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The Global Republic

Frank Ninkovich
University of Chicago Press


From the Introduction

This book is a conceptual history of the relationship between globalization and American foreign policy. The abridged version of the story begins in the 1890s when the United States adopted the first of a nearly unbroken succession of globalization-oriented policies and continues through a series of challenges and crises that led, by the end of the twentieth century, to an unprecedented position of global hegemony. In the opening stages of this journey, the United States was in the position of having to adapt to globalization; at midpoint, it became its savior; and as the twenty-first century dawned, the nation was again subordinating itself to a more powerful version of globalization that it had taken great pains to nurture. But whatever the precise relationship at any point in time, throughout this period America's rise to world power was intimately related to the tortuous advance of the globalization process.

With its numerous plot twists and dramatic qualities, this is, by any measure, an extraordinary tale. But it is also the story of a modern foreign policy approach that introduced an unprecedented sweep and complexity to the way that international relations were conceived and carried out. Conspicuously absent from my account, however, is a stock plot device often found in histories of US foreign relations: exceptionalist beliefs. In contrast to a widely held view, a key assertion of this book is that America's climb to global preeminence was not animated from the moment of the nation's birth by a deep sense of historical mission, which, if allowed full expression in foreign affairs, was supposed to lead the world to peace, prosperity, and democracy. The stimulus for the nation's ascent to dizzying heights of power, far from emanating from within, was instead of external origin, an inadvertent consequence of the need to keep up with a fast-changing globalizing world that was filled with promise and peril.

I would have preferred to avoid entirely the fraught topic of American exceptionalism were it not for the fact that its tenacious staying power stood in the way of telling the story that I have in mind. Doing so requires that I show that exceptionalism was not doing work in foreign policy at the birth of the nation or in various key episodes of its foreign policy history, which is why I have chosen to start my story in 1776 rather than a century later. However, the chief purpose of the book is not to debunk exceptionalism but, more productively, to make a case for global developments as the source of motivation for policies that led to America's ascendancy. Accordingly, following the preliminary removal of obstructions like Manifest Destiny, once under way this intellectual journey will not stop to visit roadside diversions like the crusading impulse, the cultural urge to refashion the world in America's self-image, secular utopianism, or the alleged tendency of Americans to allow their domestic ideology or popular pressures to dictate their approach to foreign relations.

After one sets aside the idea that a deeply rooted universalizing impulse in the national character has been at work since 1776, it becomes easier to recognize the disruptive impact of the first wave of globalization that inundated the world in the nineteenth century. Whereas a story that plays up ideas inherited from the Founding Fathers would emphasize continuity, my narrative highlights an ideological break in which the nation's initial localist outlook on foreign relations was severed from its eighteenth-century republican roots and reoriented in a global direction. The process of breaking away from the past began after the Civil War in the Gilded Age, an era when a new and enduring appreciation of the nation's place in the world took its place as a prominent feature of the wider culture. Those were the years in which Americans came to appreciate the degree to which the breakneck conversion of their pastoral land into an industrial society was the result of irresistible global forces that had come into being independently of American initiative. Like all other nations overrun by globalization, the United States had been in no position to stave off its enormous power.