The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, July 4, 1776

A Hegemon's Coming of Age

A Brief History of U.S. Foreign Relations

In This Review

From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776
By George C. Herring
Oxford University Press, 2008
1,056 pp. $35.00

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 our sympathy 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 the Declaration 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 the civilized 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 the American 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

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