No more narcissism: How history can be applied to US foreign policy

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Author: Niall Ferguson
Date: Jan. 29, 2021
From: TLS. Times Literary Supplement(Issue 6148)
Publisher: NI Syndication Limited
Document Type: Book review
Length: 2,843 words
Lexile Measure: 1450L

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A history of US diplomacy and foreign policy


560pp. Twelve Books. 28.99 [pounds sterling] (US $35).


The fight to defend the free world


496pp. William Collins. 25 [pounds sterling](US $35).

The disgraceful denouement of Donald Trump's presidency has aroused two conflicting emotions among many students of American foreign policy: a fear that the country's international reputation may have been irreparably damaged, and a hope that the inauguration of Joe Biden will bring a rapid restoration of the liberal international order.

"By far the most important weapon that the United States of America has ever wielded--in defense of democracy, in defense of political liberty, in defense of universal rights, in defense of the rule of law--was the power of example", Anne Applebaum wrote recently in the Atlantic (January 7, 2021). "Trump and his enablers", she continued, have done "terrible damage ... to the power of America's example [and] to America's reputation" around the world. The sole consolation, it seems, is that Joe Biden promises a return to a better time, when the transition to a new president, even if he belonged to a rival party, was an occasion for an amiable lunch, as in January 2009, when George W. Bush invited Barack Obama to break bread with himself and three former presidents. "I'm letting them know that America is back", the president elect told reporters on November 11, after calls with the Canadian and British prime ministers, the French president, the German chancellor and the Irish taoiseach. "We're going to be back in the game."

As Robert B. Zoellick shows in his highly readable and insightful history of US foreign policy, however, Americans have long had a tendency to exaggerate the power of their example (a favourite Biden phrase). True, many Central and Eastern Europeans living under communism after 1945 looked with admiration and envy at the US. Zoellick saw this at first hand when he was Secretary of State James Baker's "second brain", in Baker's own words. When President George H. W. Bush visited Gdansk and Budapest in July 1989, Zoellick was "stunned" by the crowds that turned out to hear him speak. Yet Bush was probably right when he later wrote that the crowds "would have cheered anything". The error made by many in that heady year--and I certainly include myself--was that such crowds were cheering the American example of democracy, political liberty, universal rights and the rule of law. Subsequent events in Poland and Hungary have shown how easily populist leaders have been able to undermine those things.

In "To a Louse" Robert Burns wished for "the giftie ... to see oursels as ithers see us!" One of the great strengths of America in the World is that its author has that gift. Zoellick quotes Napoleon's prescient commentary on the young republic: "We must expect rivalries in the bosom of the Union. Confederations which are called perpetual last only until one of the contracting parties finds it...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A650246936