Surveying American foreign policy and its discontents.
The first ventures of the new United States in world affairs, writes Cohen (Emeritus, History/Univ. of Maryland, Baltimore County; The Challenge to American Primacy, 1945 to the Present, 2013, etc.), were mercantile; there were allies in the Revolution to be rewarded, but reward would come in the form of favorable trade concessions and not in political entanglements. Then James Monroe and his lieutenant, John Quincy Adams (“arguably the most skilled diplomat ever to serve as secretary of state”), came along to formulate a more comprehensive vision of foreign policy in the Monroe Doctrine, which effectively ordered the Old World to stay out of the affairs of the New World. The Old World did not follow to the letter, and neither did the U.S., occasioning still broader visions of international affairs, such as Theodore Roosevelt’s enthusiastic endorsement of the notion of an American empire. Cohen deftly weaves many strands of past events into a coherent narrative, and though not much will come as news to students of American history, there are surprises nonetheless. For instance, Roosevelt pressed the Russian government to treat the country’s Jews more humanely, but it was largely out of fear of an “influx of impoverished Jews” in America if that better treatment did not come—as indeed was the case. The “other” Roosevelt, Franklin, was a bit more cautious regarding the imperial project. As Cohen writes, he shared some of his compatriots’ isolationist sentiments, which held that America’s entry into World War I was misguided. Subsequent cycles of isolationism, such as the present, have not advanced America’s cause or done anything to protect us, and there the author is sharply critical at points, especially of Bill Clinton, whose refusal to intervene in the Rwandan genocide was “the most reprehensible moment of his administration.”
As Cohen observes in this smart, useful account, the role of the U.S. in international affairs has been checkered, and it appears to be headed for a very bad patch indeed, given the current occupant of the White House.