In the Beginning: A Fresh Look at the Early Years of American Empire

Richard Holbrooke is former U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

During the Cold War, political scientists and foreign policy theorists largely ignored historical events before 1945 when searching for the underlying roots of American foreign policy. Those earlier periods, with the occasional exception of the failed foreign policy efforts of Woodrow Wilson, were ignored or treated as colorful sideshows. Analysis was focused on the Cold War, which often was presented as if it had sprung without historical context directly out of the Truman administration's response to the Soviet challenge right after World War II. American foreign policy was viewed simply as the sum of its Cold War components. Events before World War II were reserved for specialists and historians, something that hardly existed for most Americans -- without relevance to the modern era.

As it turns out -- and as many historians knew all along -- the United States always had a foreign policy, with underlying themes and motives that grew organically out of the domestic American experience. American foreign policy did not start in 1945, or even 1917. A central political struggle between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson concerned relations with Britain and France, as both David McCullough and Joseph Ellis reminded us. There had been the Monroe Doctrine, the Spanish-American War, several near-wars with the British, the annexation of Hawaii, the conquest of the Philippines, the Open Door policy toward China, and much more. To be sure, these events were all part of any basic American history course. But too few Americans study history, and in any case, these events were usually presented merely as a sideshow to the grand sweep of America's domestic history.

Now a number of new books and studies have started to reexamine American foreign policy within a more historical framework. By looking at American history and events prior to and outside the mainstream of the Cold War, these works are beginning to help Americans rethink the complexity of the national experience outside their own borders. Freed from the intellectual straitjacket of the Cold War, they look beyond such sterile labels as "realists" and "idealists," or hawks and doves, to reveal enduring trends and strains in America's relationship with the world. Any serious student of American foreign policy should look carefully at these books -- and hope for more in the near future.

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