Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Frontiers, Empires, and the New World: The Significance of the Frontier in American Foreign Policy

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Frontiers, Empires, and the New World: The Significance of the Frontier in American Foreign Policy

Article excerpt


The late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century frontier profoundly shaped American cultural values and political institutions, and continues to influence the way most Americans look at the world. Studies of how Americans dealt with their western frontier may hold important clues as to how American policy makers and the American public are likely to act in foreign affairs in the coming century.


According to Mark Twain, history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Historians challenged to predict the future thus find themselves attempting to guess the next line of a monumental poem. It is rarely an easy task, as predictable rhymes usually reflect poorly on the poem, and the poetry of human history is an artistic epic full of complexity and diversity, and yet remarkable subtlety. While we cannot predict the future, we can seek to understand the baseline patterns, what the Annales school of historians would call "the long duree," that inform our view of the world. Cultural historians particularly seek to understand the intellectual framework--the worldviews--that policy makers construct to understand their world. It is usually within these frameworks that policy makers attempt to interpret the often unexpected events that challenge them, and fashion appropriate responses.

Recent American policies towards the rest of the world, especially President Bush's doctrine of "pre-emptive warfare" and the invasion of Iraq, seem to mark a dramatic departure from previous practices. A number of studies have suggested that the United States has taken an imperialistic turn--a development a few have cautiously applauded, but most have criticized. (1) In seeking to understand American motives, some have placed the source of recent developments solely within the Bush administration, while others have noted a trend that was developing since the end of the Cold War. The quagmire that seems to have engulfed US troops in Iraq has also been compared to the quagmire of Vietnam, and the blind idealism of current policy makers has been compared to that of Woodrow Wilson's administration.

These comparisons suggest the patterns, or "rhymes," within American foreign policy that may indicate the worldview of current American policy makers. Yet historians who search for such comparisons rarely go farther back than one hundred years for their precedents, usually marking the 1898 Spanish American War as the beginning of the nation's imperial ambitions. (2) However a story's meaning often depends upon where you begin the tale. (3) As a cultural historian of the American frontier, I have often found this late nineteenth century beginning of American imperialism puzzling. At the time of the Spanish American War, the acquisition of overseas possessions was criticized by a number of prominent Americans who claimed that it was contrary to the nation's anti-imperialistic origins. (4) Much too often, I fear, diplomatic historians have taken these claims at face value, when the actual history of the United States up to that time does not bear out these assertions. Indeed, a closer look at the founding of the nation and of its westward-moving frontier would suggest that imperialism was very much a part of American foreign policy from the beginning.

That imperialism, however, was not the imperialism of nineteenth century Britain or ancient Rome. Indeed, recent studies of American foreign policy have stumbled badly over the concept of American imperialism. (5) To some, America is an empire on par with that of Rome or Britain, while to others, America is not at all imperialistic. Some have tried to define the word "empire" in ways that promote whichever position they take towards American imperialism, or have tried to find different words to describe it, such as "hegemony" or "global leadership." (6) Others have tried to trace the changing American attitudes towards imperialism. Few, it strikes me, have tried to find the source of America's imperial behavior. …

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