Home/Daniel Larison/History Does Not Take Sides

History Does Not Take Sides

The problem for those who have tried to steer the United States away from its long history of expansiveness, then and now, is that Americans’ belief in the possibility of global transformation — the “messianic” impulse — is and always has been the more dominant strain in the nation’s character. It is rooted in the nation’s founding principles and is the hearty offspring of the marriage between Americans’ driving ambitions and their overpowering sense of righteousness. ~Robert Kagan

But, of course, this is all a lot of rot.  This is a clever set-up: the argument we are now having over foreign policy is a very old argument that goes all the way back to the beginning, but my side is the bigger, more powerful one and will always win (so stop arguing with me)!  But it isn’t true.  Not that it would make a messianic foreign policy wise or desirable even if it were, but just watch how interventionists twist history to give themselves a much older, more distinguished pedigree.  The best he can find is to dig up an old line about “empire” that Hamilton gives, which is to take Hamilton, who was an extremist even among the Federalists, as somehow representative of anything–this is a significant error in itself.    But Hamilton’s line about “empire” can be matched by a similar line from Benjamin Franklin that comes from before the War for Independence, but this does not mean that either Hamilton or Franklin necessarily believed in an activist or moralising or messianic foreign policy.  Even the more centralised government under the Constitution did not have the power or the ability to engage in such a foreign policy, and no one desired to give it so much power that it could engage in such a policy.  As for the statement itself, John Adams understood the word “empire” to mean a state subject to no fundamental law, a state that was sovereign–it was in this sense that Thomas Cromwell first designated England an “empire” in the time of Henry VIII in an assertion of the monarch’s rights vis-a-vis Rome (he did not therefore anticipate and foreshadow the Raj and the United Empire Loyalists!).  A constitutional state, by Adams’ definition, could not have been an empire in any case; a republic or other constitutional polity is subject to a fundamental law.  It is therefore not necessarily obvious what usage of “empire” was being employed in every case, nor is it clear that saying favourable things about “empire” makes one a proto-interventionist, much less a raving mad messianic visionary in waiting.   

This is cherry-picking and teleological history at their worst: because we have an interventionist, meddlesome foreign policy and a messianic impulse to transform the world now, we must have always potentially had one.  A very bad historian will then find this eternally existing foreign policy by engaging in what R.W. Southern mockingly dubbed “precursorism” as he tries to read into earlier national debates our present-day conflicts.  People do the same thing in Western Civ-style history, lamely picking up on the precursor elements of modern democracy in the ancient German tribal things while ignoring most of what was actually interesting and important about the early medieval barbarian kingdoms or treating the Reformation as some great advance towards modern individualism when this is the last thing any of the Reformers desired and was exactly the opposite of what they were proposing.  It is a very superficial sort of intellectual history that presumes the seeds of a current debate or division must have existed from the beginning or from a very early stage of development.  In church history, we have long been treated to a very tired “search for the origins of the schism” in every minor dispute or disruption of communion in the 5th century between Rome and Constantinople.  Bad interpretations will say that the divisions of the 7th century presage and foreshadow the later schism in the 11th century, which is to see the 7th century in an entirely anachronistic and false way.  You would come away thinking that the churches become less united in the 7th century, when, in fact, they become more united; claims of papal authority actually become weaker because of the condemnation of Pope Honorius, etc. 

Likewise, Americans had debates over the nature of the Union and questions of territorial expansion, but these do not anticipate later debates over entirely different questions.  There was a national consensus on foreign policy for at least a century after independence that the affairs of the Old World especially were not really our problem and were best left to others.  Relations and commerce were desirable, but not entanglement. 

If the “messianic impulse” was always so dominant, it continually failed to dominate or express itself.  To the extent that “empire”-building and universal liberal ideals did find expression, it was over internal disputes about the nature of the Union.  But even then it does not follow that all, or even most, Northern Republicans believed in overseas intervention or advocated for such a policy.  At each stage where elite interests have pushed for a more expansive, activist foreign policy, the public has been reluctant to go along.  Interventionism has always needed some calamitous event or provocation to win broader public support–and even then, the public is often unwilling to endorse the “messianic impulse.”  Certainly, WWI stands out as a perfect example where the messianism of the President and the willingness to go to war of the Congress were completely unrepresentative of a large part of the country (70% in Apr. 1917 did not want to enter the European war and opposition continued to run at this high level until the end).  Even after the German declaration of war, Americans generally were not terribly interested in fighting Germany in 1942 and American soldiers were never able to work up the elemental hostility to Germans that they had for the Japanese (for one, the Germans had never attacked us, so our fight with them seemed much less obvious).  Americans grow weary of “nation-building” enterprises because, as much as they believe in the exceptional qualities of their own nation, this same exceptionalism militates against making other nations to imitate us.  If we are exceptional (and we are, properly speaking, not), it is even less likely that our model can be followed by anyone else.  

We have had the bad misfortune to suffer from people in the political class who believe as Kagan does, but the wilder ideas about “global transformation” do not belong to Americans generally but, at most, to a very specific subsection of Americans from back east and mainly from the Northeast and to a fairly limited circle of intellectuals and politicians.  This part of the country and this particularly narrow segment of the population have dictated the course of our foreign policy in the 20th century, and in every case they have represented an elite consensus that was deeply at odds with public sentiment, especially when it came to the wars resulting from the elite (mis)management of our foreign policy.  Wilson’s messianism was terrifically unpopular and not widely shared in his own time; each time it is revived–usually in some time of national security crisis, real or perceived–the people have gone along with it (because of the crisis) without ever sharing the messianic impulse.  Yes, Americans are generally exceptionalist.  They like to flatter themselves that history does not apply to them, and so are constantly baffled when it “catches up” with them.  What many frequently overlook, or what they often do not want to see, is that it is not “history” that has caught up with us (as in, the “holiday from history” coming to an end on 9/11) but that the consequences of bad elite foreign policy decisions have finally come about. 

What Americans want are leaders who have confidence in our ideals but who do not therefore believe it is necessary to send off military deployments to “advance” those ideals in all corners of the globe.  Americans who have sufficient confidence in those ideals do not believe in the need for crusades or militant messianism, since they assume that these ideals, if they are in any sense universal, will succeed abroad without recourse to the sword.  Those who believe strongly in these ideals, but who do not assume them to be simply universal, are even less enthusiastic in forcibly taking them out into the world because they are unsure that the ideals will take in foreign soil. 

History, of course, is not on anybody’s “side,” and you can tell a hack from an historian by whether or not he uses language like this, but if we do learn something from our own history it is that the American people will keep trying to throw off the yoke of a wild-eyed, utopian foreign policy elite and as a result will be treated to the pious hectoring of interventionist court historians who keep spreading the false story of the eternally messianic and interventionist America.  If there were no real danger of interventionism being discredited forever by disastrous misadventures like Iraq, if our “messianic” national spirit were so deeply ingrained and our desire to meddle so profound, all of these things would not need an army of apologists and deeply entrenched powerful supporters to keep them from being tossed out.  The only way that interventionists continue to have any hold on the imagination of any large part of the population is by distorting history and making interventionism into a long-standing national tradition (thus conning nationalists and some conservatives into embracing this supposedly ancient “tradition”) and by making the elite’s power interest in keeping interventionism around into a defense of high-minded American idealism (thus reducing its enemies to a kind of cynicism or, God help us, “realism” or “isolationism”).  In other words, interventionism survives only by distortion and deception, which is the only way that it ever achieved any prominence in the first place.  It is alien and contrary to the American tradition and the American spirit.  It can only thrive by perverting and abusing the native patriotism and trust of the people to other ends.  Because the government’s interests are served by an activist and meddlesome foreign policy, such a policy will be extremely hard to overthrow, but because it is so profoundly against the national interest and the welfare of the people there is always some small possibility that it will finally and permanently collapse.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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