Restoring America's Ideals

Reviewed by David M. Kennedy
Sunday, July 6, 2008


America and the World

By Ted Widmer

Hill and Wang. 355 pp. $25

"The United States stand at this moment at the summit of the world," Winston Churchill said in 1945. "I rejoice that this should be so. Let them act up to the level of their power and their responsibility, not for themselves but for others, for all men in all lands, and then a brighter day may dawn upon human history."

It's been a long time since American foreign policy has elicited that kind of hosanna from abroad, and a long time since Americans could comfortably affirm such an idealistic view of themselves. Ted Widmer wants to restore idealism's good name. In the spirit of an old-fashioned jeremiad, he summons his countrymen to return to their own highest standards and properly play their anointed role in the world.

Widmer takes his place alongside other recent writers who have lit the lantern of history to illuminate an increasingly menacing future. They all share a sense that America's regnant foreign policy doctrines are approaching a moment of highly consequential reckoning. Walter Russell Mead's Special Providence (2001) hails the principles of prudence, realism, and restraint that have defined America's "remarkably successful history in international relations." Dangerous Nation (2006), the first installment of Robert Kagan's projected two-volume history, salutes a singularly belligerent foreign-policy tradition and unapologetically champions its perpetuation.

Widmer, director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University and a former Bill Clinton speechwriter, sees things differently. Unlike Mead, he finds at least as much failure as success in the American diplomatic record and asserts that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." Unlike Kagan, he dwells not on American avarice (which Dangerous Nation traced to the raw cupidity of the early Chesapeake settlements) but on the millennialist yearnings of New England Puritanism, which inspired America's "mission to redeem the world."

Widmer's central theme is the oscillation of American diplomacy between the embrace and, more often, the betrayal of the better angels of the nation's nature. His disillusionment with the often yawning gap between American rhetoric and American practice suffuses every page of this book. He takes his title from a passage in Herman Melville's 1850 novel, White-Jacket, a savage condemnation of the unspeakably cruel abuse of sailors aboard the naval vessels of a republic that preened itself as "the ark of the liberties of the world." Similarly, Widmer finds a sorry pattern of at best intermittent fidelity to the founders' vision of the American experiment as "a voyage on behalf of all humanity," all too routinely punctuated by lapses into naked aggression and heedless hubris, often accompanied by smarmy dissembling and cynical ideological posturing.

Widmer describes the early republic as "freedom's petri dish," with a great deal to prove and no sure formula to guide it, but with a commendable record nonetheless -- at least for a brief historical season. Benjamin Franklin said, "Where liberty dwells, there is my country"; to which Thomas Paine replied, "Where liberty is not, there is mine." Widmer concludes that "the story of the first century of the United States is more or less the passage from the first to the second," that is, the passage from the defense of liberty in America to its promotion in the world at large. "With each decade," he writes, "as American strength grew, the distance narrowed between her aspirations and her power to achieve them."

So far so good. But, unfortunately, the distance also increasingly widened between America's professed ideals and its actual behavior. The nation that had declared all men to be created equal and had proclaimed the Monroe Doctrine in defense of Latin American democracy invaded Mexico, a sister republic "that had successfully fought for its independence from Spain and had eliminated slavery to boot, while the United States seemed to be invading for the express purpose of restoring it." No less unsettling, President James K. Polk deliberately misled Congress and the public alike about the rationale for the war against Mexico, not the last time that "liberty" furnished a rhetorical cloak for some dubious ambitions. The Mexican episode, Widmer concludes, foreshadowed a future with "a crowded boatload -- an ark's worth -- of inconsistencies."

There followed a decade of what Widmer calls possibly "the worst foreign policy in the history of the United States," the turbulent 1850s, when schemes abounded for the invasion of Cuba, Baja California, Central America and numerous "guano islands" scattered about the world's oceans. And things grew worse still when the Spanish-American War of 1898 made an imperial power out of a nation that had itself thrown off the yoke of empire more than a century earlier.

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