Michael Hunt makes a forceful argument that carries on from where Walter Russell Mead’s Special Providence stopped. In Ideology and US Foreign Policy, Hunt delineates major intellectual preconceptions among American policy makers since 1776. Giving examples from the American Revolution on, Hunt repeatedly shows the same tropes of national grandeur, race, and revolution rearing their heads in moments of international crises. Therefore, Hunt posits, the roots of American foreign policy are more domestic than is generally understood. Ideology tears away the thin veil of rationality some academics see American foreign policy behind and exposes what Kissinger calls the “intellectual capital” of politicians.
Hunt begins his book with framing the discussions on US foreign policy between George Kennan and William Appleman Williams. The former argued for a realism that was supposedly based on what Mead calls a continental approach to foreign policy: balance of power and national interest. Kennan saw the failure of the US in not committing in force to the values it espoused, thereby condemned to international suspicion and disastrous half measures. Williams, on the other hand, married the national interest to economics, and it is not clear to Hunt if Williams advocated a rapacious US economic policy or a socialist America, which Williams seemed to despise. However, these two figures have informed the basic questions historians ask of US foreign policy.
For Hunt, America’s initial commitment was to national grandeur. Despite American rhetoric about anti-imperialism, the United States constantly expanded West and briefly eyed Canada and Cuba. Hunt shows how Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston, and James Polk tripled the size of the country in the space of a few years (despite opposition in Polk’s case)1. The Alaska purchase, followed by America’s adventure in the Philippines and Cuba in 1898, demonstrates an assertive foreign policy contrary to the popular belief of isolationism. Isolation merely meant keeping away from the epicenter of European concerns.
Married to American expansion was the requisite rhetoric of justification: liberty. The United States supported the liberty of peoples around the globe, and in the Western hemisphere, wished to bring people under the enlightened system of government enjoyed by the United States. This thinking pervaded American policy from the US-Mexican War, the wars of 1898, the two World Wars, and even into the Cold War as Hunt shows. Incidents during the early Cold War such as Iran, Korea, and China represented the danger communism posed to the free world. This discourse is familiar to us as it was repeated in the 2007 State of the Union address by President Bush.
Hunt also argues that the underbelly of American political thought has been race. Despite common knowledge of America’s record on the race question, many political commentators do not consider racial prejudices in the framing of US foreign policy. This notion (of factoring in race) is odd enough that Andrew Rotter’s Comrades at Odds received mixed reviews when he suggested racial undertones to US policy towards India. Hunt makes the astute observation that after World War II and the horrors of Nazism, the discourse of race had to shift to a discourse of development that bore strong similarities to the former. Hunt cites scores of racial epithets US foreign policy figures used to describe failure in combat or development by Asians, Africans, Arabs, and Latinos.
Development cannot occur without stability. This idea is also intrinsically connected with American thinking according to Hunt. The United States sought economic opportunities, particularly in East Asia, and wished for stable regimes. If revolutions had to break out, American preference was that they followed the American model. Oddly, the US supported all kinds of regimes during the Cold War. Hunt argues that this is because the US wanted stability in the world system so that they could play their game without outside interference ruining their plans. This is seen in America’s nuclear policy: despite the French membership of NATO, the United States found it hard to digest the French nuclear program, much less de Gaulle’s force de frappe.
Hunt wishes to exposes the continuities in American policy, and that he does exceedingly well. Contrary to the popular notion that US policy is responsive rather than assertive, Hunt shows that American policy makers are strongly programmed to think along certain lines and share a set of common values, their “intellectual capital.” Rotter warns us that diplomacy is, after all, a human activity and this should not surprise us, but Hunt’s argument is that it does. US foreign policy is not based on rational actor theory, nor is it based on an empirical calculation of national interest. Americans are more committed to their founding ideals that foreigners would think, implies Hunt.
One of the shortcomings of this book is Hunt’s failure to discuss the master realpolitiker, Henry Kissinger. Hunt quotes Kissinger a couple of times, but there is no explanation of this exception to Hunt’s narrative. Also, Hunt’s claim that race is not usually studied in relation to foreign policy is not entirely true. Historians have wondered about the impact of race on, for example, the decision to drop nuclear weapons on Japan. Hunt also fails to mention what effect the Civil Rights movement had on foreign policy. Furthermore, it would have made a better study if Hunt had considered how other nations viewed “racial” American foreign policy—if he is concerned with the reality of American foreign policy, it would be in keeping with reactions to it as well, which, after all, also shaped the policies. To be fair to Hunt, this is an enormous topic that can never be fully dealt with in one volume. Overall, Hunt’s exposition is well-thought out and the launching pad for much future research.
1: Twenty million Americans did not need one thousand million acres of land, Thomas Corwin reminded Congress. Michael Hunt, Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 33.