of James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson. The worst themes of American foreign relations are painted in bright lines here: American arrogance, hypocrisy, extreme nationalism, prickliness over criticism of the United States, seeing ourselves as implementing God's will. Herring even notes our disastrous first interactions with Vietnam!

American exceptionalism is a dangerous foundation to foreign policy. It blinds you to the consequences of your own actions and causes you to act like a hypocrite since whatever you do is either blessed by God or national destiny. Thus, we could incite the Mexicans and encourage Americans to settle Texas and then secede from Mexico. We could continue to demand our way with Britain and France, to the point of a ridiculous near-war with France in 1835 after Jackson insulted the French and refused to apologize. We could claim to talk about freedom but dither over recognizing the new Latin American nations, refuse to recognize Haiti, and look to push U.S. interests at the expense of every other nation in the world.

Ultimately, all of this bluster began paying off during these years. We acquired the Spanish claims to the Pacific Northwest, which were much stronger than our own. We forced the southern Indians to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears, opening up millions of acres to cotton development. We extinguished Spanish claims to Florida. We started the process of taking over Texas. We pressed trading claims around the world. We planned to steal Cuba from the Spanish at some point in the near future. We badgered European governments into paying debts while we had no interest in ever paying our debts to them. The United States became a true second-rate power in these years and the largest and most important nation in the Americas. Our future was bright. How the rest of the world would fare turned out to be more problematic.

Of course the most important piece of American foreign policy during these years is the Monroe Doctrine. I am not anymore convinced of the importance of the Doctrine at the time than I already was. It was spurred by the potential for European intervention, but the British were already leading the way on ensuring that European powers did not try to recolonize the area. Moreover, the British proposed joint action with the United States on the matter, but the Americans demurred because they didn't want such a statement to be applied to their hoped for future acquistions in Texas and Cuba.

Herring also brings up an important piece of American foreign relations history--missionaries. The first American missionaires began to go abroad in these years. The missionaries, then and now, have often seen themselves as implements of American civilization and of the government. They push Protestantism on Catholic peoples, seek to open up nations to U.S. trade, serve as advisors on American investments, and sometimes interfere in other nations' governments. The idea of Americans as missionaries has always played a major role in the American psyche. Even if we don't go on missions, we see Americans as providing the world with freedom, justice, democracy, capitalism, civilization, or other mores of the time.

In the 1830s, Andrew Jackson sent Edmund Roberts, a New England merchant, to Asia to negoitate treaties with various nations. After insulting the Vietnamese because he would not speak respectfully to the king (Roberts called the Vietnamese "without exception the most filthy people in the world"), he sailed to Macao where he died of cholera in 1836. The emperor Ming-Mang wrote this poem about the experience:

We did not oppose them coming,
We did not pursue them on their departure,
We behaved according to the manners of a civilized nation
What good would it do for us to complain of foreign barbarians.

The world would have a lot to complain of concering our barbarian nature over the next 172 years, the reasons for which are superbly laid out by Herring in this chapter.

Interestingly, Rob and I seem to have very different takes on this chapter. He discuss Herring's belief of Monroe as the most competent of the Virginia Dynasty, and I don't dispute that, but I do think it's clear both that Monroe was relying on Adams for pretty much everything and that he was consulting with Jefferson and Madison about everything. I think it's a matter of circumstance more than any particular skill on Monroe's part.

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.