Warren I. Cohen. A Nation Like All Others: A Brief History of American Foreign Relations. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. 328 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-17566-1.
Reviewed by Michael F. Hopkins (University of Liverpool)
Published on H-Diplo (February, 2019)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
Newspapers, broadcast, and social media abound in anxious comments on the new directions in US policy taken during the presidency of Donald Trump—especially on the administration’s attitudes and policies in international affairs. Trump’s supporters argue that he is devoting much-needed attention to long-neglected problems and to framing policies around US interests rather than those of other states and peoples. The president’s critics claim his approach is deeply harmful both to US interests and to global stability, constituting an abandonment of the post-1945 international order that Americans had done so much to construct. Never was there a greater need for an accessible historical guide to US foreign policy that allows its readers to view current developments in the broader context of the whole history of American foreign relations.
Warren I. Cohen is ideally suited to provide such a study. He is a fine scholar who has produced many excellent scholarly works, including a well-regarded study of Sino-American relations now in its fifth edition (America’s Response to China: A History of Sino-American Relations [5th ed., 2010]). He also served as the general editor of the four-volume Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations (1993) and wrote the final volume, an astute examination of US foreign relations since 1945 (America in the Age of Soviet Power, 1945-1991 ). He calls his new book an interpretive essay, but it focuses less on detecting and drawing out patterns and trends than on developing an explanatory narrative. Cohen’s pithy, insightful, and frequently trenchant survey takes its readers from the foundation of the Republic right up to the election of Trump. Only in its brief final chapter does it devote much space to larger questions. There are no illustrations, maps, footnotes, or bibliography.
It is a pity that the balance of the book is so heavily weighted in favor of events in the twentieth century and later, and especially in the period since 1945. Many important themes that remain of value today might have been given more space. In the 1820s, for example, there were debates about whether the United States should intervene abroad. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams observed that the United States “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.... She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.” The years up to 1901 are covered in five of the nineteen main chapters, in 44 out of 294 pages; 1901 to 1945 are treated in 53 pages; and events since 1945 receive 197 pages. And in the latter pages there arises another problem: large parts of the treatment bear remarkable similarity to the text of volume 4 of the Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations and New Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations (2013).
Cohen places the notion of American exceptionalism at the center of his understanding of American foreign relations. He injects a personal element by saying that he grew up as a believer in the United States as a force for good in the world but concludes that the election of Trump reveals the United States to be “a nation like all others” (p. xii)—hence the title of his book. The issue of American exceptionalism, in the sense of the country being both moral exemplar and promoter of its values around the world, is present at key places in his narrative but is variable in its prominence across the whole book. He concentrates, instead, on delivering a persuasive account of US policies that is full of sound judgments. But he could have done more to develop his theme.
As they launched their rebellion in 1776, the American colonists saw “themselves and their people as a breed apart from Europeans.... theirs was a model society, guided by God’s hand” (p. 3). Such moral certainty was the foundation for expansionist policies that steadily increased the territory of the United States from its original thirteen states on the Eastern Seaboard until it had extended across the continent to the Pacific. This expansion was frequently the result of actions of questionable legality, such as settlers seizing Indian lands or of initiatives (like the Louisiana Purchase) that exceeded presidential authority. As Cohen notes of Thomas Jefferson, “he never hesitated to overlook his principles when convinced he was acting in the national interest” (p. 10). Even before the continental frontier had been reached, there were Americans urging the government to extend the country’s presence into Central America and the Caribbean, and into the Pacific and East Asia.
Meanwhile, the special moral standing of the country fractured on the issue of slavery and resulted in a bloody civil war in 1861-65. Cohen praises President Abraham Lincoln and his secretary of state, William Seward, for preventing European intervention on the Confederate side and identifies “the exquisite skill” with which the president balanced his task of rallying the border states and racists to the cause of preserving the Union “with his own conviction,... the moral necessity of ending slavery” (p. 29). By the 1880s and early 1890s there were renewed calls for expansion, but they did not arise from the public or most elected leaders who “had minimal desire to acquire territory populated by alien races” but rather from “seekers of markets and investment opportunities” and “missionaries” (p. 38). Then the Republicans endorsed overseas expansion. In April 1898 the United States went to war with Spain, the only time in American history that Congress rather than the president introduced a declaration of war. Although the “pretense of exceptionalism lived on in the nation’s self-image, the United States had openly surrendered its claim to moral imagination: its leaders unapologetically chose to compete for world primacy on the backs of subject peoples” (p. 40).
This more hard-headed approach to the American role in the world was evident in the next decade and a half. President Theodore Roosevelt was a “shameless advocate of imperialism,” yet Cohen concedes that Roosevelt’s grasp of “power in international relations generally served the interests of the country well” (p. 49). President William Howard Taft focused less on raw military power than on advancing American economic influence through “dollar diplomacy.” For Taft and his secretary of state, Philander Knox, their “chosen instrument was the banker, but on occasion they sent in the marines” (p. 50). The arrival of a Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, in 1913 ought to have signalled a change, for Wilson disdained Roosevelt’s militarism and Taft’s economic imperialism. But the new president embraced “the idea of America as the world’s leading nation” (p. 52). Moreover, he resurrected the idea of the United States as a beacon of principle, and he would do so not simply by the power of example as suggested by John Quincy Adams but by entering the First World War and shaping the postwar peace. Wilson helped to create a new international organization, the League of Nations, but failed to secure Senate’s agreement to American membership.
The 1920s witnessed a succession of Republican administrations, which adopted a more subdued approach to international politics. But, as Cohen rightly explains, Americans were involved in the world “to an extent unprecedented in [their] ... history” (p. 63). While Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes envisioned world leadership for the country and pursued it in the Washington Conference of 1921-22, there was a tendency to use nongovernmental figures to deliver foreign policy goals. The worldwide economic collapse of 1929-32, which had begun on Wall Street in October 1929, and the rise of Japanese, then German, and Italian aggressive nationalism in the 1930s turned many Americans even more inward—driven partly by economic necessity but also by a desire to protect their exceptional nation from the predations of the world. President Franklin Roosevelt accepted the need to restore the economy and recognized the powerful domestic forces ranged against involvement in overseas crises but “knew war was coming and tried to prepare the nation for it” (p. 87). Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war in December 1941, Roosevelt assumed moral leadership of the wartime alliance, calling it the United Nations and enunciating its central goals. Through his greater pragmatism and less moralistic tone, he worked with British prime minister Winston Churchill and Soviet premier Joseph Stalin to create the United Nations in 1945. The central role of Americans in the UN and in victory over the brutal dictatorships added luster once more to the United States’ moral standing.
Would the United States continue to take a leading role after the war was over? After less than two years of uncertainty, Washington placed itself at the forefront of a new moral cause: resistance to the threat of Soviet communism. For the next forty years American leaders declared their commitment to democracy and freedom. Cohen stresses how the Cold War opened opportunities for less high-minded policies: it allowed Senator Joseph McCarthy, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and Republican vice president Richard Nixon to “divert the attention of the American people from needed reform to the hunt for Communists” (p. 119). Until the commitment of US forces to the war in Vietnam in 1965, that claim was largely accepted by people outside the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Cohen is justly scathing about the ineptitude and cynicism of American policies to Vietnam. The United States was no longer the “City on a Hill” but the country whose troops slaughtered innocent women and children. Moral degeneration seemed matched by economic decline in the 1970s, but a new upsurge of national self-confidence and pride in the country’s principles emerged with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism. Exhilaration at the spread of democracy and freedom across the globe gave way to hubris in some, which was brutally ended by the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon. It ushered in a new era where American leaders focused more on US interests rather than larger principles.
The presidency of Barack Obama forms the final part of Cohen’s explanatory narrative. The chapter provides a succinct summary of policies and identifies problems but is restrained in its criticisms. Obama arrived in office on a wave of high expectations, having voiced the desire to pursue higher goals than his predecessor. In his early months he adopted a more conciliatory approach to the Muslim world, expressed a wish to help forge better Israeli-Palestinian relations, offered the prospect of talks with Iran and North Korea, and declared his commitment to ending adversarial relations with Russia and China. Cohen notes the failure of most of these goals, American inaction in Syria, and a failure to respond to Pentagon concerns about the rapid modernization of the Chinese military and to Beijing’s more aggressive behavior in the South China Sea. He explains how the president had a different focus. Obama developed a good relationship with Chinese president Xi Jinping, which bore fruit in two landmark achievements: the 2015 deal with Iran that halted its nuclear program and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change of 2015.
Cohen closes his survey with a paragraph on the election of Trump, someone with “no governing experience and little if any knowledge of world affairs—a man who promised to destroy the liberal international order..., who threatened to undermine the entire system of alliances..., who denied climate change, [and who] seemed uninterested in [preventing] proliferation of nuclear weapons” (p. 294). Who will appeal, Cohen wonders, to what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature” (p. 299)? Although this is an accurate depiction of the new president and his stunted vision, the book allows the reader to look beyond Trump and to see his policies in a broader context. There have been frequent instances of disturbing behavior in the history of US foreign policy from Mexico in the 1840s to the Philippines after 1898 to Vietnam in the 1960s. For all the frequent declarations of attachment to high ideals, the country has consistently pursued its material interests; it is a nation like all others. And yet Americans “transcended bigotry” to free slaves (p. 296), liberated Europe and East Asia in World War II, and created a liberal international order after 1945. Cohen pays less attention to another way that the United States has become less distinctive from other countries, a change that might hinder any future president’s commitment to larger moral purposes: the decline in its relative power. The United States remains the strongest power in the world, but, with the rise of China and resurgence of Russia, its influence is less potent. Geopolitical shifts, rather than the policies of the Trump administration, seem likely to be the greater long-term challenge to the American ability to act as a significant force for good in the world.
. Cohen also acted as general editor of the new edition: New Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, 4 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). He was author of its fourth volume, Challenges to American Supremacy, 1945 to the Present, which reproduced the chapters of the first edition with some minor amendments and added two chapters on developments after 1991.
. John Quincy Adams, “July 4, 1821: Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives on Foreign Policy,” transcript, Presidential Speeches, Miller Center, UVA, https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/july-4-1821-speech-us-house-representatives-foreign-policy.
Michael F. Hopkins is reader in history at the University of Liverpool. His books include Dean Acheson and the Obligations of Power (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), The Washington Embassy: British Ambassadors to the United States, 1939-77 (edited with Saul Kelly and John W. Young) (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), The Cold War, 1945-1991 (with Michael L. Dockrill) (Macmillan, 2006), and Oliver Franks and the Truman Administration: Anglo-American Relations, 1948-1952 (Frank Cass, 2003). He is currently working on two book projects: “The American Secretary of State” and “Negotiating with Americans: British Financial Diplomacy with the United States and Canada.”
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