Sunday, November 09, 2008

From Colony to Superpower, Part I

Over the next 20 Sundays, Robert Farley and I will be reviewing George C. Herring's new overview of the history of U.S. foreign relations, From Colony to Superpower. Published by Oxford University Press, this tome surpasses the 1000 page mark including end matter, and provides and excellent opportunity to think about American foreign policy, past and present. This is particularly true given the recent centrality of foreign policy to our lives, especially the Bush failures and the Obama victory.

Each week we will discuss one chapter. I am certainly not anticipating this as a review per se. The book is thorough and quiet excellent. Far more interesting to readers will be our thoughts about America's relationship with the world. So the book review aspect of this is really a jumping off point for this kind of debate.

Therefore, you should discuss these issues in comments.

I have a wide definition of foreign relations. Looking at the interactions between governments is vital. But a full view of interactions between peoples and nations casts a much wider net, examining the relations between states and non-state actors in other nations, consumption and globalization (the latter term I also define broadly), the role of environmental change, how transnational advocacy networks in the first world affect the third world, etc., etc. My comments throughout this series will try to push some of these ideas.

This week, we are going over the introduction and Chapter 1, which covers the period between 1776 and 1788.

What is clear to me from the introduction of Herring's book is that the Bush years are already influencing how we think about the past. Not surprising I suppose, but telling because Herring is a senior scholar who has been in the field for decades. For example, Herring takes the idea of the United States fulfilling a special destiny to task, writing that "this sense of a special destiny has at times also spawned arrogance." Herring centers race in his narrative, saying that racism reinforced Americans' "sense of cultural superiority." Our sense of cultural superiority and arrogance certainly came to life in the Bush administration, particularly in the run up to and beginning of the Iraq war. And arrogant racial superiority served us about as well as it has in the past, i.e., very poorly.

Herring also explores the American idea of the city upon the hill and its providential mission to do good in the world, however we define it at the time. From missionaries and capitalists to Wilson and W, Herring promises to explore and critique this tendency which has had a mixed legacy at best for the world. Related to this mythology is American unilateralism, which Herring seems to have mixed view of. He certainly is critical. of the idea in the 20th and 21st centuries, a stand that I assume is an implicit criticism of the Bush administration. I'll be curious to explore these points later in the book.

He also takes the idea of American isolationism to task, calling it "a myth...used to safeguard the nation's self-image of its innocence." I can't agree more. Americans have been engaged with the world since before they were a nation. Our so-called isolationism was usually a self-serving attempt to subvert world trading systems to the advantage of the U.S. Herring states "few nations have had as much experience at war as the United States," a point all the more true when we consider the Indian wars of the late 18th and 19th centuries as part of our history of foreign relations.

Finally, Herring says that the U.S. has been incredibly successful in their foreign policy but that this success and the superpower status of the nation after World War II created more limits of the nation, something that the population with its belief in American power, had trouble dealing with. I think this is certainly true, given the domestic reaction to both Korea and Vietnam, as well as the ability of figures such as Fidel Castro, Osama Bin Laden, Hugo Chavez, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to defy the U.S. in recent decades.

Onto the meat of the book.

The first chapter covers the American Revolution. Reading it reinforced my belief that the Revolution was incredibly stupid. That the United States survived the Revolution took a tremendous amount of luck combined with the diplomacy of Benjamin Franklin in France and the leadership skills of George Washington in the field. The British should have crushed us. The U.S. was completely unprepared for self-government. The nation had no unity and upon independence the states immediately fought amongst themselves over control of western lands. The Army could barely feed its troops. The Articles of Confederation were worthless. The U.S. could not pay off the many loans it needed to survive. Like future generations of Americans, the revolutionaries thought of themselves as the greatest people on earth. While this provided self-confidence to a young nation, it also blinded leaders to the realities of the world and led them to overestimate their ability to shape their own destiny.

I have argued before that perhaps the American Revolution was not the best thing for the nation. Essentially, this comes down to the idea that a defeat in 1776 would have led this part of the world to become a Canada-like place over time. Core to this argument are two points. First, that American nationalism and exceptionalism have been a negative force in the world. Second, slavery would have been abolished earlier and without significant violence. The first argument I will touch upon again and again during this series. The second I will deal with now. The British abolished slavery in their empire in 1838 without violence. This despite the fact that they had many territories where slavery was far more entrenched than it ever was in the United States. The advantage of slavery in what became the U.S. South for the economic system of 19th century Britain would not have been great enough to delay abolition significantly. They needed cotton for their mills, like they needed other products from their colonies. But the British understood that chattel slavery was not necessary for this aim.

Nevertheless, the United States did survive and eventually prosper. Why? One thing the revolutionary generation did remarkably well was exploiting the insecurities of major European powers before 1789. They took advantage not only of the French desire to get back at England for the Seven Years' War but also of Britain's fears of what American-French alliance might mean. Thus the U.S. got French arms but bailed on the French before the Spanish could get Gibraltar back, something the revolutionaries didn't care about.

But of course the years after 1783 were exceedingly brutal in the new United States. Kicked out of the British mercantile system they thought oppressed them, Americans were shocked to find that they couldn't trade with all the European powers equally. The British surely weren't going to give them any advantages and the Spanish closed Havana and New Orleans to American ships. Even the French were relatively indifferent to American trade. To his credit, Thomas Jefferson worked very hard to open up France, even trying to convince American farmers to grow products the French wanted. But he ultimately failed. A significant economic collapse ensued.

By 1787, the new nation was falling apart, both domestically and in foreign affairs. American credit with vital foreign traders was in shambles. The British remained on American soil in the Great Lakes region. No one respected this little piss ant republic in the Americas. Combined with domestic problems such as Shays' Rebellion, it was clear to many leaders that the nation needed a new form of government. The Constitution was obviously a massive success and saved the nation from destruction during the French Revolution, which we will discuss next week.

One thing I do like about the book thus far is that Herring pays a reasonable amount of attention to Native American issues. The American Revolution was the worst thing that ever happened to the Indians. As Richard White shows in his book, The Middle Ground; Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815, Indians were able to operate on a fairly equal basis with both the French and English during the first half of the 18th century. This wasn't through any benign policy from the Europeans. Rather, neither the French nor the English was strong enough to force the other out and thus the Indians had leverage between them. Ultimately though, the Indians knew that they were better off with the French because that power was less interested in colonization. They rightly feared the American colonists and mostly fought with the French during the Seven Years War.

Of course, after the war's conclusion in 1763, the British were in terrible financial straits and needed to cut costs. The Indians feared the loss of the French would mean rapid English invasion of their land. The colonists certainly had this in mind. But the British, wanting to avoid expensive Indian wars, implemented the Proclamation of 1763, essentially banning settlement beyond the crest of the Appalachian Mountains. This infuriated colonists and played an important role in fomenting opposition to Parliament. While it's wrong to overstate the importance of the Proclamation in the revolutionary ferment, a further exploration of colonists' views toward Native Americans would be nice.

It is also important to note that Native Americans were actors who exercised plenty of agency over their own foreign affairs. They rightly understood the evolving situation they faced and acted accordingly. They felt betrayed by the British after the end of the Revolutionary War and certainly did not accept American sovereignty over their lands in the West. Throughout their history, they did their best to shape their lives in the face of overwhelming American population and military power.

The one major criticism I have so far is the lack of any substantial discussion of the slave trade. The slave trade was one of America's first entries into foreign relations. Slavery was introduced to the colonies in 1619 and the southern states demanded the slave trade exist until 1808 before they would sign on to the Constitution. Herring mentions this last part. Again though, to me this book ideally should be a history of American foreign relations, as opposed to just policy. Americans had a lot of interactions with people from around the world before 1776 and this changed little in the intervening 12 years. Although the United States played a very small role in the overall slave trade, millions of slaves still ended up on our shores. The slave trade of course changed Africa rapidly. Again, this was hardly the central focus of U.S. interactions with the world during these years, but it does deserve a mention. I hope there is more on these issues in the next chapter.