The Global Republic: America's Inadvertent Rise to World Power

The Global Republic: America's Inadvertent Rise to World Power

by Frank Ninkovich

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For decades the United States has been the most dominant player on the world’s stage. The country’s economic authority, its globally forceful foreign policy, and its leading position in international institutions tend to be seen as the result of a long-standing, deliberate drive to become a major global force. Furthermore, it has become widely accepted that American exceptionalism—the belief that America is a country like no other in history—has been at the root of many of the country’s political, military, and global moves. Frank Ninkovich disagrees.  

One of the preeminent intellectual historians of our time, Ninkovich delivers here his most ambitious and sweeping book to date. He argues that historically the United States has been driven not by a belief in its destiny or its special character but rather by a need to survive the forces of globalization. He builds the powerful case that American foreign policy has long been based on and entangled in questions of global engagement, while also showing that globalization itself has always been distinct from—and sometimes in direct conflict with—what we call international society. 

In the second half of the twentieth century, the United States unexpectedly stumbled into the role of global policeman and was forced to find ways to resolve international conflicts that did not entail nuclear warfare. The United States's decisions were based less in notions of exceptionalism and more in a need to preserve and expand a flourishing global society that had become essential to the American way of life.

Sure to be controversial, The Global Republic compellingly and provocatively counters some of the deepest and most common misconceptions about America’s history and its place in the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226173337
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/23/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Frank Ninkovich is professor emeritus of history at St. John’s University, New York. He is the author of many books, including Modernity and Power and The Wilsonian Century, both also published by University of Chicago Press. His most recent book is Global Dawn: The Cultural Foundation of American Internationalism

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The Global Republic

America's Inadvertent Rise to World Power

By Frank Ninkovich

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 Frank Ninkovich
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-17333-7


Provincial Prelude

Limiting Legacies

"We have it in our power to begin the world over again," boasted Thomas Paine in his revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense. By announcing that "the birthday of a new world is at hand," Paine was articulating a common assumption about the origins of American exceptionalism: that by breaking free from England the American colonists were also escaping from the grip of the past and ushering in a new era of world history. Unfortunately, his revolutionary swagger was riddled with wishful thinking, for while separation from Britain was merely difficult, securing independence from the past was impossible. For one thing, the faith in American exceptionalism did not originate in an act of self-creation, but was descended from a sense of British exceptionalism that permeated America's political consciousness long before the countdown to revolution began. In classic Burkean fashion, the political way of life of the new state grew out of a well-established tradition of colonial self-rule. Common ethnicity, British common law, the English language, religious links, literary and intellectual culture, and bonds of trade—none of these connections and affinities disappeared in 1776. Following independence and through most of the nineteenth century, these and other important features of American life would remain outliers of developments in Britain and in Europe. So deep was this legacy that more than two centuries of growing cultural distance and ethnic diversification would not eradicate it. Expectations of leading others to a radically new future would prove even more unrealistic.

The past, especially the political ideology inherited from Britain, provided the cultural wherewithal that enabled Americans to conceptualize their grievances and their liberation. In this case, Britain was only the custodian for a bundle of ideas whose lineage ran from classical Greece and Rome, to Renaissance Italy, and then through the opposition English "country" Whigs, whose arguments against the crown were appropriated as the ideological vocabulary of the revolution. As is obvious from the wealth of classical references in the political discourse of the period, this deep historical legacy allowed Americans to frame their revolution and constitution making in a well-established context of principles and practices. Indeed, the kinetic energy stored in the call of the past was so strong that echoes of the republican civic creed would reverberate through the centuries following the founding.

But this inherited Atlantic republicanism would also circumscribe what the new republic could hope to achieve, particularly in its foreign relations. While some of its features overlapped with elements that later were incorporated into liberal thought, others were alien to what would become the liberal sensibility, particularly the obsession with civic virtue as the core value of a republic. A virtuous citizen, in the classical sense, was expected to place the good of the community above personal desires, quite unlike the liberal commitment to individual self-fulfillment. This emphasis on the centrality of altruism, though quite useful in making the argument against a corrupt British monarch and indispensable in time of war, was a serious liability in creating the kind of humdrum world of peace and prosperity that many Americans hoped would come into being in the wake of their revolution. In its classical form, virtue had been indispensable to survival in a Greco-Roman world inhabited by carnivorous polities in which war belonged to the natural order of things. In that kind of environment, only militarily virtuous republics could hope to remain standing in the midst of violent neighbors. At best, in the classical scheme of things, republican universalism envisaged a world of militant republics competing with one another to demonstrate the superiority of their brand of virtue.

Any hopes of creating a peaceful new world thus depended on the degree to which the United States was able to break with the classical past and its history of violence. In theory, this was not impossible, for the new United States was, by some key measures, the antithesis of a classical republic. The constituent ideas of republicanism, even the core belief in a virtuous altruism, were already in process of being dramatically altered under the influence of the Enlightenment and a nascent liberalism. The historian J. G. A. Pocock, widely credited with calling attention to the role of republicanism as the ideology of the American Revolution, pointed out that it was "notorious that classical republicanism was ... transformed in the making of the Federal Constitution and the Federalist and Republican minds." The most celebrated reversal of hoary republican truths involved James Madison's abandonment of the hitherto axiomatic view of republics as territorially diminutive face-to-face civic communities. In his classic Federalist number 10, Madison argued ingeniously that a large republic could be stable because it could neutralize the problem of faction in national politics by confining it to the local level.

In making his case, Madison jettisoned another republican axiom. Whereas the classical view held that successful republics required public spirited citizens, Madison postulated a society of self-interested individuals who possessed "different and unequal faculties of acquiring property." The influence of local men on the make, whose natural tendency was to coalesce into self-serving factions and parties, could be diluted to harmless proportions within the new republic's vast territory, thereby making room for a high-minded elite—"representatives whose enlightened views and virtuous sentiments render them superior to local prejudices and schemes of injustice"—to guide the nation. True, Madison did not do away with virtue altogether, whose most noble features would continue to reside in a quasi-aristocratic class. But whether self-interest was something that needed to be reined in or, as later liberal thought would have it, to be unleashed, the definition of virtue, which was the central concept of republicanism, was radically different in the American republic and was already en route to being hustled off the stage. Madison's innovations marked a sharp change from the Founders' view in the 1770s of a virtuous public to the more jaundiced outlook of the 1780s in which an uninhibited and unprincipled populace was thought to be dangerously prone to "licentiousness."

Despite many continuing affinities with the republican past, there is little reason to doubt, therefore, as one historian has concluded, that "there was, in, fact, a chasm separating the Americans from the ancient Greeks" or that the domestic institutions of the United States were unmistakably anomalous for their day. This form of republicanism was genuinely novel, as Thomas Jefferson, in particular, never tired of repeating. "We can no longer say that there is nothing new under the sun," he wrote in 1801. "For this whole chapter in the history of man is new. The great extent of our Republic is new. Its sparse habitation is new. The mighty wave of public opinion which has rolled over it is new." And he was right, for the American Revolution was in many respects an Enlightenment project that represented a radical break not only with the monarchical past, but also with many elements of classical republicanism. Among its distinguishing characteristics was a commitment to popular sovereignty, constitutionalism, divided powers of government, and political representation via elections based on an expansive male franchise. The pointed Jeffersonian emphasis on liberating the people from the grip of government in order to pursue their individual desires marked a 180 degree conceptual reversal of classical republican theory in which the polis shaped the people. So pronounced were the differences that the new republican state, standing alone in a world of monarchical empires, stood out like a fresh flower among a family of nations overrun by weeds. By such measures, it did really seem, as Paine claimed, that "a new era for politics is struck—a new method of thinking hath arisen."

However, in contrast to its creative achievements on the domestic side, American republican thinking about foreign affairs hewed more closely to British-inspired views. At first sight, these received ideas appeared to be potentially as transformative as their domestic complements, for the outlook passed on by the opposition country Whigs appeared to offer a means of escape from the cutthroat world of foreign relations in which republics had always been ensnared. The hostility of radical Whigs to the European balance of power fit nicely into the Enlightenment narrative of breaking away from a conflict-ridden past. At the same time, their emphasis on peaceful commerce distanced American republicanism from the classical fixation with war. To be sure, the new nation had more than its share of hardheaded types who saw commerce in a more cynical light, but in Alexander Hamilton's recollection, at the end of the Revolutionary War "the phantom of perpetual peace danced before the eyes of every body." The problem with this republican idealism, however, was that its own ideas placed major obstacles in the way of republicanism's spread.

In the long run, the more enthusiastic among the revolutionaries believed that foreign policy difficulties would melt away following the universalization of the American model. As starry-eyed rebels everywhere tend to do, they presumed that the coming era of enlightened self-rule would attract other peoples into following the new nation's example, thus ending the conspicuous marginality of America's position as an outlier of Europe. This expectation that Americans were creating a model republic was evident prior to the Enlightenment, when John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, told his Puritan shipmates that "we must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us." The motto of the great seal, novus ordo seculorum —the new order of the ages—expressed a commonplace contemporary understanding of the nation's progressive historical meaning. Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale, brazenly asserted that the United States was destined to be "God's own Word," while in his inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson would call America "the world's best hope" and "a chosen country." Paine's conviction that "the cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind" was well on the way to becoming a self-evident truth of America's political culture.

The universal aspirations were plainly apparent, but they raised a very practical question: How, exactly, would republicanism spread? Even had the new republic desired to propagate its ideas by official means, it possessed neither the desire nor the power to forcefully promote the advance of its ideology to other parts of the globe. In the absence of a foreign policy aimed specifically at spreading revolutionary ideals, there were only two possibilities, contagion and commerce. In the short run, the only possible way for republican ideas to spread was through imitation rather than policy. However, the power of American example depended in turn upon the continued spread of the Enlightenment, an international cultural process over which the United States exercised no control, whose center lay in Europe. In its most ambitious iteration, this would involve the creation of new republics abroad, but also their eventual consolidation into a universal federal republic. Unlike imitation, which relied on the diffusion of seductive ideas, commerce appeared to hold the promise of a radical change achieved by means of social processes. Unfortunately for those who looked to a future of worldwide republican expansion, each possibility contained fatal shortcomings. In the end, formidable conceptual and practical barriers to universality, the residual influence of classical republican assumptions, and the underdeveloped state of liberal ideas presented insurmountable barriers to aspirations for republican expansion.

Jefferson, arguably the most prominent believer in America's millenarian destiny, also serves as the best example of the limited role that American foreign policy could play in fulfilling the nation's ideological ambitions. At the time, the only possible vector for the viral transmission of republicanism was revolutionary France, with whom Jefferson had developed an intense identification that was partly geopolitical and partly ideological. As one scholar put it, Jefferson "considered France as the sheet anchor of this country and its friendship as a great object," both because the Franco-American alliance had made possible independence from Great Britain and because the French Revolution had given a "coup de grâce" to the prospects of monarchy in the United States. But it was the French Revolution's incendiary potential in Europe that set Jefferson's republican glands to salivating. Though he would have preferred to see the upheaval stop in 1790 with the adoption of the mixed constitution, in an infamous 1793 letter to his chargé d'affaires he nevertheless defended the revolution's excesses up to that point. "Rather than it should have failed," he wrote, "I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and Eve left in every country, left free, it would be better than as it now is."

Jefferson was clearly operating on the "if Paris sneezes ..." hypothesis, in the hope that the success of republicanism in France would create an irresistible momentum in other lands. Should republican government become established in France, he wrote to George Mason, "it will spread sooner or later all over Europe." On the other hand, if the revolution failed, "a check there would retard the revival of liberty in other countries." In 1795, shortly after retiring as secretary of state, he saw in the continuing turmoil in Holland and France the unfolding of an ineluctable process. "This ball of liberty," he predicted, "is now so well in motion that it will roll round the globe, at least the enlightened part of it, for light & liberty go together. It is our glory that we first put it into motion." Unfortunately, revolutions of this magnitude depended upon factors that were utterly beyond the control of American policy makers. If one defines a policy as instrumental governmental action whose deliberate intent is to produce an outcome B as a result of doing A, this hopeful expectation had as much influence on the trajectory of the French Revolution as cheerleaders have on the outcome of a football game.

Politically, the love affair with France was exceedingly brief, as second thoughts materialized quickly when the firebrand Girondist consul Edmond-Charles Genêt, in blatant disregard of the Washington administration's policy of neutrality, began to actively recruit American privateers to prey on British shipping. Even those who would have been willing to throw in their lot with France soon tempered their enthusiasm. Jefferson, most notably, realized that his hopes had been built on a flimsy foundation. His sober reassessment marked a return to some of his more skeptical initial judgments about France's capacity for change. In 1787, for example, when serving as US minister in Paris, he wrote to Abigail Adams that "this nation is incapable of any serious effort but under the word of command." In another letter written at the same time, he feared that a revolutionary France was likely to overreach. "Should they attempt more than the established habits of the people are ripe for," he warned, "they may lose all, and retard indefinitely the ultimate object of their aim." When it came to cultural maturity, he was convinced that the French people were two centuries behind American yeomen farmers for whom self-government had become second nature.

In the end, waiting for France was, like waiting for Godot, an absurdist exercise. Only after the alliance broke up in the late 1790s did Jefferson bring himself to admit that "the people of France have never been in the habit of self-government, are not yet in the habit of acknowledging that fundamental law of nature, by which alone self-government can be exercised by a society, I mean the lex majoris partis." In 1802, trying to explain away his earlier views, he exclaimed, "Who could have thought the French people incapable of [self-government]?" He would remain a lifelong Francophile, albeit much chastened in his view of what was politically possible in France. Perhaps ruing his earlier enthusiasm, in his last years he even altered his letters to suggest that he had been more consistently negative in his view of France's future. But whatever his earlier position, there is no question of his skeptical mature outlook. Thus in an 1817 letter to Lafayette, he restated a position that he had maintained when he first arrived in France: "What government she can bear, depends not on the state of science, however exalted, in a band of enlightened men, but on the condition of the general mind." For Jefferson, revolution was something that happened only to nations that had attained a certain level of enlightenment, but when and how that level was attained in each case could not be determined in advance.


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Table of Contents


Chapter One: Provincial Prelude
Chapter Two: Global Society and the Challenge to Exceptionalism
Chapter Three: Gaining Entrée: The United States Joins the Club
Chapter Four: The Wilsonian Anomaly; or, The Three Faces of Wilsonianism
Chapter Five: Restarting Global Society in the 1920s
Chapter Six: The War for International Society: The Coming of World War II
Chapter Seven: Economics versus Politics in the Reinvention of International Society
Chapter Eight: Ideology and Culture as Ingredients of the Cold War
Chapter Nine: Americanization, Globalization, and the End of the Cold War
Chapter Ten: Global Aftermath

Concluding Thoughts
Appendix: Historians and Exceptionalism

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