Academic journal article Humanitas

The Old and New Testaments in U.S. Foreign Policy: McDougall and American Identity

Academic journal article Humanitas

The Old and New Testaments in U.S. Foreign Policy: McDougall and American Identity

Article excerpt

Prudent and effective political conduct is dependent on historical knowledge that recognizes the boundaries between the possible and the impossible. This line of demarcation is obscured by the limits of human understanding and the obfuscating ideologies that take a partial truth or reality as its whole. The antidote for ideological obfuscation is philosophical insight and clarity. Too often American politics has been conducted on ideological rather than philosophical grounds by using a particular ideological perspective to interpret history rather than using history to shape policy. Prudent policy stems from historical and theoretical knowledge that manages to avoid reading one's contemporary desires and values back into history. An example of the latter is what Herbert Butterfield calls "Whig history," which uses the past as an instrument to validate current partisan political and ideological interests in a way that cannot bear the weight of balanced and truthful historical analysis. (1)

The limits of politics and power can only be known if historical experience is analyzed in a genuine search for the proper ends of politics and life more generally. Important scholarly works can provide policymakers with essential insights into the nature of politics and help mark the boundaries between the possible and the impossible. Walter McDougall's Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776 (2) is one such scholarly book. It avoids the problem of ideology and provides insights that can serve as the foundation of a sober American foreign policy.

McDougall's contribution to historical understanding is evident from his argument in Promised Land, Crusader State. The book reconsiders conventional thinking about the history of American foreign policy and the common language that has been used to describe it. At issue is the meaning of American identity both in terms of American self-perception and how that perception has shaped American involvement in the world. It is useful to connect Promised Land, Crusader State to McDougall's recent volumes on American history in order to illustrate some of the larger themes of his work. In Freedom Just Around the Corner (3) and Throes of Democracy, (4) explaining the American self-understanding and exposing self-deception are central. It seems a plausible nexus that the American crusader state that emerges in the early twentieth century is given life by pretentious ideological hustlers. America the Promised Land provides an alternative to progressive and neoconservative ideological hustling and the movement toward American empire. There is another important connection between Promised Land, Crusader State and McDougall's two-volume American history. In all three volumes McDougall avoids a one-sided, ideological portrayal of American history. His balanced view of America's past is summed up in the preface to Throes of Democracy:

  I believe the United States (so far) is the greatest success story
  in history. I believe Americans (on balance) are experts at
  self-deception. And I believe the "creative corruption" born of their
  pretense goes far to explain their success. The upshot is that
  American history is chock-full of cruelty and love, hypocrisy and
  faith, cowardice and courage, plus no small measure of
  tongue-in-cheek humor. American history is a tale of human nature set
  free. (5)

Promised Land identifies eight diplomatic traditions in American history that McDougall divides into two groups of four. The first group he calls, "Our Old Testament." It dominated American foreign policy from 1776 to the 1890s. The first diplomatic tradition is "Liberty, or Exceptionalism (so called)." The second is classified as "unilateralism, or Isolationism (so called)." The third he calls "The American System, or Monroe Doctrine (so called)." "Expansionism, or Manifest Destiny (so called)," is the final category of Old Testament American diplomatic traditions. …

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