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

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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.

Max Boot, for example, has shown recently in The Savage Wars of Peace that, contrary to the "Powell Doctrine" and the views of the current leaders of the American military, the United States has conducted endless small military interventions with success throughout its history. Walter Russell Mead, in Special Providence, has identified four different themes in American foreign policy and found continuity stretching back to

the founding of the republic. Looking at events that straddled the Cold War but from a wholly post-Cold War perspective, Samantha Power has offered up "A Problem from Hell," her wholly original examination of consistent American failure to act in the face of recurring cases of genocide. And Eliot Cohen's Supreme Command

is a somewhat different sort of book: a study of four historical events designed to prove the indisputable thesis that war is still too important to leave to the generals. In the present phase of history, however, when the American military has acquired an unprecedented role in the conduct of foreign policy, it also carries a contemporary relevance. And in Paris 1919, already published to much acclaim in the United Kingdom, Margaret MacMillan has produced the most detailed study in decades of the Paris Peace Conference and its aftermath, including a masterful portrait of Woodrow Wilson. She shows how many of the roots of modern crises (Yugoslavia, Iraq, the Kurdish question, and others) came out of the messy "peace to end all wars." (MacMillan's book is best read in conjunction with an earlier entry in this field, David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace, which is indispensable.)

THE GROUP

The books by Boot, Power, Mead, and Cohen all appeared over the past year; MacMillan's will be published in November. Now Warren Zimmermann joins this distinguished list with First Great Triumph, a riveting reexamination of the period between 1898 and 1903, when America became an imperial power, acquiring Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, Samoa, the Panama Canal Zone, and, for a while, Cuba. Much of this story was once well known to Americans, who viewed the period and its central figure, Theodore Roosevelt, as heroic. Revisiting it through modern eyes gives it new importance. With knowledge of how history would later unfold, these events take on different meaning.

Zimmermann's device is to retell this story through the eyes of five men who often worked together and were, by and large, unabashed imperialists. He freely acknowledges that he was inspired by The Wise Men, the 1989 account by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas of the Cold War, as told through the interrelationship between six of its major figures. At the center of Zimmermann's story is Theodore Roosevelt -- the man, in Zimmermann's view, even more important than Woodrow Wilson for starting America on the path toward global engagement.

The other four men in Zimmermann's book all played major roles in American foreign policy. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, later Senate majority leader

and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee (at the same time!), was Roosevelt's best friend -- and ultimately Woodrow Wilson's most dangerous enemy. Throughout Roosevelt's career, the wily Lodge promoted and guided the impulsive "Rough Rider." They both believed passionately in a global role for the United States, focusing on Central America and the Pacific. Denying the Pacific to the British was often part of their worldview, although that was not a major consideration for the most Anglophile of the five men, John Hay. Lodge was also an out-and-out racist, even by the standards of the time.

John Hay and Elihu Root would both serve as secretary of state for Roosevelt, but they were very different sorts of men. Root was a thoughtful and brilliant lawyer, the very epitome of the New York establishment, and by far the most modern of the five. Hay, who became a success despite his ambivalent and uneven professional performance, was forever accorded special treatment because he had been Abraham Lincoln's private secretary as a very young man. Although both Hay and Root played important roles in the implementation of foreign policy, they would not rise to the same level of influence over core events as did Roosevelt, Lodge, and, strangely enough, the last and most unusual of Zimmermann's five, Alfred T. Mahan.

Mahan was a naval officer going nowhere inside the Navy when, in 1886, he obtained an assignment as an instructor at the new Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. There he gave a series of lectures outlining his belief in the supremacy of naval power as an instrument of state. In his second year at the Naval War College, he invited as a guest lecturer a man who, in a book on the War of 1812, had expressed a similar point of view about seapower. Thus did Mahan meet for the first time Theodore Roosevelt.

It is Zimmermann's thesis that the interaction of these five men turned "manifest destiny" from a phrase into a full-bodied imperial policy just as the United States reached its natural continental limits. It is one of the strengths of this immensely enjoyable book that Zimmermann neither glorifies nor denigrates the people and the events he describes. For the most part, the story tells itself, even though Zimmermann is careful to point out some of the appalling actions that led to the annexation of Hawaii and the colonial period in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba.

Some of this detachedness comes from the nature of the author. Zimmermann is no ordinary historian or journalist. In fact, he is, in the tradition of the great George Kennan himself, a former diplomat who has turned to writing history informed by a practitioner's eye. (Perhaps it is more than coincidence that, in Kennan's famous American Foreign Policy 1900-1950, the first two chapters are on the Spanish-American War and the Open Door policy, issues covered in some detail

by Zimmermann.)

NOW AND THEN

The story Zimmermann tells is essential background for anyone interested in how the United States arrived at its present place in the world. But it is not simply its direct relevance to today's headlines that makes First Great Triumph such a significant book. The story of America's internal debate, including the bureaucratic politics and press manipulation that are surprisingly similar to today, carries with it an important reminder that things are not quite as different today as they may seem. A century ago Americans were already confronting many of the issues on today's agenda, with much the same internal divisions. As the nation debates the appropriate U.S. role in nation building in Afghanistan or "pre-emptive action" in Iraq, Zimmermann shows surprisingly similar debates a century ago over Cuba, which he describes as the first American humanitarian intervention, as well as over Puerto Rico.

There is a well-established rule in international affairs: the unintended consequence. No one could foresee a century ago that Hawaii, then regarded as an island of primitive people that had to be denied to the British, would become the nation's most multiracial state. The Philippines, where the United States fought a brutal guerrilla war, is now an independent democracy. Puerto Rico has become a permanent part of the United States, whose exact status is still under dispute. Cuba remains a constant adversary as well as a major domestic political issue. And, of course, this story is far from finished. As Zimmermann brings it back to life, the nation is debating whether to embark on a new quasi-imperial age, taking on responsibilities even further from its home shores. No one can predict what will come of these efforts -- there are sure to be more unintended consequences -- but one lesson seems clear: an informed and supportive public must back foreign engagement once it is embarked upon. The executive branch may have the power to send troops overseas almost at will, as Boot's book demonstrates. But to achieve their mission, such deployments must have national backing, starting with Congress.

The legacy of these five Americans, Zimmermann believes, went further than "a fragile Hispanic commonwealth, an economically weak though independent Asian country, a far-flung state of the union, and a failed Caribbean protectorate." The author also sees these men as having created "an authentic American imperialism that was confident in its objectives but modest in its application." They prepared the United States to be a great power, produced "the first comprehensive assertion of U.S. security interests abroad," and created two new foreign policy priorities: human rights and stability. These priorities, he notes, "have remained in tension with each other ever since." Finally, Zimmermann writes, the imperial impulse led directly into the strong presidency that reached it height under Theodore Roosevelt's distant cousin Franklin 30 years later. Zimmermann also takes apart the distinction that Henry Kissinger has made between Theodore Roosevelt's realism and Woodrow Wilson's idealism in his book Diplomacy. In fact, Zimmermann concludes, each had strong elements of both strands in his makeup, as they were "both pragmatists and visionaries."

Zimmermann's book can be read as a cautionary tale with modern relevance or simply as a fascinating visit to an era that has received far too little attention in recent years. Either way, it belongs on the short shelf of books that can give modern policymakers much-needed insight into the roots of today's policies and problems. It will not guarantee better policies, but it could help.

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