Daniel Clausen's Reviews > The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations: Volume 3, the Globalizing of America, 1913-1945

The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations by Akira Iriye
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Jul 22, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: international-relations-classics

This is the third book in the Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations. This series covers the extent of U.S. Foreign Relations in four volumes. Each volume takes on its particular slice of history with a very different theoretical approach. On the surface, this book seems to use a complex-interdependence / globalization approach. However, like other volumes in this series, the book is able to harness an array of different theoretical frameworks and historical explorations to make this work come to life.

Iriye’s examination of American foreign policy between 1913-1945 focuses on how the US moved from a position of isolationism to a global power that would overtake European leadership. Building on the work of LaFeber, Iriye shows how US economic power eventually translated into military interventionism, foreign policy intervention, and even a move toward cultural internationalism embodied in Wilsonianism. Though Iriye’s history builds on the work of LaFeber, their frameworks are vastly different. Iriye effectively mixes variants of realism and liberalism to explain US actions that lend to a vision of complex interdependence—though issues of power persist in the international arena, ideas formulated in a globalized society continue to reappear and Iriye does excellent work showing how these ideas can be a powerful force.

During this period, America becomes globalized. A major cause of greater US exposure to the world is the English-led imperialist economic order of the period, bolstered by English-backed freedom of navigation, and the British financial system. There is a structural deterministic element to this globalization process that runs throughout the book: the resource abundance of the US that leads to economic greatness, together with opportunities for expansion, together with a declining Europe naturally draws the US into global politics despite cultural elements in the US that resist this trend.

One important idea that Iriye introduces early in his book is John Brewer’s idea of the “sinews of power” (Brewer, 1989, Sinews of Power). Brewer’s argument is that even though war leads to the exhaustion of resources, as was the case in Europe, it also leads to a modern state that is able to collect taxes, mobilize and revolutionize deadly force, and is constantly ready to defend itself. In this analysis, the anarchic system conditions efficient nation-states that are better able to manage their affairs.

To some extent, Iriye argues that the US was not exempt from this European defense complex. The US early in its development needed a centralized government and bureaucracy to help it defend it from the great powers. The Civil War simply accelerated this process and helped solidify the US as a modern state. Thus, Iriye’s argument depends on an inside/out construction of early American development: some of its interconnectedness with Europe helped them achieve similar aspects, but its geographical distance allowed it to peak at a later stage than other European powers.

Building on a predominate complex-interdependence strain within his work, Iriye notes that not only did states attempt to augment their power in constant struggle for positioning, but they also “interacted with one another peacefully, through trade, investment and other forms of economic transaction as well as through cultural pursuit” (p. 11). In terms of the US’s determination to promote international law, Iriye notes how international law had previously helped the nation play a commercial rule during European conflicts. This promotion of international law would later lend itself to animosity toward Germany and later to Wilsonian thinking. Thus, US foreign policy toward China was based mostly on maintaining the Open Door policy, which helped US commercial interests. This, I believe, would fail to pay service to the feelings of nationalism and the strongly motivated peace movements that took place during the 1920s—what Iriye would go as far as to call a hegemonic ideology in the Gramscian sense of the word. As Iriye demonstrates the idea of peace became extremely influential throughout the world leading to complex cultural exchanges and the idea of a global civil society.

Iriye’s complex analysis of the period that followed World War I outlines a peace movement that was at once enormously successful, but also laid the foundations for a spectacular failure. Despite Wilson’s success in getting the League of Nations created, the great irony of Wilson’s diplomacy was that the Congress never ratified the treaty that created the League of Nations. Thus, the League and what would become Wilsonian idealism had much of its greatest impact outside of the US. In addition, Wilson’s call (in his Fourteen Points) not to impose reparations on Germany on the ground that economic recovery would be essential to future peace gave way to a vengeful Europe ready to recoup its war loses. Thus the Versailles peace, though incorporating some of the cultural elements that would fuel the disarmament of the 1920s also helped sow the seeds of economic disappointment, hardship and later war.

With the US stock market crash of 1929 eventually came the US depression. However, because of the US’s global role in the economic order, this depression was exported around the world. This led to a collapse of the global trade system and ushered in a period of regional autarky and closed markets. As Iriye argues, in the aftermath of US economic decline it was up to the US to reestablish multilateralism. The collapse of the international order not only affected business but also arms control, as the famous Washington treaty on naval armaments failed to help foster further multilateralism and obviated tensions between the US and Japan. In the wake of the financial crisis of the 1930s the League of Nations and the US failed to respond robustly to Manchuria incident of 1932 or to stem the collapse of cultural internationalism. The latter would be replaced by a new nationalism and concern for domestic welfare.

An important part of Iriye’s history is the lasting power of ideas. Iriye argues that postwar planning which began early into the war embraced many Wilsonian ideas and thus sought to return to a 1920s order underpinned by US engagement. These trends would lead to the Bretton Woods and San Francisco conferences that would establish important postwar institutions. This would complete the globalization of the US outlined by Iriye. By tracing the origins of the postwar order in the cultural trends of the 1920s, Iriye also locates how much the globalization of culture depends on an internationally stable economic order.

Certainly, there is a lot to pick apart in this volume -- and the period of history that it covers is a particularly controversial one. Readers would do well to read other accounts of this period covered in such classics as E.H. Carr’s Twenty Year Crisis and Donald Kagan’s Origins of War, to name but two other accounts. One key question that must be asked is whether the global society / complex interdependence that occurs depends on a hegemon on the scale of Great Britain and later the U.S. or whether ideas and institutions can be made durable. The other question -- regarding the role of the peace movement in the psychological and material disarmament of the democracies -- is one that is better taken up in Carr and Kagan’s work. In addition, theoretical questions still abound about the material underpinnings over global civil society --whether material prosperity is a necessary condition for such a society to occur.

Few if any history is likely to be conclusive on any of these question, but it’s a testament to Iriye’s work that he is able to maintain a focused yet eclectic framework that makes his narrative compelling.
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