Diplomatic history of the United States, emphasizing its spiritual underpinnings as much as wars and treaties.
Though Widmer (Martin Van Buren, 2004, etc.) does not ignore the traditional subjects within the field, his theological analysis takes him to places where other scholars don’t always tread. The former Clinton speechwriter sees the country’s longtime focus on spreading liberty throughout the world as a net positive, when done properly. He begins with a long examination of the nation’s founding, spending considerable time on the nation’s Puritan roots and showing how John Winthrop’s idea of a “city upon a hill” has inspired politicians of both parties ever since. Widmer is harder on Republican presidents, especially Reagan and the Bushes, whom he argues didn’t follow their lofty moralistic rhetoric with equally just policies. He describes the architects of the current administration’s foreign policy as “wolves in Wilsonian clothing.” One of the author’s key points is that Woodrow Wilson was more than a sentimental idealist, and his foreign policy was underrated. “By giving voice to what had been airy aspirations, and mobilizing the world’s peoples, and taking his plan far toward completion,” he writes, “Wilson proved to be a realist indeed.” Widmer covers many subjects at a brisk pace while synthesizing a vast array of primary and secondary sources. Occasionally the volume of information becomes overwhelming, but the author makes solid use of poetry and fiction to back up his arguments—the title comes from Herman Melville’s 1850 novel White-Jacket, which uses the phrase “ark of the liberties” to describe America’s role as a moral exemplar.
An unusual and engaging tour of the horizon of American diplomacy that should appeal to both scholarly and general audiences.