From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776

Article excerpt

As the world awaits the historic inauguration of Barack Obama, there are daily reminders of the far-reaching impact of the foreign policy of the United States. The extraordinary global interest in the 2008 US presidential campaign and the universal excitement that followed the election of the first African-American president demonstrate the degree to which the world's peoples understand that decisions made by American policymakers can have profound consequences, for better or worse, on the fate of nations.

Those decisions are the focus of From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776, a sweeping and lucid history by George Herring, an emeritus professor at the University of Kentucky. This authoritative work is destined to grace the bookshelves not only of scholars, but also of nonspecialists who want to understand how the US has engaged the world from the American Revolution to the administration of George W. Bush.

But be forewarned: Those bookshelves had better be sturdy, for Herring's book is more than 1,000 pages long.

Herring begins this volume, the latest installment in the "Oxford History of the United States" series, with a luminous chapter highlighting the way in which a variety of factors have shaped American diplomacy since the Republic's founding.

Among the formative elements Herring discusses are the pursuit of economic self-interest; a belief in white supremacy; unilateralism; a democratic political system; and, finally, the American belief that the US was driven by a providential mission.

'A city set upon a hill'Indeed, Herring writes, Americans have long imagined themselves a "chosen people," and have been convinced of their exceptional nature. As early as John Winthrop's assertion that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a "city upon a hill," those who came to North America felt they were more virtuous than any other people on earth.

And lest one doubt the lasting power of this idea, Herring reminds us that Ronald Reagan regularly invoked Winthrop's 17th- century words to convince Americans that they had a special role to play in world politics.

President George W. Bush has also often used such exceptionalist language to explain the zealous foreign policy of the past eight years.

In this authoritative study, Herring deftly blends narrative and analysis, and helps the reader understand what happened and why. …