Eric Grynaviski. America's Middlemen: Power at the Edge of Empire. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. xii + 309 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-16215-0; $29.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-316-61472-3.
Reviewed by Brandon Layton (Austin Peay State University )
Published on H-Early-America (May, 2020)
Commissioned by Kelly K. Sharp (Furman University)
Studies of American diplomacy often focus on “great men” such as presidents, diplomatic officials, or military leaders. In America’s Middlemen, international relations scholar Eric Grynaviski argues that throughout American history, ordinary people have shaped foreign policy as intermediaries. Rooted in their ability to control information moving across geopolitical borders, these overlooked actors wielded what Grynaviski calls “the power of betweenness” (p. 2). Grynaviski contends that intermediaries have exercised significant influence on American international relations from the American Revolution to the Iraq War. This argument reframes the growth of American empire as deriving not from military or economic might, but rather from interpersonal relationships forged between intermediaries and nonstate actors.
Grynaviski’s first chapter lays out the theoretical underpinnings of his argument. He grounds his methodology in network analysis—the study of social networks—to make counterintuitive conclusions about international politics. He is particularly interested in those persons who linked different communities together, or intermediaries. In this context, “intermediary” has a very precise definition: an individual who plugs structural holes. In sociology, a structural hole is a gap between social networks, which occurs when two communities lack reliable lines of communication. If an intermediary with ties to both of those communities exists, he or she has a unique ability to bridge the structural hole and exercise outsized influence over diplomatic relations.
In the following chapters, Grynaviski tests his hypothesis with case studies of intermediaries. These cases move chronologically and draw on historical sources. Chapter 2 focuses on the American Revolution and the missionaries who helped forge an alliance between the United States and the Oneidas and Tuscaroras. Chapter 3 examines the Barbary Wars by analyzing the roles played by former Barbary captive and later consul to Tripoli James Leander Cathcart, and American adventurer and consul to Tunis William Eaton. Chapter 4 looks at Native American alliances during the Civil War for examples where structural holes existed (the Pawnees) and where they did not (the Cherokees). Chapter 5 moves into the South Pacific with analysis of the annexation of Samoa in 1900 and how adventurer Albert Steinbeger and merchant William H. Webb manipulated the United States into active support for war to advance Samoan interests. Chapters 6 and 7 consider the American involvement in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War and Philippine-American War, respectively, and how the US army depended on local forces to fight on its behalf. Chapter 8 extends the framework established in previous chapters into the second half of the twentieth century to demonstrate the enduring relevance of intermediaries in a globalized world in conflicts ranging from the Second World War to the war on terror.
In making a case for the centrality of intermediaries, Grynaviski undermines the agency of other diplomatic decision-makers. For example, Grynaviski reduces the Oneida decision to ally with the United States during the Revolution as almost entirely the product of manipulations by missionary Samuel Kirkland. Although Kirkland played a significant role in the alliance, the Oneidas had their own motives, namely securing a new source of trade goods to rival their Mohawk neighbors. Most grievously, Grynaviski ignores that a sizable faction of Oneidas refused to join the Americans. By focusing solely on intermediaries as agents, Grynaviski also risks misrepresenting the nature of American foreign policy. In his telling of examples from Samoa, the Philippines, and Iraq War, intermediaries almost single-handedly manipulated the US government into conflicts it might not otherwise have fought. This kind of interpretation obscures the expansionist and imperial ambitions of American policymakers.
Despite these shortcomings, Grynaviski makes a compelling case for the relevance of intermediaries in American international relations. As Grynaviski notes, this argument will not be novel to all readers. Scholars of early America have long emphasized the significance of go-betweens in borderlands, Native American diplomacy, and the Atlantic slave trade. Nevertheless, he contributes to the existing literature by illustrating the continued importance of intermediaries in more recent conflicts, where conventional scholarship maintains fixated on elite statecraft. Grynaviski also brings historical scholarship into conversation with political science and international relations in ways that should enhance how these fields understand the importance of intermediation in American diplomacy broadly.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-early-america.
Brandon Layton. Review of Grynaviski, Eric, America's Middlemen: Power at the Edge of Empire.
H-Early-America, H-Net Reviews.
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