Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Do you remember, your President Wilson?

By now, surveys of Imperial America are a dime a dozen, but they tend to focus on the Cold War years or on the Bush/Cheney years. In the 70s, the late Walter Karp wrote about the relationship between domestic politics and aggressive foreign policy in the era of the Spanish American war and World War One and it may surprise many readers who view the era as a sleepy one.

In his book, The Politics of War, Karp argues that America switched from an isolationist to an imperial policy as a means of deflecting cries of reform from the populist and progressive political forces. Specifically, fears in both the Democratic and Republican parties of overthrow by new rising parties led them to both support foreign adventures. He argues this was a decisive break with the small r republican views of the founding fathers. This support for overseas adventure provided an underlying cause of the Spanish-American War and American entry into World War One, while the personal drives of Presidents McKinley and Wilson provided the proximate causes.

Although his view of McKinley isn't rosy, Wilson is Karp's great villain. He sees the beginnings of excessive executive power that eventually rose in the likes of Nixon (and now Bush) in the actions that Wilson took to suppress any dissent to his policies. He also views the rejection of the League of Nations, typically discussed in an foreign policy context, through the lens of domestic politics. He portrays the American political class and populace as entirely disgusted with Wilson and wanting no part of his plans.

I think Karp overstates American isolation before the coming of McKinley. The US went to war with Britain in 1812 in hopes of grabbing Canada. It invaded Mexico in 1848 to seize California. So I have hard time seeing the Phillipine land grab as out of character as Karp does. That said, I found his analysis of the domestic sources of foreign policy fresh and relevant to our politics today.

It is still a common op-ed trope to bemoan the united front the US people supposedly had in the Cold War. This is usually prefaced with the idea that, back then, politics ended at shore of the country. It's nonsense, of course, throughout the Cold War there was vigorous disagreement about how to deal with the Soviets, the Chinese, the Europeans and the Latin Americans. This book provides more evidence that domestic politics and foreign politics are very much tied together.

1 comment:

Citizen Reader said...

Now THIS looks like the kind of history/political book I'm looking for. Thanks for the review.