Tuesday, May 26, 2009

From Colony to Superpower: Reflections

A few last words on Herring's From Colony to Superpower.

1. It's really a very strong survey of U.S. foreign policy. But I differentiate this from U.S. foreign relations. Ultimately, the book's biggest weakness is that it too frequently does not consider U.S. interactions with the world outside of the official perspective. For Herring, and for many foreign policy scholars, what really matters are actions between governments. That's obviously very important. But many scholars in the past decade have produced fantastic studies of Americans' interactions with the world from multiple perspectives--popular culture, environmental, religious groups, labor unions, NGOs, etc. I have little doubt that a lot more great work along these lines will be coming out soon. Herring integrates little of this.

2. Nevertheless, were I to teach a class on U.S. foreign relations, as I have considered doing for awhile now, I would use this book as the basis of most of my lectures. It's as solid of an overview as one could reasonably hope for. I do recommend it for anyone interested in these issues.

3. Herring concludes with a few thoughts about American foreign policy in the present, but he seems a bit reticent to take this too far. He mentions the need for Americans to give up exceptionalism and unilateralism, supports free trade and immigration, and notes the nation's decline during the Bush administration. It'd be nice to see him do a bit more with this. Most historians are shy about drawing parallels with the present too closely, but if you are going to write a 1000 page book about, I'd say that more than 3 pages of summary to conclude would be appropriate.