I picked up a copy of Walter A. McDougall’s Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776 in 2007 at a used book store in DC’s Eastern Market. I read it this week because I wanted a quick review of the different ways that the US has dealt with the rest of the world before I moved on to the next book on Israeli history. McDougall, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, divides US foreign policy into eight phases:
Our Old Testament: 1. Liberty, or Exceptionalism (so called) 2. Unilateralism, or Isolationism (so called) 3. The American System, or Monroe Doctrine (so called) 4. Expansionism, or Manifest Destiny (so called).
Our New Testament: 5. Progressive Imperialism 6. Wilsonianism, or Liberal Internationalism (so called) 7. Containment 8. Global Meliorism.
The biblical conceit is used to emphasize that the latter four phases are dependent upon reverence to the first four phases. The book is short at just two hundred and twenty-two pages, and McDougall uses them efficiently to define our historical responses to the world from 1776 through the late 1990’s. In describing his phases, he criticizes many other historians’ definitions of our foreign policy and backs up (most of) his arguments with logic, historical examples and/or redefinitions in light of his schema. Not having read the majority of these other historians, I cannot judge the validity of all of his arguments. Here is a longer review, a review from the New York Times, a review from Foreign Affairs, and a more up-to-date critical review.
In spite of the book’s brevity and some of the reviewers’ criticisms, I recommend it as a very accessible (and vocabulary-building) way to start to come up to speed on the history of US foreign policy. At a minimum, it gives the reader a quick review of our history and of our responses to history, and at a maximum it provides an interesting framework to use when trying to understand or predict current foreign policy decisions.