A Hegemon's Coming of Age
A Brief History of U.S. Foreign Relations
Walter Russell Mead
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD is Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Anyone who has written a one-volume history of U.S. foreign policy deserves the gratitude --and the sympathy -- of everyone engaged in the study and teaching of this perplexing subject: possibly the most complex, vital, and, relative to its importance, understudied discipline in world history today. Such authors deserve our gratitude because a one-volume study of the United States' engagement with the world is so necessary to readers and, especially, to teachers. They deserve oursympathy because such a book is difficult, if not impossible, to write well.
George Herring's well-written and lively book, part of the Oxford History of the United States series, may turn out to be one of the last attempts by a leading scholar to compress a comprehensive and comprehensible account of the United States' foreign relations into a single volume. More than 230 years have passed since theDeclaration of Independence; the United States has been the most powerful country in the world since World War I ended, in 1918; and since the end of World War II, it has consciously assumed responsibility for the maintenance of the global economic and political system. A lot of water has passed over the dam.
It gets worse: the story is fiendishly complex. In all the long history of thecivilized world, only a few countries and cultures have had anything like the impact of the United States on religion, politics, technology, and culture. Like ancient Egypt, China, Greece, Rome, and Arabia, and like more modern Spain and the more modern United Kingdom, the United States has shaped the way people have worked, fought, prayed, and played in many places far from its shores. Because theAmerican era coincided with (and indeed helped cause) the technological and economic revolutions of the twentieth century, the impact of the United States has spread faster and deeper than did the impact of its predecessors.
To take only one, little-appreciated statistic: in 1900, approximately nine percent of the population of the global South was Christian. By 2000, 24 percent was Christian. Andjust as U.S. missionaries have been the primary (although far from the only) agents in spreading this faith, the distinctively American religion of Pentecostal Christianity (born in Los Angeles at the Azusa Street revival of 1906) has been the largest and most energetic element in the greatest expansion of any religious faith in documented history.
The Los Angeles revival that launchedPentecostalism took place a few miles from where, in the next decade, the studios and back lots of Hollywood would touch off another revolution in global culture. And if the Azusa Street and Hollywood revolutions were not enough, Los Angeles was the first great world city shaped by the automobile. Pentecostalism, Hollywood, and drive-in living are all the products of just one U.S. city; to comprehend theglobal impact of the whole country is more challenging.
No one-volume or even five-volume work could do justice to this story. Yet the effort must be made. Without at least some understanding of the United States' relationship with the world, the history of the twentieth century makes no sense. Writers must comfort themselves with G. K. Chesterton's observation that anything worth doing is worthdoing badly.
Most of the criticisms usually leveled against a book like From Colony to Superpower must be set aside. It is pointless to carp that Herring leaves this or that out; ruthlessness is the first quality a U.S. historian must possess, and the essence of the task is to cut. Not enough about religion, not enough about women, not enough about the poor, not enough about...