What America Owes the World: The Struggle for the Soul of Foreign Policy. – Review

What America Owes the World: The Struggle for the Soul of Foreign Policy. – Review – book review

William C. Widenor

What America Owes the World: The Struggle for the Soul of Foreign Policy. By H.W. Brands. (Cambridge, New York, and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. x, 335. $54.95.)

Operating from the premise that a single theme, an obligation to improve the lot of humanity, has pervaded American thinking about foreign policy, the author traces two contending schools of thought: the “exemplarist” school, which holds that the obligation is best met by providing the example of a benign, well-functioning democracy, and the “vindicationist” school, which is inclined to use force to ensure that American values prevail in the world. Though one might wish that H. W. Brands had engaged intellectually those who have described this dichotomy in different terms–particularism vs. universalism or isolationism vs. internationalism–this book is a welcome addition to the literature and should find a place on the reading lists of all who endeavor to teach the intellectual history of American foreign policy formulation.

This is a lively and eminently readable account. Brands writes with his usual energy, wit, and discernment. But to this reviewer’s mind, it is an uneven and occasionally blithe account. Brands provides no rationale for his selection of those figures who receive chapter attention; this reviewer fails to see how one can legitimately exclude such major practitioners and thinkers as John Quincy Adams, William Seward, and Woodrow Wilson. The author gives short shrift (one chapter) to the first 100-plus years of American diplomatic history, and, more significantly, he fails to address directly the question of what causes a particular school to prevail in a certain era or why 1898, as Norman Graebner once claimed, marked such an important watershed. In other words, how do power and capacity affect the equation?

Depth is a problem in other areas. Brands’s bibliography is distressingly short, and his account would have benefitted appreciably from a careful reading of John Johnson’s A Hemisphere Apart: The Foundations of Unified States Policy Toward Latin America and, even more importantly, from Ernest Tuveson’s Redeemer Nation, which shows how vigorously the nation’s Protestant clergy have long wrestled with the author’s central issue. The religious literature on the definition and purpose of mission is vast and often very enlightening. At the very least, it forces consideration of the question of whether the dominant factor in “Manifest Destiny” was the prevailing democratic ethos or the Protestant ethic.

Individual chapters differ markedly in their perspicacity. The essays on Brook Adams, Walter Lippmann, Lincoln Steffans, and Charles Beard are fresh and insightful. In the chapter on Reinhold Niebuhr, Brands’s asides become intrusive and detract from his effort to understand such a quintessentially important figure. On the other hand, William Appleman Williams is treated with kid gloves. His interpretations are merely recapitulated and seldom subjected to critical analysis.

To his credit, Brands attempts to bring the debate up to date and provide a recent historical context (e.g., Nicaragua, Somalia, Bosnia, etc.). Instructors will find this feature particularly useful. One supposes it is not unreasonable to call, as Brands does, for our “exemplarists” and our “vindicationists” to compromise their differences (318). But, some of the differences between the two groups are differences of principle and ones that cannot be easily reconciled. This reviewer, for one, will continue to find morally repugnant all “vindicationist” attempts to impose U.S. values by force on other countries, even if such attempts make for good domestic politics.

William C. Widenor University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

COPYRIGHT 2000 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group