Courtesy Reuters

The American Foreign Policy Legacy


James Bryce, a future British ambassador to the United States, wrote at the end of the nineteenth century that the role of foreign policy in American life could be described the way travelers describe snakes in Ireland: there are none.

At the time, however, most Americans would have taken issue with Lord Bryce's claim that the United States had no foreign policy worth noting. Americans of the day widely believed that their government maintained an active, indeed global, foreign policy. And with good reason. The Spanish-American War had just ended, and U.S. forces were still waging a bitter war against guerrillas in the Philippines. Debates raged about whether the United States should annex Cuba, Hawaii, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, and if so, on what terms. It was a time, in fact, when many Americans were struck by a sense that the United States was coming of age in the international arena.

That Lord Bryce, a British diplomat, would have discounted and minimized the importance of U.S. foreign policy despite such events is perhaps not surprising. But the fact that so many important American writers and thinkers today would join him in a wholesale dismissal of Washington's foreign policy legacy is more startling. Indeed, one of the most remarkable features of contemporary U.S. foreign policy is the ignorance of and contempt for the country's own foreign policy tradition -- a perspective shared by many otherwise thoughtful people. This lack of interest is especially prevalent, and especially worrying, among high-level government officials and the scholars and analysts who work in universities, the national media, and the so-called think tanks -- all of whom are responsible for developing, studying, and carrying out the foreign policy of the United States.

This lack of interest is intensified by ignorance. Although the history of U.S. foreign policy from Pearl Harbor onward is known to most educated Americans, developments before the Second World War lie buried in obscurity. This oversight

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