Restoring America's Ideals
A Democrat laments Bush's foreign policy but embraces the goal of spreading liberty.

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.

But soon after the dawn of the 20th century, a redeemer appeared in the person of Woodrow Wilson. Or, rather, to adopt the terms of Widmer's religiously flavored account, Wilson played John the Baptist to Franklin Roosevelt's later Nazarene -- the prophet without honor in his own time but the figure whose legacy, in Roosevelt's hands, restored American diplomacy to its highest and best ideals. As Widmer puts it, Roosevelt demonstrated that "idealism is realism if the willpower exists to make it so."

Roosevelt is the hero of this book, just as Polk and William McKinley and George W. Bush are its villains. In the spirit of the 1941 Atlantic Charter and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Roosevelt and his immediate successor, Harry Truman, seized a uniquely malleable moment at the end of World War II to create a latticework of multilateral institutions, including the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (which later morphed into the World Trade Organization) and NATO.

That impressive array of organizations substantially made good on Woodrow Wilson's -- and the founders' -- dream of bringing to the international arena at least a modicum of the rule of law and institutional structure that obtained in well-ordered nations. And for more than half a century those institutions, under American leadership, underwrote a remarkable regime of international stability, burgeoning global prosperity, flowering democracy and freedom from want for millions of human beings. Though interventions in Guatemala, Iran and especially Vietnam blotted the national copybook, the Cold War on balance saw the nation's better self in the ascendant, and ultimately victorious.

But Widmer believes that history's remorseless pendulum has now fully swung the other way. Today the international institutions that the United States midwifed in the post-World War II era are in grave disrepair, and international trust in the legitimacy of American diplomacy has withered to an all-time low. Widmer concludes caustically that, thanks to an ill-considered attempt "to spread liberty like so much vinyl siding," we are now faced with the question of "how a group of patriotic leaders could have inflicted so much harm, so quickly, on the world order that had been created by their own country."

Like the jeremiads of old, Ark of the Liberties is longer on lamentation than it is on specific remedies. But Widmer is surely right that in the long history of American diplomatic reversals and frustrations, the most recent ones may bring about the gravest consequences -- unless leadership emerges that once again rallies us around the better angels of our nature, finds a way for us to be freedom's faithful friend but not its arrogant enforcer, and swings the precious ark of liberties back on course once more. Then, just possibly, a brighter day indeed may dawn upon human history. ยท

David M. Kennedy teaches history at Stanford University. He is at work on a book about the American national character.

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