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New Conceptual Approaches to the Study

of American Foreign Relations:


Interdisciplinary Perspectives'

JOHN LEWIS GADDIS

In the summer of 1948, John Von Neumann, the great mathematician


who is said to have invented the digital computer, delivered a series of lectures
at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton on the subject of selfreplicating machines. There was no theoretical reason, Von Neumann insisted,
why one could not construct an automaton-a robot--capable, with access to
sufficient raw materials, of duplicating itself. All it would need would be the
ability to compare its own dimensions with those of the resources available,
and then make the necessary adjustments. Von Neumann went on to point out,
though, that such machines would lack the capacity for evolutionary
development: that would come only if an automaton bumped up against
something by accident, thereby altering its own shape and creating a new
template from which a slightly different, and perhaps slightly improved, copy
might be made. Without the bump, innovation could not 0ccur.l
Von Neumann's concept of a self-replicating automaton provides a good
model for how academic disciplines develop, for without occasional bumps
against those that lie nearby there is a tendency for fields-and the minds that
inhabit them-simply to replicate themselves, without evolutionary progress.
It might be a good thing for disciplines to consider whether they are in fact
bumping up against their neighbors with sufficient regularity to move beyond
~

*This article was originally prepared for delivery at the annual convention of the
American Historical Association, Cincinnati, Ohio, 28 December 1988. Robert Beisner,
Michael Hunt, Paul Kennedy, and Thomas McComick have provided helpful comments, for
which the author is most grateful. He would also like to thank the Center for International
Affairs at Harvard University and the Department of History at Northwestern University for
providing opportunities to discuss some of these ideas, as weII as his seminar students in the
Contemporary History Institute at Ohio University and the Politics Department at Princeton
University, who have contributed much to what is contained here without, of course, bearing
responsibility for the form he has given it.
'The story is told in Freeman Dyson. Disturbing the Universe (New York, 1979). 19496; and in Ed Regis, Who Go! Einstein's Office? Eccenfricity and Genius at the Instirute for
Advanced Sludy (New York, 1987). 114-21.

405

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DIPLOMATIC HISTORY

the monotony of self-replication;if not, then a wider and more vigorous range
of activity might be advisable.
Critics have long singled out American diplomatic history as a field
particularly given to automatous self-replication: we do not, it is alleged,
bump up against other disciplines often enough to allow our subject to
advance very far on the evolutionary scale.2 Just as we are said to preoccupy
ourselves in our research with what clerks wrote to other clerks, so we are seen
when it comes to the training of graduate students as turning out clones who
will dutifully turn out other c10nes.~We are said to occupy, in the academic
world, something like the evolutionary niche filled by the crocodile, the
armadillo, and the cockroach: we have been around for a long time and are in
no immediate danger of extinction; but we are still rather primitive and, for
that reason, not very interesting.
To be sure, there are some things we do well. We are very good at
narration, which is to say that we have no difficulty demonstrating a favorite
proposition of the historian Edward Potts Cheyney: that all events,
conditions, institutions . . . come from immediately preceding events,
conditions, and institution^."^ We are equally good at archival research, so
long as the sources are mostly in English. We can hardly be accused of
antiquarianism: when one considers that half or more of American diplomatic
historians today are concentrating their research on the period since the
beginning of World War 11: one would have to acknowledge that our
discipline is very much up-to-date. It is also probably quicker than most others
to assimilate new evidence; the closely related field of political science has
been particularly slow to do this? But where we are weak-and where we leave
ourselves open to the charge of evolutionary stagnation-is in the area of
generalization.
Generalization is something all historians have to do: one can no more
recapture in historical writing what actually happened than one can replicate
on a map what actually exists.* But practitioners in some fields think more
2For a sampling of such complaints see Charles S. Maier. Marking Time: The
Historiography of International Relations. in The Past before Us: Contemporary Hisforicul
Writing in the United Stutes, ed. Michael Kammen (Ithaca, 1980). 335-87; John Lewis
Caddis. The Emerging Post-Revisionist Synthesis on the Origins of the Cold War,
Diplomatic History 7 (Summer 1983): 171-90; and Christopher Thorne, After the
Europeans: American Designs for the Remaking of Southeast Asia, ibid. 12 (Spring 1988):
201-8. See also Robert Beisners comment on James A. Field, 11.. American Imperialism:
The Worst Chapter in Almost Any Book. American Historical Review 83 (June 1978):
672-83.
See Frank Ninkovich. Interests and Discourse in Diplomatic History. Diplomatic
History 13 (Spring 1989): 154-55.
4Edward P. Cheyney. Lnw in History and OfherEssays (New York, 1927). 10-1 1.
See. on this point, Sally Marks, The World According to Washington, Diplomutic
Hisfory 11 (Summer 1987): 265-82. I readily include myself among those who a n deficient
with respect to foreign languages.
%addis, The Emerging Post-Revisionist Synthesis, 171.
See John Lewis Gaddis, Expanding the Data Base: Historians, Political Scientists, and
the Enrichment of Securiiy Studies. Infernutionul Security 12 (Summer 1987): 3-21.
The problem is nicely discussed in David Hackett Fischer, Historians Fallacies: Toward
u Logic of Hirtoricul Thought (New York, 1970). 65-68; but for another illustration that

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about how to generalize than do others, and in this respect the claim that
American diplomatic history has not progressed very far seems to me justified.
One reason may be that we do not allow ourselves to be bumped regularly
enough by our sister disciplines. This essay is an attempt to specify some
areas in which our generalizations have not been as sophisticated as they
up against
might have been, and to suggest some ways in which b~mping~
other disciplines might enrich what we do.
The first such area has to do with our tendency to seek synthesis through
reductionism: to assume that the explanation of complex events requires the
identification of single causes,O or, more often, single categories of causes.
For years the dominant interpretive paradigm in American diplomatic
history was that of the Open Door, the attempt of William Appleman
Williams and those he influenced to explain the emergence and subsequent
behavior of the United States as a world power almost exclusively in
economic terms. Despite the obvious value of this approach in establishing
linkages between foreign policy and domestic capitalism, it devoted little
attention to the role of party politics, national security concerns, international
draws on recent advances in the field of fractal geometry see James Gleick, Chaos: Making a
New Science (New York, 1987), 94-96.
9Having become known, at one time or another, as an advocate of both lumping and
splitting, I am somewhat hesitant to add bumping to the list. but the term does seem
preferable to the only alternative I can think of, which is interdisciplinary interaction. For
a defense of bumping from the standpoint of systems theory see Heinz Pagels, The D r e a m
of Reason: The Compuer and the Rise of the Sciences of Complexity (New York. 1988).
138-39.
l?wo books that do quite literally reduce a complex series of events to a single cause
are William Shawcross, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nuon and the Destruction of Cambodia (New
York. 1979). which attributes Khmer Rouge atrocities after 1975 to the Nixon
administrations bombing and subsequent invasion of that country in 1969 and 1970; and
Fraser Harbutt. The Iron Curtain: Churchill, America, and the Origins of the Cold War (New
York. 1986). which explains the Truman administrations toughening of policy toward the
Soviet Union almost exclusively as a response to Winston Churchills March 1946. speech at
Fulton, Missouri.
llWilliam Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959; reprint ed.,
New York, 1972). Other books that followed that volumes emphasis on domestic economic
causation include Williamss own The Roots of the Modern American Empire: A Study of the
Growth and Shaping of Social Consciousness in a Marketplace Society (New York, 1969);
also Walter LsFeber. The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansionism, 18601898 (Ithaca. 1963); Lloyd C. Gardner. Economic Aspects of New Deal Diplomacy (Madison,
1964); Thomas J. McCormick. China Market: Americas Quesr for Informal Empire, 18931901 (Chicago, 1%7); Carl P. Pamni, Heir to Empire: United States Economic Diplomacy,
1916-1923 (Pittsburgh. 1969); Tom E. T e d , The Tar@ Politics, and American Foreign
Policy, 1874-1901 (Westport, 1973); Edward Crapol, America for Americans: Economic
Nationalism and Anglophobia in the Lure Nineteenth Century (Westport, 1973); and, after a
lapse of many years in which few such accounts appeared. Daniel M.Crane and Thomas A.
Breslin. An Ordinary Relatiomhip: American Opposition to Republican Revolution in China
(Miami, 1986); and Patrick J. Hearden. Roosevelt Confronts Hitler: Americas Entry into
World War I1 (DeKalb, IL. 1987). One recent review essay has described Williams, accurately
in my view, as the most influential American diplomatic historian of his generation. See
Gary R. Hess. After the Tumult: The Wisconsin Schools Tribute to William Appleman
Williams. Diplomatic History 12 (Fall 1988): 499.

408

DIPLOMATIC HISTORY

developments, distinctive individuals, or unforeseen events.12 More recently


the search for an admittedly broader corporatist synthesis, while helpful in
deepening our understanding of the 1920s and to some extent the late 1940s,
has nonetheless obscured discontinuities that arose from such equally
important influences as the constraints of isolationism or alarm over
disruptions of the balance of power in Europe and Asia.13
Michael Hunt has recently proposed an important new synthesis that
appears, at fist glance, to go beyond the reductionism of Williams and the
corporatists. Objecting to the tendency to posit a single, simple reason for
the origins and persistence of a particular ideology, he identifies three core
ideas as having shaped American foreign policy and the substance of
American life to an unprecedented degree: a quest for national greatness
closely coupled to the promotion of liberty, a tendency to view other peoples
in terms of a racial hierarchy, and the fear of political and social
rev01ution.l~The difficulty here is that Hunt then goes on, in apparent
violation of his own critique of reductionism, to place race at the center of
[the American] world view. Public policy in general and foreign policy in
particular had from the start of the national experience reflected the central role
that race thinking played. But Hunt is also careful to acknowledge that
Americans were hardly unique in their racism.15 The result is to leave us
with an American ideology defined as exceptional in terms of a reductionist
category that turns out not to be exceptional at a11.16
It is not at all clear why the search for synthesis should require
reductionism of the kind that Williams, the corporatists, and Hunt have put
forward: one employs a synthesis in order to generalize about complex
phenomena, to be sure, and that requires simplification. But if that
simplification is achieved by concentrating upon a single category of
phenomena-whether economic, corporatist, or racist-and by excluding
others, then the effect is likely to be what J. H. Hexter has called tunnel
12The most balanced recent evaluation of the Williams thesis and its historiographical
influence is Bradford Perkins, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy: Twenty-Five Years
After, Reviews in American History 12 (March 1984): 1-15; but see also Lloyd C. Gardner,
ed., Redefining the Past: Essays in Diplomatic History in Honor of William Appleman
Williams (Corvallis, OR, 1986).
I3See Thomas I. McCormick. Drift or Mastery? A Corporatist Synthesis for American
Diplomatic History. Reviews in American History 10 (December 1982): 318-30; also John
Lewis Gaddis. The Corporatist Synthesis: A Skeptical View, Diplomatic History 10 (Fall
1986): 3 5 7 4 2 ; and Michael J. Hogan, Corporatism: A Positive Appraisal, ibid. 10 (Fall
1986): 363-72.
14Michael H. Hunt, Ideology and U S . Foreign Policy (New Haven, 1987). 12, 17-18.
Isbid., 90-91. Even more tenuous, in my view, is Hunts attempt to explain post-World
War II development theory as old-fashioned racism in modern garb (pp. 161-62). Equally
critical but far more plausible analyses of development theory can be found in
Robert A. Packenham. Liberal America and the Third World: Political Development Ideas in
Foreign Aid and Social Science (Princeton. 1973); and D. Michael Shafer, Deadly Paradigms:
The Failure of US.Counterinsurgency Policy (Princeton, 1988).
16For a parallel criticism of Richard H. Collin, Theodore Roosevelt, Culture,
Diplomacy, and Expansion: A New View of American Imperialism (Baton Rouge, 198.5). see
Akira Iriye, Exceptionalism Revisited. Reviews in American Hislory 16 (June 1988): 29395.

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history, the tendency to split the past into a series of tunnels, each
continuous from the remote past to the present, but practically self-contained
at every point and sealed off from contact with or contamination by anything
that was going on in any of the other tunnels.17Certainly if one is to avoid
that kind of history, the burden would appear to be on the historian who
proposes synthesis through reductionism to justify that procedure as explicitly
as possible.18 It is the absence of that explicit justification for excluding
alternative explanations that has too often weakened the search for synthesis in
American diplomatic history.
There is, to be sure, the danger of proliferating explanations to the point
of mindless ecle~ticism:~~
such a synthesis would be no more useful than one
that teeters precariously upon a monocausal base. But surely these are not the
only possibilities. Why should social scientists seek explanations that attempt
to account for a l l n r almost all-detectable phenomena in the first place?
Such things may be possible in the physical and biological sciences, as the
success of theories like relativity, plate tectonics, and natural selection amply
testify. But ours is, after all, a social science, which is to say that it operates
on a far shorter time scale than do expanding universes, continental drift, or
evolution; it also involves unpredictable human beings who, like certain
particles in quantum mechanics, resist appearing in the expected place at the
expected time to do the expected thing. We are left, then, with little choice but
to work with imperfect explanations that aspire to account for something less
than life, the universe, and everything,mand that fact would appear to require
openness to a considerable amount of electicism in our search for synthesis.
Other disciplines accept as a matter of course the compatibility of
synthesis with multiple causation. Consider super-string theory, whose
practitioners routinely speculate about the possibility of a post-Einstein ninedimensional universe;2l the great man himself allowed for four. Political
scientists regularly incorporate multiple variables into their work?2 and even

17J. H. Hexter, Reappraisals in History (Evanston, IL. 1961), 194.


l*One strength of Gabriel Kolkos writing about Cold War origins was his willingness
to provide an explicit methodological justification for reductionism-whether one agreed
with it or not. See his The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy,
1943-1945 (New York. 1968). 8.
190r. in Fischers catalog of fallacies, indiscriminate pluralism. See Historians
Fallacies, 175-76. For suggestions that postrevisionism in Cold War historiography
commits this error see Warren F. &ball, The Cold War Warmed Over, American Historical
Review 79 (October 1974): 1119-36; Carolyn Eisenberg. Reflections on a Toothless
Revisionism. Diplomatic History 2 (Summer 1978): 295-305; and Michael J. Hogan, The
Search for Synthesis: Economic Diplomacy in the Cold War. Reviews in American History
15 (Se [ember 1987): 493-98.
2&he reference is to Douglas Adams. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galary (New York,
1979). its successor volumes, and the television series of the same name, all of which can
teach quite a lot about interdisciplinary bumping.
21Regis, Who Got Einsteins Office?, 255-74. makes this speculation about as
intelligible as it is likely to get for the layperson.
22 For some good examples based on historical research see Theda Skocpol, States and
Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China (Cambridge,
England, 1979); Robert Gilpin. War and Change in World Politics (Cambridge, England,

410

DIPLOMATIC HISTORY

the two-dimensional models of economists allow for thc operation of more


than one variable. One would think hat historians. who arc not obliged to U y
to fit what they do within predictive modcls in any event, would be more
It is all the more
comfortable with explanatory complexity than anyonc
puzzling, therefore, that the search for synlhcsis in diplomatic history so often
seeks to reduce reality to one indepcndcnt and a scrics of dcpcndcnt variables: if
X, Y, and 2 happened, it can only be bccause W is back there lurking
somewhere in Professor Hexters tunnc1.24
A first step toward invigorating the field of American diplomatic history,
then, might be to get beyond thc tcndcncy to cquatc synthesis with
reductionism. The purpose of a synthesis, aftcr all, is not to exclude but rather
to account for complexity. A little interdisciplinary bumping could remind
us that, until our explanations bcgin to approach the comprchensiverigor of a
Darwin or an Einstein, we should probably be cautious about framing them in
reductionist tcrms.25
A second area in which American diplomatic history lacks methodological
sophistication has to do with what is, in a way, the opposite of reductionism:
it is the tendency to construct a complex and multifaccted explanation of a
series of events, full of causes intcrsecting and individuals interacting,but then
to apply it in an indiscriminate way. It is what one might call the cropduster approach to history.
An example can be found in Emily Rosenbergs well-written and
innovative book, Spreading rhe American Dream, which works out an
entirely plausible integration of Amcrican diplomacy, corporate behavior, and
cultural expansionism that reflects vcry well both multiple causes and internal
contradictions. But she then weakens her analysis by concluding that the
resulting policy-which she calls 1ibcral-devclopmentalism-allowed the
United States to dominate those countries subjected to it in such a way as to
constrict their political, economic, and cultural autonomy. American liberalexpansionists believed, she writes, that thcre could be no truly enlightened
1981); Michael W. Doyle. Empires (Ithaca. 1986); and Aaron Friedberg, The Weary Titan:
Briluin and the Experience of Relarive Decline, 1895-1905 (Princeton. 1988).
23For a succinct example of how to incorporate complexity within a readily
comprehensible interpretive framework see Robert L. Beisner. From the Old Diplomacy 10
the New, 1865-1900. 2d ed. (Arlington Heights, IL, 1986).
24Kennerh Waltz has pointed out that the rcductionist commits the error of predicting
outcomes from attributes. To try to do that amounts to overlooking the difference between
these two statements: He is a troublemaker. He makes trouble. The second statement does
not follow from the first one if the attributes of actors do not uniquely determine outcomes.
Just as peacemakers may fail to make p a c e . so troublemakers may fail to make trouble. From
attributes one cannot predict outcomes if outcomes depend on the situation of the actors as
well as on their attributes. See Theory of lnrernulionaf Politics (New York. 1979), 6 0 6 1 .
25F0r one such helpful reminder see Stephen H. Pelz. A Taxonomy for American
Diplomatic History. J O W M ~of Inlerdkcipfinary Ilislory 19 (Autumn 1988): 259-76. Even
the so-called hard sciences these days are moving toward an acceptance of complexity and a
certain humility about their ability to replicate or describe it. See Gleick, Chaos;Pagels, The
Dream of Reason; and Stephen W. Hawking. A Brief History of Time: From rhe Big Bang lo
Black Holes (New York, 1988), esp. 16669.

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dissent against the ultimate acceptance of Amcrican ways, and this faith bred
an intolerance,a narrowness, that was the very opposite of libcrality.26
True enough, no doubt, for some parts of the world: this interpretation
seems convincing enough when one considers the American role in such
countries as Guatemala, Iran, and perhaps South Victnam. Upon reading
Rosenbergs book, though, my students wanted to know: What about South
Korea, or Japan, or West Germany? The American liberal-developmentalist
model was surely as strong in those countries as in Central America, the
Middle East, or Southeast Asia; indeed, it was probably stronger because the
force of military occupation, at least for a time, backed it up. But far from
constraining the Japanese, the Koreans, and the Germans, liberaldevelopmentalism would appear to have transformed them into vigorous
competitors who for years have been beating the original liberaldevelopmentalists at their own game. What about Taiwan, or India, or Brazil,
or Israel, all countries in which American postwar influence was also strong,
but in each of which it produced-because it was hardly the only influence
operating-very different results? All of which is simply to suggest that the
need for methodological sophistication does not cnd with an explanation of the
roots of foreign policy: one must also-if one is to avoid the crop-duster
syndrome-be sensitive to its applicafion,recognizing the virtual certainty
that consequences will vary from place to place and from time to time?7
A peculiar assumption that appears to underlie crop-duster history is
that influence in intcrnational affairs flows only in one direction: outward from
the United States. The Rosenberg thesis reflects this view; so too do
proponents of the Open Door and the corporatist syntheses, as well as
Hunts recent ideological approach. Somehow Amcricans affect what
happens to other nations and peoples, but other nations and people seldom
affect what happens to Americans.
Does the existence of acknowledged disparities in political, economic, or
military power in fact cause influence to flow only from areas of strength to
those of weakness? The comparative study of empires can suggest answers to
this question, for what is an empire if not a situation in which those who have
power dominate those who do not? But Amcrican diplomatic historians-and
especially those who are inclined to see the United Statesas an empire itselftend to neglect this field. Or at least they seem unaware of one of the most
persistent themes in imperial history, which is the way in which influence can
also flow from areas of weakness to those of strength.
In an ambitious study of European empires from ancient Greece through
the end of the nineteenth century, the political scientist Michael Doyle has
argued strongly for giving at least equal weight to what he calls pericentric
2 6 h i l y S. Rosenberg, Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural
Expansion, 1890-1945 (New York, 1982), 234.
27T0 be fair, Rosenberg is aware of this point. Nor did she intend to deal
comprehensively in her book with the effects of liberal-developmenuIlism in the world at
large. See ibid., 13. The difficulty is that her conclusion leaves the reader with the clear
impression that h e effects of Liberal-developmentalism have been consistently negative
for the countries involved, without providing the proof that would be necessary to sustain
that conclusion.

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DIPLOMATIC HISTORY

as well as metrocentric flows of influence. Metrocentric imperialism does


indeed involve the expansion of influence outward from within a society; it is
consistent with the explanations of empire provided by Hobson, Lenin, and
(for a different set of reasons) Schumpeter. But Doyle shows convincingly that
influence can also flow from peripheries back to the metropole: those who
are on the receiving end of imperialism can substantially affect its costs by
choosing resistance over collaboration; those who administer imperial
outposts can, through their immediate response to local circumstances,
commit a metropole to peripheral responsibilities it never sought. The effect,
in either situation, can be to force modifications in the behavior of even the
most powerful imperial state.28
American diplomatic historians ought not to find this pattern strange. Our
own revolution demonstrated the difficulty a metropole can encounter in
attempting to manage a periphery.29It certainly made a difference that the
influential citizens of Texas, Oregon, California, and Hawaii welcomed
annexation to the United States-which is to say, they collaborated-but
that their Mexican and Canadian counterparts would not have.30 Filipino
resistance between 1898 and 1902 substantially altered American views on the
desirability and the costs of formal empire.31 Difficulties encountered in
Mexico certainly influenced Woodrow Wilsons thinking-and that of the
Republican administrations that succeeded him-on the benefits of military
intervention south of the b0rder.~2And it was the self-desuuctivebehavior of
Europeans as much as it was the deliberate calculations of Americans that
transformed the United States into a global economic metropole after World
War I, and into a political-military one as well after World War II?3
28Doyle, Empires, 22-26. Doyles pericentric framework builds in particular upon the
earlier work of Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher, most conveniently sampled in their
classic book (written with Alice Denny) Africa and the Victorians: The Climax of Imperialirm
(New York, 1961). For a succinct case study that nicely illustrates pericentrism see Gordon
A. Craig and Alexander L George, Force and Statecraft: Diplomatic Problems of Our Time
(New Yolk, 1983). 265-68, on Gladstone, Gordon, and the relief of Khartoum in 1884 and
1885.
29The argument goes back, of course, to Lawrence Henry Gipson. but it has recently
been reincarnated in an imponant book by two political scientists. Robert W.Tucker and
David C. Hendrickson. The Fall of the First British Empire: O r i g k of the American War for
Independence (Baltimore, 1982).
3% has long been understood that American continental expansion-apart,
of course,
from the treatment of Indians-did not extend to the point of forcibly annexing unwilling
neighbors. See Frederick Me&, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History: A
Reinterpretation (New York. 1963). 107-8. 2 6 1 a . also Reginald C. Stuart, United Slates
Expansionism and B r i h h North America, 1775-1871 (Chapel Hill. 1988). esp. xii. The
prospect of resislance to annexation, therefore. could deter it.
31A point made effectively by the most influential exponent of metrocentrism in
American diplomatic history. William Applernan W f i a m s in The Tragedy of American
Diplomacy, 46-50.
32Roben E. Quirk, An Affair of Honor: Woodrow Wilson and the Occupation of Veracruz
(Lexington. KY, 1962), 171; Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson: Revolution, War, Peace
(Arlington Heights, IL. 1979). 12; Dana G. Munro, The Uniled States and the Caribbean
Republics, 1921-1933 (Princeton, 1974), 311-83.
33Paul Kennedy. The Rire and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military
Conflicf from 1500 to 2000 (New York. 1987). 327-33. Donald W. White points out,

THE STUDY OF AMERICAN FOREIGN RELATIONS

413

Although early revisionist writing on Cold War origins did tend to take
the view that influence flowed only outward from the United
more
recent studies have in fact shifted toward a pericentric emphasis as the
increasing availability of archival material has made it clear that governments
in Western Europe, the Mediterranean, and even the Middle East generally
welcomed their incorporation within an American sphere of influence, given
the perceived a l t e m a t i ~ eWith
. ~ ~ regard to the Cold War in Asia, it was always
difficult to sustain an exclusively metrocentric perspective: where one had
prominent Asian potentates like Chiang Kai-shek, Syngman Rhee, Ngo Dinh
Diem, and Douglas MacArthur manipulating Washington, there had long been
reason to suspect that influence flowed in both directions, although historians
are only beginning to chronicle that process.%
These trends make all the more conspicuous, then, the tendency of
American diplomatic historians to assume unidirectional influence when they
though, that external power vacuums alone cannot account for the United Statess emergence
as a postwar superpower: by that logic. Australia, Brazil, India, and Canada should have been
superpowers also. See World Power in American History. Diplomatic Hhtory 11 (Summer
1987): 187.
34See Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, 258-75; Joyce and Gabriel
Kolko, The Limits of Power: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1954 (New
York. 1972). 359-83; Bruce Kuklick. American Policy and the Division of Germany: The
Clash with Russia over Reparations (hhaca, 1972). 226-31; Thomas G. Paterson, SovietAmerican Confrontation: Postwar Reconstruction and the Origins of the Cold War
(Baltimore, 1973). 260-67; and, most recently, Lawrence S. Wittner, American Intervention
in Greece, 1943-1949 (New York, 1982). esp. 311-12.
35For examples see Harbutt. The Iron Curtain; Geir Lundestad, America, Scandimvia,
and the Cold War, 1945-1949 (New York, 1980); Bruce R. Kuniholm, The Origins of the
Cold War in the Near East: Great Power Conflict and Diplomacy in Iran, Turkey, and Greece
(Princeton, 1980); Terry H. Anderson, The United Stoles, Great Britain, and the Cold War,
1944-1947 (Columbia, MO. 1981); Robert M. Hathaway, Ambiguous Partnership: Britain
and America, 1944-1947 (New York, 1981); James Edward Miller, The United States and
Italy, 1940-1950: The Politics and Diplomocy of Stabilization (Chapel Hill, 1986); and, in
an effective integration of corporatist and pericentric perspectives, Michael J. Hogan,
The Marshall Plan: America, Britain, and the Reconstruction of Western Europe, 1947-1952
(New York. 1987). See also Lundestad. Empire by Invitation? The United States and Westem
Europe, 1945-1952. JOIUM~of Peace Research 23 (September 1986): 263-77; and John
Lewis Gaddis, The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War mew York, 1987).
57-71. In a recent review otherwise critical of American diplomatic historians for not
embracing pericentric viewpoints, Christopher Thorne derides the notion, now so
sedulously advanced by the professionally emollient, that the expansion of the American
empire which took place immediately following the Second World War occurred strictly by
invitation only. See After the Europeans, 206. I am not aware that anyone has ever
claimed universal applicability for the empire by invitation thesis; the criticism, however,
does afford Thorne the opportunity to recount a good story about the Duke of Wellington.
36See, for examples, William Whitney Stueck, Jr., The Rood to Confrontation:
American Policy toward Chino and Korea. 1947-1950 (Chapel Hill, 1981); Charles M.
Dobbs. The Unwanted Symbol: American Foreign Policy, the Cold War, and Korea, 19451950 (Kent, OH, 1981); Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, Patterns in the Dust: Chinese-American
Relations and the Recognition Controversy, 1949-1950 (New York. 1983); Michael
Schaller. The American Occupation of Japan: The Origins of the Cold War in Asia (New York.
1985); Ronald H. Spector, Advice and Support: The Early Years of the US.Army in Vietnam,
1941-1960 (New York, 1985); also, and most recently, Robert J. McMahon. United States
Cold War Strategy in South Asia: Making a Military Commitment to Pakistan, Journol of
American History 75 (December 1988): 812-40.

414

DIPLOMATIC HISTORY

write about Latin America. These accounts almost always feature the United
States manipulating its neighbors to the south; but the neighbors are never (or
almost never) Seen to be manipulating the Americans. There often follows the
conclusion-stated or implied-that Washington bcars primary responsibility
for the conditions of economic stagnation, social inequality, and political
repression that pervade Latin America, and that only a drastic modification of
u.S. policy can alter this situation.37
What seems to be involved here is an uncritical acceptance, at times
consciously and at times not, of dependency theory: the assertion that
political, economic, and social conditions in Third World countries can be
understood only within the framework of an inlcrnational system dominated by
mature capitalist economies. These developed states, it is argued, employ the
instruments of trade and investment to ensnare their lesser developed
counterparts into a pattern of dependency not greatly diffcrent from that of the
drug addict upon the drug dealer. The North, by his logic, is as responsible
for the self-destructivebehavior of the South as the pusher is for that of
those he manages to
The difficulty with this thesis-and with its use as an analytical
framework for understanding U.S.-Latin American relations-is that
dependency theory is now widely regarded, outside the field of American
diplomatic history, as a considerable oversimplification. Dependency theorists
allow little or no room for the influence of distinctive economic, cultural, or
political phenomena: despite their apparent sympathy for it, they treat the
Third World as a homogenous and featureless mass. Nor has empirical
investigation borne out their insistence that integration into the world
economy necessarily retards economic growth: indeed, the experiences of
37Examples include Walter LaFeber. Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in
Central America (New York. 1984); John A. Findling, Close Neighbors, Distant Friends:
United States-Central American Relations (New York, 1987); Jules R. Benjamin, The
Framework of US. Relations with L a h America: An Interpretive Essay. Diplomatic History
11 (Spring 1987): 91-1 12; and Stephen G. Rabe. Eisenhower and h i i n America: The Foreign
Policy of Anficommunism (Chapel Ilill, 1988). Exceptions to h i s pattern include Louis A.
Perez. Jr., Intervention, Revolution, and Politics in Cuba, 1913-1921 (Pitlsburgh, 1978);
Michael Grow, The Good Neighbor Policy and Authoritarianism in Paraguay: United States
Economic Expansion and Great-Power Rivalry in Lotin America during World War I1
(Lawrence, 1981); and a recent account by a retired diplomat. Frank McNeil. War and Peace in
Cenfral America (New York, 1988). See also a brief acknowledgment of the problem by
Stephen Rabe. Marching Ahead (Slowly): be Historiography of Inter- American Relations,
Diplomatic History 13 (Summer 1989): 316.
38The most influential sbtement of h i s lhcory can be found in articlcs by Andr6 Gunder
Frank and Dale L. Johnson in Dependence and Underdevelopment: Lot in Americas Political
Economy, ed. James D. Cockcroft, A n d d Gundcr Frank. and Dale L. Johnson (Gardcn City.
NY. 1972). esp. 3-45, 71-1 11, 321-91; but see also Susanne J. Bodcnhcimer. Dcpcndcncy
and Imperialism: The ROOISof Latin Amcrican Underdevelopment, Politics and Society 1
(May 1971): 327-57. Immanuel Wallcrstcin has extended this theory t o international
relations as a whole in The Modern World System: Capitalkt Agriculture and the Origins of
the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (New York. 1974). and The Modern
World System 11: Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy,
1600-1 750 (New York. 1980). For the influence of dcpcndency ihcory on the writing of
American diplomatic historians see Lester D. Langley, Fire Down Bclow: A Review Essay on
the Central American Crisis, Diplomatic Ilistory 9 (Spring 1985): 161-67.

THE STUDY OF AMERICAN FOREIGN RELATIONS

415

nations like South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore suggest considerable


evidence to the contrary. Nor do the dependency theorists explain how we
could be sure that, if the oppressive presence of mature Northern capitalism
should someday disappear, the states of the South would then find their way
to social stability, economic equality, and political democracy.39In short, to
write history on the basis of dependency theory is to combine the worst
features of the reductionist and crop-duster approaches, in that complex
phenomena are reduced to a single cause, but the resulting conclusions are then
indiscriminatelyapplied.
The world is a diverse place, and the United States-whether for good or
ill-controls only a small portion of what goes on within it. American
diplomatic historians could overcome much of their alleged lack of
sophistication by recognizing that fact, by turning their attention to the task
of specifying those areas into which this countrys influence, in all of its own
diversity, does extend, and by distinguishing those as precisely as possible
from the ones in which it does not.
A third problem that causes American diplomatic history to suffer from
methodological impoverishment is cultural and temporal parochialism: we
tend to assume that the experience of the United States in time and space is
unique and therefore defining: we seem to think that the experiences of other
nations at other times and in other parts of the world can shed little useful
light upon our own.
American exceptionalism is, of course, nothing new; indeed, this
countrys most defensible claim to being exceptional may lie in the tenacity
with which we believe that we are. No one could deny that certain things in
the historical experience of the United States are unique, just as would be the
case-unexceptionably-with
any other country. But it is interesting that
American diplomatic historians, who can be quite critical of exceptionalism
when they encounter it in the diplomats about whom they write, find it so
difficult to free themselves from that tendency in their own work.
Consider the narrow framework within which diplomatic historians have
treated the role of the United States as an empire. They have not hesitated to
portray American diplomacy in imperial terms$O and in my view, properly
so: the Founding Fathers themselves used the term empire without
39F0r a sampling of critiques of dependency theory see Packenham, Liberal America and
the Third World, 353-58: Tony Smith, The Pattern of Imperialism: The United States, Great
Britain, and the late-industrializing world since 1815 (Cambridge, England, 1981). 68-84;
David Ray, The Dependency Model of Latin American Underdevelopment: Three Basic
Fallacies, Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 15 (February 1973): 4-20; and.
on Wallerstein, Steve J. Stem, Feudalism, Capitalism, and the World-System in the
Perspective of Latin America and the Caribbean, American Historical Review 93 (October
1988): 829-72.
40Consider the following book titles: The Rising American Empire and Empire and
Independence (Richard Van Alstyne), Imperial Democracy (Ernest R. May), Empire on the
Pacific (Norman Graebner), The Roots of the Modern American Empire and Empire as a Way
of Life (William Appleman Williams), The New Empire (Walter LaFeber). Creation of the
American Empire (LaFeber, Lloyd Gardner, and Thomas McCormick), and The Imperial Years
(Alonzo L. Hamby).

416

DIPLOMATE HISTORY

embarra~srnent;~~
expansion in the nineteenth century took place on a scale
sufficient to merit the adjective imperial by any standard; and in the
twentieth century disparities of economic and military power have placed the
United States in a hegemonic position with respect to much of the rest of
the
How often, though, have those who write about the American
imperial experience considered it in comparison to, and in light of, the
experiencesof other empires?
Two books that illustrate how useful such comparisons can be are Tony
Smiths The Pattern of Imperialism and Philip Darbys Three Faces of
Imperialism: not only do they illustrate the role pericentric as well as
metrocentric forces played in the emergence of the United States as a world
power; they also show how studying the rise and decline of the British Empire
can shed new light on American foreign policy in the Cold Warp3 Michael
Doyles comparative study Empires hardly mentions the United States, but it
is filled with insights that bear on the American experience, as is Robert
Tucker and David Hendricksons The Fall of the First British Empire.44 But
despite the heavy reliance on historical research that characterizes each of them,
every one of these recent books is by a political scientist. No American
diplomatic historian that I know of has, at least within recent years,
undertaken anything approaching these studies in terms of comparative sweep
and analytical rigor.
Or consider the history of American geopolitical thought. The work of
James Hutson and, more recently, Daniel Lang, has made it clear that the
Founding Fathers approached internationalrelations very much in the tradition
of European realpolitik: the combination of idealism and naivete that Felix
Gilbert once detected in their thinking was, it now appears, somewhat

41See Marc Egnal. A Mighty Empire: The Origins of the Americon Revolution (Ithaca,
1988); also the first paragraph of The Federal&, in which Hamilton writes of the debate over
the Constitution comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the
UNION,the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in
many respects the most interesting in the world. See The Federolisr (New York, n.d.), 3.
42Doyle insists upon the distinction between imperial and hegemonic power,
defining the former as involving the metropoles political control over the internal and
external policy-the effective sovereignty-of [a] . . . subordinate periphery, while in the
latter situation international inequality allows a state to control much or all of the external,
but little or none of the internal, policy of other states. He acknowledges. though, that the
study of empires shares much ground with the study of international relations [which includes
hegemons], both in method and in conception. See Empires, 12-13.
43Smith, The Pattern of Imperialism Philip Darby, Three Faces of Imperialism: British
and American Approoches to Asia ond Africo, 1870-1970 (New Haven, 1987). See also
Friedburg, The Weary Titan, for another example of how the British experience can be made
relevant to that of the United States.
@Doyle. Empires: Tucker and Hendrickson, The Fall of the First British Empire. The
latter two authors note that those familiar with the whole of the European imperial
experience and the historiography that has emerged to account for this experience cannot fail
to be struck by the existence of common explanatory categories across the whole field of
modem empire, a fact that reflects the existence of common intellectual problems. See The
Fall of the First Britbh Empire, 6.

THE STUDY OF AMERICAN FOREIGN RELATIONS

417

e ~ a g g e r a t e dBut
. ~ ~how many historians of American foreign policy have
attempted to pursue that argument against exceptionalism through the latter
three fourths of the nineteenth century and into the first half of the twentieth?
How did it happen that a wholly unexceptional variety of European realism
came to inform this nations diplomacy at its birth, then disappeared, only to
be reincarnated a century and a half later in the minds of Hans Morgenthau,
George F. Kennan, and Reinhold N i e b ~ h r ?It~is~ difficult to believe that
exceptionalcharacteristicscan so suddenly replace unexceptional ones, and
then in turn and with equal abruptness be replaced by them: a more plausible
explanation might link the intensity of American realism to shifting
perceptions of threats to the nations security. But who, among American
diplomatic historians, has attempted this?47
Or consider the extent to which historians of American foreign policy
have neglected so elemental a matter as the perception of space and time in
relation to the conduct of diplomacy.48There is no reason to assume that all
nations-or all individuals within nations-perceive space and time in
precisely the same way on all occasions. One reason a thinly populated and
politically divided group of North American colonies was willing to take on
the worlds most powerful nation after 1763 was that their inhabitants saw
space and time as working for them: not only would the task of supplying an
army across an ocean hamper the British: it seemed unlikely, as well, that an
island could ever permanently subdue a c0ntinent.4~But by the 1840s, as
Thomas Hietala has shown, Americans had come to view space as closing in
on them and time as working against them: it was fear as much as selfconfidence, he argues-fear manifesting itself in racial, economic, and
geopolitical terms-that motivated the anxious aggrandizement of the late
45James H. Hutson, John A d a m and the Diplomocy of the American Revolution
(Lexington. KY, 1980); Daniel G. Lang. Foreign Policy in the Eorty Republic: The Law of
Notions and the Balance of Power (Baton Rouge, 1985). Gilberts argument, of course,
appears in To the Farewell Address: Ideas of Early American Foreign Policy (Princeton,
1961).
460ne of the few attempts that I know of to consider whether realism continued to
shape American foreign policy after the early national period is Alan Dowty, The Limits of
American Isolation: The United States and the Crimeon War (New Yo&, 1971). It is no
accident that Dowty trained as a political scientist under Hans Morgenthau at the University
of Chicago.
47A few are beginning to think along these lines, among them Thomas R. Hietala,
whose work is discussed below. See also Kinley Brauer, The Great American Desert
Revisited: Recent Literature and Prospects for the Study of American Foreign Relations,
1815-61. Diplomatic History 13 (Summer 1989): 395-417. One important effort to take
seriously the phenomenon of mid-nineteenth-century realism is, of course, Norman A.
Graebners classic documentary collection, Ideas and Diplomacy: Readings in the Intellectual
Trodifionof American Foreign Policy (New York, 1964).
48F0r a remarkable illustration of how shifting spatial and temporal perceptions can be
linked to the conduct of diplomacy see Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 18801918 (Cambridge, MA, 1983).
49See Egnal, A Mighty Empire. 6-15; Tucker and Hendrickson. The Fall of the First
British Empire, 229-31; D. W. Meinig, The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective
on 500 Years of History: Atlantic America. 1492-1800 (New Haven, 1986), 381-83; and
Esmond Wright, Franklin of Phitodelphia (Cambridge, MA, 1986). 173-83.

418

DIPLOMATIC HISTORY

Jacksonian period.50Robert L. Beisner has identified a similar shift in spatial


and temporal perceptions in the transition from what he calls the old
paradigm to the new in late nineteenth-century American foreign policy.51
But precisely how did Woodrow Wilson come to view a German victory
in World War I as likely to endanger the United States? What was it in the
behavior of Germany and Japan in the 1930s that evoked comparable fears in
the mind of Franklin D. Roosevelt? How, specifically,did American and West
European leaders see their nations interests as threatened by what the Soviet
Union was doing in Eastern Europe after 1945?52It is easy enough to show
that nation A saw nation B as a threat, but only rarely do we specify just
what it was in Bs behavior that nation A considered threatening. And threats
are themselves a matter of perception: what one nation finds threatening,
another may n0t.53
Some attention to how policymakers think about space and time might
help in dealing with such issues. Perceptions, after all, are to a large part
shaped by the spatial and temporal context within which individuals-and
n a t i o n s - e ~ i s t :the
~ ~world can look a good deal more ominous if one views
space and time as working against rather than in ones favor.55Paul Kennedys
account of how the British came to feel this way prior to World War I could
provide an interesting standard against which to contrast Wilsons thinking
between 1914 and 1917.56Waldo Heinrichss new account of the coming of
World War I1 emphasizes the important but oddly neglected fact that Roosevelt

50Thomas R. Hietala, Manifest Design: Anxious Aggrandizement in Late


Jacksonian Americo (Ithaca, 1985), esp. 8-9, 255-72. These arguments are by no means
new, as George B. Forgie has pointed out in a critical review of Hietalas book, Anxiety and
Expansionism in the 1840s. Reviews in American History 15 (March 1987): 38-43. But
Hietala has, I think, brought them together in an impressively nonreductionist synthesis
organized around the argument that security was by no means free in the 1840s or, by
implication, at any other point in the so-called era of free security. The best-known
countervailing argument is C. Vann Woodward. The Age of Reinterpretation, American
Hktorical Review 66 (October 1960): 1-19.
51Beisner. From the Old Diplomacy to the New. Beisners use of paradigms is in turn
drawn from Thomas S. Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Rcvoluiiom. 2d ed. (Chicago, 1970).
52My own attempt to answer this last question appears in The Long Peace, 20-47.
53Political scientists, drawing upon the field of cognitive social psychology. have
begun to examine the nature of threat perception. See,in particular, Deborah Welch Larson,
Origins of Containment: A Psychological Explanation (Princeton, 1985), esp. 24-65; and
Robert Jervis, Perceiving and Coping with Threat. in Psychology and Deterrence, ed.
Robert Jervis. Richard Ned Lebow, and Janice Gross Stein (Baltimore, 1985). 13-33.
54See Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 2.
55Richard Ned Lebow has argued, on the basis of historical evidence, that the single
most important consideration leading states to provoke confrontations with other states is
the expectation by policy-makers of a dramatic impending shift in the balance of power in
an adversarys favor. See Between Peace and War: The Nature of International Crisis
(Baltimore. 1981), 62. And John Meanheimer has suggested, also on the basis of historical
investigation. that conventional deterrence works best when the defenders can convince
aggressors that they will not be able to achieve a quick and cheap victory. See Conventional
Deterrence (Ithaca, 1983). 203-6.
56Kennedy. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. 224-29. See also idem, The Rise of
rhe Anglo-German Antagonism. 1860-1914 (London, 1980).

THE STUDY OF AMERICAN FOREIGN RELATIONS

419

in 1941 had two potential threats to deal with at the same


Michael
Sherry and Alan Henrikson have suggested that shifts in the spatial thinking
of American strategists at the end of World War I1 played a role in altering
their view of the Soviet Union from one of ally to adversary.58And it seems
very likely that an important shift in temporal thinking must have taken place
as the Eisenhower administration came into office in 1953: otherwise it is
difficult to account for the new chief executive's abrupt abandonment of the
"period of peak danger" concept which, since the drafting of NSC-68 three
years earlier, had assumed time to be working against the United States and its
allies to such an extent that if nothing was done a Soviet attack was thought
certain to occur by 19X59
Overcoming spatial and temporal parochialism requires being willing to
undertake comparative studies. Historians are not particularly receptive to this
approach: we tend to assume that the comparativist cannot know as much
about a particular subject as the specialist does, and we are correct in assuming
that. But the specialist is less likely than the comparativist to ask interesting
questions; even more important, the comparativist alone can draw upon a
range of empirical evident-xtending across space and through time-to
suggest answers. If it is true that good history is as much a matter of
providing less than definitive answers to difficult questions as it is a matter of
answering easy questions thoroughly-and I tend to think it is-then the
techniques of the comparativist would appear to have as great a claim upon our
attention as do those of the narrativist.60
One consequence of the spatial and temporal parochialism of American
diplomatic historians-and their resulting reluctance to approach their subject
from a comparative perspective-is systemic innocence: it does not often
occur to us that the United States is and always has been part of an
international system, the characteristics of which add up to something more
than just the sum of its ~ a r t s . 6The
~ mixture of astonishment and acclaim that
greeted Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers when it
appeared late in 1987 is surely a reflection of systemic innocence. The book
advances what should have been an unsurprising argument: that because the
~

57Waldo Heinrichs, Threshold of War: Franklin D . Roosevelt and American Entry into
World War I1 (New York, 1988). For interesting observations on how recent a phenomenon
such "simultaneity" really is see Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 67-81.
58See Michael S. Sherry. Preparing for the Next War: American Plans for Postwar
Defense, 1941-1945 (New Haven, 1977), 45-46; Alan K. Henrikson, "America's Changing
Place in the World From 'Periphery' to 'Center'?" in Center and Periphery: SpofiafVarialion
in Politics, ed. Jean Gottmann (Beverly Hills, 1980), 73-100, also Gaddis, The Long Peace,
21-29.
59The two strategies are compared in Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, 89-109. 12763; but see also McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival: Choices aboui the Bomb in the First
Fijty Years (New York, 1988), 291.
6oFor an excellent brief statement of how comparative history differs from narrative
history see Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions, xiv.
61The best brief discussion of international systems and how their characteristics differ
from those of the states that make them up is in Waltz, Theory of International Politics, 79101.

420

DIPLOMATIC HISTORY

United States exists within a larger sysicmic contcxt, its cxpcricnce as a great
power may replicate that of other grcat powcrs in the past.62But it took a
historian of European diplomacy and slralcgy to see this; Amcrican diplomatic
historians have been remarkably slow to incorporatc systemic pcrspectives
into their own work.
The reason almost certainly lics in our prcfcrcnce for narration over
generalization. We are far more comfortablc ucating history as a linear than as
a cyclical phenomenon, and hcnce we tcnd not to recognize systemic
phenomena-which often have cyclical characteristics-when we come across
them. Preoccupied with the progrcssion from tree to trcc, wc lose sight of the
fact that we are part of a forest.
As a result, some important books have gone unwritten. One is a history
of the American conception of national security from the achievement of
independence to the prescnt that would seck to answer the following question:
Was this nations isolationism the product of a conscious dctcrmination to
avoid European political entanglcments, or was it the largely unconscious
consequence of an unusually stable world ~ r d c r Whcrc
? ~ ~ systemic instability
has developed-whether in the recurring wars of the eighteenth century, the
wars of the French Rcvolution and Napolcon, World Wars I and 11, or h e Cold
War-the effect has bcen sooncr or later to compromise American
isolationism.64Who really decided our fate, thcn: oursclvcs, or the workings
of an international system we only dimly undcrst~od?~~
A second book that has yet to be written would rclate American foreign
policy to the sources of international systcmic slability. Thcre is, as yet, no
consensus among theorists on what brings that condition about: Hans
Morgenthau saw stability as coming from carefully balancing multiple sources
of power, but Kenneth Waltz has found bipolarity to be more stable than
multipolarity; still others such as Charles P. Kindleberger and Robert Gilpin
have suggested the need for a single stabilizing hegemon bcfore order can be
achieved.66 The point here is not who is right, but rathcr that American
62Kennedy. The Rise and FaN of the Great Powers, esp. 514-35. For the reception of
Kennedys book and its place within the framework of what has now come to be known as the
decline school see Peter Schmeisser. Taking Stock: Is America in Decline? New York
Times Magazine. 17 April 1988.
63James Chace and Caleb Carr have reccntly come close with their America
Invulnerable: The QUSIfor Absolute Securityfiom I812 10 Star Wars (New York, 1988). but
the book lacks the comparative perspective that would help to explain how-if at allAmerican thinking about national security differed from h a t of ohcr countries, or the extent
to which international systemic influences shaped it.
@Craig and George, Force and Statecrafi. 3-13 1, provide a convenicnt overview of how
the international system has evolved since the seventeenth century.
65The author of a classic work on isolationism. Sclig Adlcr. long ago took a stand on
this issue: American isolationism. he suggested, was like glaciation. in that it could exist
only under certain specific and relatively infrcquent climatic conditions. See The Isolationist
Impulse: I f s Twenfiefh-CenturyReaction brew York. 1957). 471.
66Waltz, Theory of Infernafional Polifics. 134-38. 163-70; Hans J. Morgenthau,
Politics among Nations: The Sfruggle for Power and Peace, 5th ed. (New York. 1973). 167221; Charles P. Kindleberger, The World in Depression, 1929-1939 (Berkeley, 1973), 291308; Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Poluics (New York, 1981). 144-54; and idem,
The Political Economy of International Relations (Princeton, 1987), 72-80.

THE STUDY OF AMERICAN FOREIGN RELATIONS

42 1

diplomatic historians have played no role at all in this debate. And yet the
theorists, whatever their persuasion, would all agree that the United States has
played a major role in determining when international equilibrium has been
achieved in this century. American diplomatic historians are selling
themselves and their readers short by remaining aloof from this discussion,
which concerns nothing less than the nature of this countrys involvement
with the rest of the ~ o r l d . 6 ~
A third unwritten book-again reflecting the importance of systemic
perspectives-might deal with that hearty perennial in the history of American
foreign relations, the domino theory. We have traced clearly enough where
the idea came from: indeed, the term Munich mentality has long been a
synonym for it.68 But no diplomatic historian that I know of has been willing
to pursue two obvious questions about the domino theory: is it unique, and
is it correct? Answering the first question would require some comparative
history, but that ought not to be too difficult. Thucydides himself provides as
good a description of domino thinking as we are likely to find; and there is
reason to suspect that such attitudes have existed in overextended empires ever
since.69More difficult is the question of whether dominoes really do fall,
which is to say, whether nations bandwagon when confronted with what
appears to be superior strength. But a careful new study by the political
scientist Stephen Walt argues persuasively that they tend not to, that
balancing against threats is the more frequent pattern of behavior than
bandwagoning before them?O The point may require further research to
Thucydides-provide ample evidence of
confirm, but the Walt book-and
how much a student of domino theories could gain from a systemic
perspective.
In some ways, the most intriguing research going on now about the
behavior of international systems grows out of the fields of game theory and
political economy. It suggests that limited forms of cooperation between rival
great powers may emerge, even under conditions of anarchy; that states do,
over time, learn to behave like corporations-or professional football teams67For an excellent brief introduction to the literature, especially written for diplomatic
historians, see Ole R. Holsti. Models of International Relations and Foreign Policy,
Diplomatic History 13 (Winter 1989): 15-43. Another helpful guide is Patrick M. Morgan,
Theories and Approaches to International Relations: What Are We to Think?, 4th ed. (New
Brunswick, 1987).
68For the origins see, among others, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Bitter Heritage:
Vietnam and American Democracy, 1941-1966 (New York, 1967); Ernest R. May, Lessons
of the Past: The Use and Mbuse of History in American Foreign Policy (New York. 1973),
esp. 80-86; also Patrick M. Morgan, Saving Face for the Sake of Deterrence, in Jervis,
Lebow, and Stein, eds., Psychology and Deterrence, 125-52.
69Your empire is now like a tyranny, Thucydides has Pericles telling the Athenians in
427 B.C.: It may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go. See The
Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (Baltimore, 1954), 161. See also, on domino
thinking among the seventeenth-century Spanish Hapsburgs, Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of
the Great Powers, 51. Myths of Empire, an important but as yet unpublished manuscript by
the political scientist Jack Snyder, compares domino thinking in Great Britain, Germany,
Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States at various points in the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries.
OStephen M. Walt, The Origins of Allionces (Ithaca, 1987).

422

DIPLOMATIC HISTORY

in that they contend vigorously (most of the time) without trying to kill one
another and without destroying the environment in which they
This theoretical finding-that competition and cooperation can themselves
coexist-could take us a long way toward explaining how, against all
expectations, the Soviet-Americanrivalry that has now extended over four and
a half decades has yet to produce armed conflict: a little interdisciplinary
bumping here could pay particularly handsome dividends for historians of the
Cold War?*
To be sure, American diplomatic historians are not alone in their
parochialism about international systems: there is a disconcerting tendency
among the systems theorists themselves to give little attention to how their
respective findings might mesh. How, for example, do the cycles of great
power rise and fall that Paul Kennedy has identified relate to the hegemonic
stability cycles of Kindleberger and Gilpin? How might these, in turn, tie in
with the possibility that international cooperation can emerge under conditions
of anarchy, or with the role nuclear weapons have played (whatever it is)73 in
ensuring stability? There is, in short, some danger here of paradigm
f r a t r i ~ i d e American
;~~
diplomatic historians willing to inform themselves
about these discussions might be in a good position to help stave off that
catastrophe by subjecting these hypotheses to the good old-fashioned test of
empirical evidence.
If we are to play that role, though, we will have to get over our own old
sense that once we have paid obligatory deference to Cheyneys principleonce we have established what came after what-our responsibilitiesare over.
For the fact is that there are cyclical as well as linear patterns in history; there
is system as well as sequence. And just as the physicists have come to see
light as having the qualities of both particles and waves, so we too should
accept rather than resist complementarity, and learn to make the most of it75

71See Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation (New York, 1984); Kenneth A.
Oye. ed.. Cooperation under Anarchy (Princeton, 1986); and for a clear summary of this
work-despite the accompanying mathematical formulas-Michael Nicolson. Formal
Theories in Internafional Relations (Cambridge, England, 1989), 26-51.
72A decided weakness of my own effort to explain h i s phenomena in The Long Peace is
the failure to draw on h i s literature; h i s does, however, illustra~eall too clearly my point
about disciplinary parochialism.
73A new and very interesting b o k by the political scientist John Mueller, Refreat from
Doomday: The Obsolescence of Major War (New York, 1989). suggests that it has been
minimal, that wars between great powers are becoming obsolete quite apart from any
influence that nuclear weapons may have had on that process.
74For more on this admittedly arcane concept see John Lewis Gaddir. Great Illusions.
the Long Peace, and the Future of the International System, in The Long Postwar Peace: The
Sources of Great Power Stability, ed. Charles W . Kegley (forthcoming).
75A most elegant interdisciplinary bump in this direction, is Stephen Jay Gould,
Times Arrow, Times Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time
(Cambridge. MA, 1987). The term complementarity is Niels Bohrs. See Richard modes,
The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York. 1986). 131-32. For an intriguing application
of this idea to the world of contemporary affairs see Strobe Talbott, The Master offhc Game:
Paul Nifze and the Nuclear Peace (New York. 1988). esp. 35-36.

THE STUDY OF AMERICAN FOREIGN RELATIONS

423

For those who will seek out its patterns, history does have a certainalthough limited-predictive utility. It is not like mathematics and chemistry,
where the repeated combination of variables in the same amounts and under the
same conditions will always produce the same result. It certainly is not, in and
of itself, a guide to the future: those who have sought to use history in this
way-by assuming that the future will replicate the past-can count on only
two certainties, which are that it will not and that they will be surprised as a
consequence.
But history can serve something of the function a rear-view mirror does in
an automobile. One would not want to drive down the road with eyes glued to
the mirror because sooner or later one would wind up in the ditch. But the
mirror is useful in determining where one has been; it is even more helpful in
revealing who, or what, is coming up from behind, a consideration of some
importance in what is still a competitive international environment. It makes
a difference whether it is the geopolitical equivalent of an aging Volkswagen
or a Mack truck.
History can also make one aware of those long-term patterns that tend to
hold up across time and space: that great powers do rise and fall; that empires
do overextend themselves; that there is a relationship between solvency and
security; that individuals are rarely automatons; that events have complex
In a world that continues to be dangerous-but often in ways we have
least expected-there is no question that this expansion of immediate
experience, this awareness of long-term patterns, this rear-view mirror
approach to the problems we face; that all of this has the potential to make
diplomatic history relevant. Indeed, it could be the most relevant of all the
branches of history as far as policymaking is concerned. The only real question
is whether we diplomatic historians-a pretty unimaginative lot, to be
perfectly honest about it-are capable of seeing our discipline in sufficiently
expansive terms to allow that to happen.

76For a particularly convincing essay illustrating the importance of looking at history


in this way see Paul Gagnon, Why Study History? Atlantic Monthly 262 (November 1988):
43-66.

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