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The Boston Globe

Two New Looks At The Consequences Of An Expansive Foreign Policy, Both At Home And Abroad American Ambitions

By James A. Miller

February 2, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Boston Globe. All rights reserved. 

Imperialism - a concept that existed outside of the realm of acceptable American political discourse for a great deal of the 20th century or, when it did appear, a term that was more likely than not wielded by leftist critics of US foreign policy - is now comfortably embedded in contemporary political and popular thought. Fueled by the Bush administration's war on terrorism, boldly outlined in the administration's National Security Directive, and actively backed by the conservative Project for the New American Century, this vision of an American empire boldly proclaims the centrality of the United States as the world's only superpower without a shred of bashfulness or reservation. But the often breathless accounts of the bold new initiatives heralded by the Bush Doctrine tend to obscure its deep roots in American social, cultural, and diplomatic history.In two books recently published by Harvard University Press, Amy Kaplan and Andrew J. Bacevich argue that notions of an American empire are far from new in the United States; indeed, they have shaped American attitudes and behavior for well over a century. In "The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture" (the title is taken from a poem by W. E. B. Du Bois), Kaplan, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, seeks to draw our attention to "how international struggles for domination abroad profoundly shape representations of American national identity at home, and how, in turn, cultural phenomena we think of as domestic or particularly national are forged in a crucible of foreign relations." Kaplan notes that the threat of anarchy abroad - which has often been based on racist assumptions about the inability of nonwhites to govern themselves - has historically been invoked by imperial powers to justify military intervention and occupation. But she is primarily concerned with exploring how the anxieties produced by these "foreign" adventures affect the "domestic" sphere, and vice versa: "The dream of imperial expansion is the nightmare of its own success, a nightmare in which movement outward into the world threatens to incorporate the foreign and dismantle the domestic sphere of the nation."

In six carefully crafted case studies - ranging from American notions of Manifest Destiny in the 1840s through Mark Twain's international travels to late-19th-century popular romances like Charles Major's "When Knighthood Was in Flower" and Mark Johnson's "To Have and to Hold"; journalistic accounts of the Spanish- American War; and a concluding account of Du Bois's incisive remapping of the imperial world in his 1920 book "Darkwater" - Kaplan travels freely over a wide swath of American cultural history. Along the way she casts a theoretically sophisticated eye on disparate texts - some familiar to American readers, many not - ranging from the 1901 Supreme Court case Downes v. Bidwell, which adjudicated the dependent status of Puerto Rico as a US dependency; to Godey's Lady's Book and Catherine Beecher's "A Treatise on Domestic Economy"; Sarah Hale's "Northwood" and "Liberia"; Mark Twain's "Roughing It" and "Following the Equator"; to an early film about the US war in the Philippines, "The American Soldier in Love and War," and D. W. Griffith's landmark "The Birth of a Nation." The result is a challenging, provocative work that makes a persuasive case for the inextricable - and complicated - connections between American notions of national identity and US foreign policy.

Bacevich's "American Empire" is a more straightforward "critical interpretation of American statecraft in the 1990s," "a venture in contemporary history." And he is straightforward, too, in establishing where he stands on the political spectrum about US foreign policy. Recounting the fundamental Cold War disagreements that divided Americans into hawks and doves, right and left, Bacevich - a professor of International Relations and director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University - locates himself squarely with the hawks: "As a serving military officer, I accepted the view that American power provided theessential check upon those who conspired against freedom. . . . I never saw Fidel or Che, Mao or Ho as agents of liberation and human fulfillment. Nor do I see reason to modify my view on these matters today." This said, he turns his attention to the question of what interpretive framework best allows us to understand the values and assumptions guiding US foreign policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Given Bacevich's stated politics, his argument may surprise some readers, for he takes exception to the conventional argument that US statecraft during the 1990s was largely a record of squandered opportunities and lack of purpose while political leadership "dawdled and diddled."

In fact, Bacevich argues, "since the end of the Cold War the United States has . . . adhered to a well-defined grand strategy. . . . Its ultimate objective is the creation of an open and integrated international order based on the principles of democratic capitalism, with the United States as the ultimate guarantor of order and enforcer of norms." He makes his case by offering a careful and probing analysis of US foreign policy during the administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, with a coda on the first year of the present Bush administration. Once one looks through the lofty rhetoric of US foreign policy, "the politicoeconomic concept to which the United States adheres today has not changed in a century: the familiar quest for an `open world,' the . . . confidence that technology endows the United States with a privileged position in that order, and the expectation that American military might will preserve order and enforce the rules."

Bacevich insists that there are no differences in the key assumptions governing the foreign policy of the administrations of Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II - and this will certainly be the subject of passionate debate. This view, however, does not rule out his close attention to key policy debates from one administration to another within this broad framework - as he makes plain in his riveting analysis of the increasing militarization of American diplomacy since the end of the Cold War, in the chapter "Rise of the Proconsuls." In the final analysis, Bacevich's argument persuades - as does Kaplan's - by means of engaging prose as well as the compelling and relentless accumulation of detail. Both these works bring badly needed perspectives to troubled times.

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