Courtesy Reuters

"Who Are We?"

In This Review

The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, Volume 1: The Creation of a Republican Empire, 1776-1865

By Bradford Perkins
Cambridge University Press, 1993
243 pp. $24.95

The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, Volume 2: The American Search for Opportunity, 1865-1913

By Walter Lafeber
Cambridge University Press, 1993
251 pp. $24.95

The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, Volume 3: The Globalizing of America, 1913-1945

By Akira Iriye
Cambridge University Press, 1993
229 pp. $24.95

The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, Volume 4: America in the Age of Soviet Power, 1945-1991

By Warren I. Cohen
Cambridge University Press, 1993
271 pp. $24.95

All political debates oversimplify. American debates about foreign policy oversimplify more than most. Ever since F.D.R., all presidents have branded their opponents "isolationists." Critics of presidents have styled themselves "the peace movement." Even debates about the debates oversimplify, for example by portraying choices as between "realism" and "idealism."

Actual foreign policy issues are rarely so simple. They usually involve complicated trade-offs, marginally greater military security, for example, versus marginally greater resources for domestic investment. American foreign policy issues present peculiar complications. The now-unfashionable doctrine of "American exceptionalism" contains an element of truth. As Bradford Perkins writes in the opening volume of this splendid Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations:

The driving forces in American foreign policy both are and are not like those of other nations. They include the same emphasis on national self-interest, the same intrusion of the larger culture, the same distortions, sometimes minor, sometimes substantial, of the view of world events seen through a prism of national but not universal values. But each of these forces, or factors, also has a peculiarly American character.

American foreign policy issues have historically involved one question not asked in the same way elsewhere: Who are we? The French, the Germans and the Japanese may find it hard to decide how far their national interests are coterminous with those of their farmers. Though writers in each country anguish over national identity, France, Germany and Japan have well-defined cultures, with inherited notions of common interest related in various ways to older notions of dynastic interest, confined more or less to people in one area who speak one language. The British self-conception is more vague; differences between Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher bear witness. But Britain chooses between only two or three personalities (Commonwealth and Empire versus "this earth, this England"). The United States chooses among many.


The American problem of self-definition dates back to the American Revolution. Earlier, Americans had begun, like the Scots, Welsh and some Irish, to

Loading, please wait...

Related Articles

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.