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Original Essays

From Colony to Superpower

by George C. Herring
  1. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (Oxford History of the United States)
    $17.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "In this splendidly detailed account, George Herring expertly guides us through the rich and fascinating story of America's foreign relations. This is history on a grand scale, clearly and elegantly rendered." Fredrik Logevall, co-author of A People and a Nation
  2. America
    $22.00 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

Beset with crippling divisions at home and dire threats from abroad, an embattled President George Washington in his last years in office yearned for a time when his nation would "possess the strength of a Giant and there will be none who can make us afraid." More than 200 years later, at the dawn of the 21st century, the United States had achieved a position of world power its first president could not have dreamed of. Pundits hailed a "unipolar moment." Comparisons were drawn with ancient Rome, the only historical example that seemed adequately to describe America's global preeminence.

From Colony to Superpower recounts the rise of the United States from a loose grouping of small, disparate colonies huddled along the Atlantic coast of North America and surrounded by often hostile Indians and the possessions of unfriendly European powers to a commanding position in world politics and economics. It places U.S. foreign relations in the context of an ever changing international system. It analyzes the sources of America's foreign policies, the implementation of its diplomacy, and the consequences of its actions, for itself — and for other peoples and nations.

This is the only topical volume in Oxford University Press's distinguished History of the United States Series, making my task as author especially daunting. The challenge was to synthesize a vast body of writing on U.S. foreign relations throughout the entirety of the nation's history into a single volume written in a style accessible to and appealing for general readers. This project also provided a wonderful opportunity, after more than four decades of teaching and writing in the field, to pull it all together in some meaningful fashion. And it was great fun each day to continue to learn new things. Doing the book seemed especially important at a time when world events mattered more than ever to the nation's future.

The expansion of America's power and influence on a global scale is an epic tale. It is the story of restless settlers pushing out against weak restraints, of merchants and missionaries, adventurers and explorers, spreading American ways into new lands. It includes countless diplomatic crises, some resolved peaceably, many provoking war. Americans like to think of themselves as a peace-loving people. In fact, the nation has gone to war every generation in its history, and war has decisively shaped the national character.

A cast of engaging characters graces these pages: statesmen like Washington, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt; rogues such as the notorious freebooter — for a time president of Nicaragua — William Walker; eccentrics like naval officer Charles Wilkes, who commanded a global exploring expedition in the 1840s and in 1861 provoked an incident that could have caused conflict with England during the first perilous months of the American Civil War; diplomats such as Benjamin Franklin, one of America's first envoys and perhaps its best, Townsend Harris, who through persistence and remarkable cultural sensitivity wrested major concessions from a reluctant Japan in the 1860s, and banker-turned-diplomat Dwight Morrow, who set out to like Mexicans and ended up negotiating a treaty resolving a major 1920s crisis.

Even more than I realized when I began this book, foreign policy has been central to the national experience. External assistance was essential to the birth of an independent United States; concerns about international commerce and foreign threats decisively influenced the form of government created in the Constitution of 1787. Foreign policy was instrumental in securing the young republic's political experiment, establishing a continental Union, and determining the outcome of its Civil War. During the nation's second full century and beyond, foreign policy has become even more critical to its prosperity and security.

Throughout its history, the United States has taken a distinctive approach toward foreign policy. Americans have held decidedly mixed views about their place in the international order. On the one hand, they have been allured by the riches of the world, and from the Revolution to the present, the pursuit of economic self-interest has produced a high level of global involvement. On the other, from the outset they expressed disdain for traditional European power politics and viewed themselves as a people apart, the harbingers of a new world order.

From Puritan leader John Winthrop's proclamation of a "city upon a hill" through George W. Bush's born-again zeal, Americans have seen themselves as a chosen people with a providential mission. This ideal has spurred a drive to do good in the world, manifested in the work of merchants, missionaries, and educators. It undergirded the Wilsonian dream of the United States as world leader and a world reformed according to American ideals.

This ideal has also spawned a certain arrogance in America's dealings with other peoples that was used to justify the expulsion of Native Americans, the wresting from Mexico of one-third of its territory, and the imposition of colonial rule on Filipinos and Puerto Ricans. From an ill-fated incursion into Canada in 1775 to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, America's sense of its grand historical mission has been used to rationalize the extension of liberty by force. Certain of their righteousness, Americans confidently expected to be welcomed as liberators. The ironic result, in most cases, has been to spark nationalist opposition among the people invaded.

America's democratic system has also given a distinctive hue to its foreign policy. From the beginnings, foreign policy has been the object of fierce partisan dispute. On occasion, an aroused public has pushed the government to act. More often, public indifference or apathy have brought about increasingly sophisticated efforts on the part of leaders to inform, "educate," and manipulate public opinion. The division of powers between executive and legislative branches has added another area of confusion and conflict. The nation's peculiar approach to foreign policy has long bemused and befuddled foreign observers, producing sometimes ingenious efforts to influence the U.S. political process.

Despite its claims to moral superiority and disdain for Old World practices, the United States throughout its history has behaved more like a traditional great power than Americans have realized or cared to admit. U.S. political leaders have energetically pursued and zealously protected interests deemed vital. In terms of commerce and territory, they have been aggressively and relentlessly expansionist. From Louisiana to the Florida, Texas, California, and eventually Hawaii, they fashioned the process of infiltration and subversion into a finely tuned instrument of empire, using the presence of restless American settlers in nominally foreign lands to establish claims and gain additional territory. During the Cold War, when the nation's survival seemed threatened, they scrapped traditional notions of fair play, intervening in the affairs of other nations, overthrowing governments, even plotting the assassination of foreign leaders.

Popular notions to the contrary, the United States has been spectacularly successful in its foreign policy. In the space of a little over 200 years, it conquered a continent, established dominance over the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean areas, helped win two World Wars, prevailed in a half-century Cold War, and extended its economic influence, military might, popular culture, and "soft power" throughout much of the world. By the beginning of the 21st century, it had attained that "strength of a Giant" Washington had dreamed of.

Ironically, as the nation grew more powerful, the limits to its power became more palpable, a harsh reality for which Americans were not prepared by history. The nation's unprecedented success spawned the notion that it could do anything it set its mind to. Success came to be taken for granted. Despite its vast wealth and military power, the United States had to settle for a stalemate in the Korean War. It could not work its will in Vietnam or Iraq, nations whose complex societies and idiosyncratic histories defied its efforts to reshape them, causing frustration and disillusionment at home.

The emergence of a new 21st century threat in the form of international terrorism and the devastating September 11, 2001 attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon underscored another hard reality: power does not guarantee security. On the contrary, the greater a nation's global influence, the greater its capacity to provoke envy and anger; the more overseas interests it has, the more targets it presents to foes and the more it has to lose. America's unparalleled power could not assure the freedom from fear its founders had dreamed of. Post-9/11 difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan underscored a fundamental "lesson" of geopolitics, that power, no matter how great, has limits. America's unipolar moment turned out to be fleeting. By the end of the first decade of the new century, experts were again speaking of a nation in decline.

The writing of this book for me has been enjoyable and rewarding. I hope readers will come away from it with a better understanding of how diplomacy works — or fails to work — and how as a nation we got to where we are.

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George C. Herring is Alumni Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Kentucky. A leading authority on U.S. foreign relations, he is the former editor of Diplomatic History and a past president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. He is the author of America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, among other books. spacer

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