Magazine article The American Conservative

The Tragedy of Foreign Policy: Walter McDougall Produces Another Gem of a Book

Magazine article The American Conservative

The Tragedy of Foreign Policy: Walter McDougall Produces Another Gem of a Book

Article excerpt

"Walter McDougall is America's greatest living historian." Thus does Angelo Codevilla, formerly a colleague of mine at Boston University, begin his review of McDougall's most recent book The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy. Angelo and I disagree about many things, but on this point we are as one. Professor McDougall is a national treasure.

He is not, however, a "personality." When seeking "historical perspective" on some issue or another, even ostensibly serious news shows turn to storytellers such as Doris Kearns Goodwin or Michael Beschloss rather than to serious scholars such as McDougall. Storytellers offer color. Their function is to reassure. McDougall's purpose in unpacking the past is to challenge and discomfit. That Americans today generally prefer history that makes them feel good to history that makes them think may not qualify as the ultimate expression of our cultural decline, but it's a telling indicator.

Codevilla's review appears in American Affairs, a new journal founded on the proposition that the political upheaval culminating in last year's presidential election just might represent a "reasonable response to a misguided and complacent elite consensus." To put it another way, American Affairs attempts to look beyond the omnipresent Trump-induced hysteria to assess the forces that propelled someone like Donald Trump to the summit of American politics. This qualifies as a worthy endeavor, even if taking issue with that elite consensus may not be quite as bold as the journal's editors imagine. After all, The American Conservative has been doing much the same thing for the last decade and a half.

Although Codevilla assesses McDougall's book in favorable terms, it's not clear that he understands it. McDougall's "new offering," he writes, "treats the history of the United States in our time through the lens of foreign policy." Yet as a description of the book's purpose and contents, this is akin to calling War and Peace a novel about the Battle of Borodino--not so much wrong as missing the point.

More accurately, The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy traces the relationship between American statecraft and the nation's "civil religion," the invisible creed to which Americans subscribe and that in their eyes defines their collective destiny. The former, McDougall persuasively argues, derives from the latter.

As America's civil religion has evolved so too have U.S. policies. Although the connection between the two is indissoluble, its specific terms are by no means fixed. McDougall's narrative charts that evolution, from an age when God (or Providence) summoned Americans to serve as an exemplar, to our own day when ruling elites fancy themselves "master potters" called upon to remake the world in America's own image.

On that score, the end of the Cold War proved to be a moment of crucial importance. The outcome seemingly affirmed that God was indeed on our side and we were on God's. In the 1990s, policy elites wasted no time in exploiting the implications of that judgment, persuading themselves that the so-called Washington Consensus--neoliberal economics combined with a Western-preferred definition of universal values--offered the means, as McDougall sardonically observes, to "iron out the wrinkles of history." To keep recalcitrants in line, U.S. military might, assumed to be unassailable, was readily at hand and available for use.

Throughout the ensuing decade, members of the establishment simply ignored evidence to the contrary, whether firelights in Mogadishu going badly or dotcom bubbles going bust. …

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