The Myth of America as a ‘Reluctant Superpower’
Tomorrow the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy
by Stephen Wertheim
Harvard University Press, 2020
Two contrasting approaches to the history of American foreign policy dominate the field. In this outstanding study, Stephen Wertheim, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University and a member of the Quincy Institute, shows they are both wrong. In doing so, he vindicates for our time the merits of a noninterventionist foreign policy.
According to the first approach, America moved from isolationism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the global policy of today.
America’s rise to global power is anything but a new topic. Scores of books examine each major episode of the story, especially that of World War II….But the story has been consistently narrated in terms that obscure and even deny the decision for armed primacy…Americans have imbibed a version of the same tale: the United States, once in thrall to “isolationism” cast off its antipathy to global engagement and embraced “internationalism.” The premise is that isolationists and internationalists squared off in a prolonged struggle, with the former winning out after one world war and the latter finally prevailing after a second. (p. 4)
The second approach is different. “In place of a reluctant and belated superpower, some critics find just the opposite: a superpower in the making all along. Did not the United States, propelled to seek profits, compelled by a sense of destiny, steadily enlarge its power until reaching its supremacy across the globe?” (p. 6). Wertheim has in mind here leftist historians such as William Appleman Williams, but the neoconservative Robert Kagan’s Dangerous Nation (2007) also fits this pattern. (See my review of it here.)
Wertheim’s main criticism of these approaches is that both accept a myth. America’s foreign policy was never isolationist. This was a smear term invented after the fact by proponents of US entry into World War II to characterize their opponents. The noninterventionists did not want to isolate America from dealings with other nations but in
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