Five books to understand America.

Guy Roberts

It is often said that to fully appreciate someone you should walk a mile in their shoes.  That way, if you dislike them, you’re a mile away and you have their shoes.

In the field of international relations, the better you understand another country, the better you can anticipate their reaction to any given event – and hopefully reduce the risk of miscalculation or error during engagement.  There is more to a nation’s foreign policies than geographic position, population size or realpolitik motivations.  Traditional interests, historical alliances, paranoia or a sense of fair play can motivate a country to do things that, to uninformed outsiders, may seem illogical, unpredictable or downright bizarre – whether that country is China, Argentina, North Korea or even the United States.

Given the global ubiquity of American popular culture nature, it’s easy to assume we understand the basic objectives of American foreign policy.  But familiarity often breeds contempt, and many foreign powers have miscalculated what truly does and does not motivate Uncle Sam’s dance on the world stage.

Here are five texts I have selected that, I hope, can help explain and illuminate the American attitude to foreign policy.  It is not about current affairs, troop deployments, military expenditure or quadrennial defence reviews.  Rather, it tries to take a step back from the issue of the day, and focus instead on the broader ideas and philosophies that underpin American responses to global events.  This post tries to identify the uniquely American ideals and assumptions that, irresistibly, form the bedrock of their foreign engagement.

1) The Federalist Papers.

We sometimes forget that America was the first nation founded on an idea.  Previous states had grown out of regional or dynastic circumstance, ruled on the whole by various forms of absolutism – monarchical, religious, ethnic, geographical and so on.  Reacting to the perceived tyrannies of King George and his Parliament, the American revolutionaries wanted to establish a society where, for the first time in history, self-evidently, ‘all men are created equal’ – where individuals were not constrained by unfair privilege and ‘liberty’ was an untrammelled right.

The Federalist Papers were written shortly after the War of Independence concluded.  At this point, the ‘Articles of Confederation’ (1777) signed by the 13 colonies, provided for an extremely weak Federal Government.  The Federalist Papers was an extended argument to strengthen the United States, at the cost of the sovereignty of individual – a federation, rather than a confederation.  Reading the 85 different articles provides an illuminating background to the debates about individual liberty and government control that have been carried on through America ever since July 4, 1776.   It’s a debate that has spilt across into foreign policy time and again – to what degree does American intervention mean liberty of the enslaved – or fresh tyranny from a foreign power.

2) President Washington’s farewell address

Written for a newspaper in 1796, and published in pamphlet form almost immediately, Washington’s farewell address was a plea to the American people to give the young Republic a chance – to uphold stout virtues at home and beware entanglement with foreign powers abroad.

The address remains important to the present day – it is read out each year in the US Senate to commemorate Washington’s Birthday.  The address helps to explain both the Monroe Doctrine and the Isolationist trend in American foreign policy – impulses that were to remain in place until the end of the Second World War (after shrugging off the French alliance that helped ensure revolutionary triumph in the 1770s, America didn’t join into another permanent alliance until the founding of NATO in 1949).

The address also highlights an American preoccupation with both government legitimacy and the sovereignty of the people – two American obsessions that foreign powers have occasionally underestimated – to fatal effect.

3) Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont were sent by the French Government to examine theUnited States prison system.  Both went on to write about their experiences.  Tocqueville’s Democracy in America was to become an indispensible reader for anyone seeking to understand theUnited States.  Where as the Federalist Papers and Washington’s Farewell Address was an example of Americans grappling with the philosophical basis of their country, Democracy in America was the first popular examination of the United States by an outsider.

Tocqueville highlighted a number of tensions in the American polity – most famously the unsustainable institution of slavery, which Tocqueville correctly predicted would lead to civil war.  Showing less modernity, Tocqueville also examined and approved of the tightly constrained role of American women.   Among other assessments, Tocqueville was correct to predict that the 20th century would grow to be dominated by two countries – the USA and Russia (as theSoviet Union).

Overall, even 180 years, it’s difficult to find a better guide to American society, its values, instincts and contradictions, than Tocqueville.

4) The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, by Alfred Thayer Mahan

The most explicitly strategic text on my list, Mahan’s book essentially argued that strong countries need strong navies – and that command of the sea was an important aspect of many previous empires.  Written in 1890, Mahan’s text became a doctrinal cornerstone for the emerging American, German and Japanese fleets, and continues to influence American naval strategy to this day.  This book helps explain America’s contemporary naval preponderance, and helps predict how American strategy will evolve into the 21st century.  For the present, however, Mahan’s thesis, and its influence on America’s naval force projection and regional stabilisation around the world, is clear to see.

With China’s economic power beginning to be transformed into materiel challenge, Mahan’s classic deserves another look.

5) A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn

As Tocqueville realised, contradiction is an important part of the American story.  The Federalist Papers and Washington’s Address were both written by the revolutionary elite.  The three authors of the Federalist Papers went on to become the first Secretary of the Treasury, the first Chief Justice and the fourth President of the USA respectively, while George Washington was one of the richest man in the new Republic.  The constitution spoke of liberty, yet many of its signatories were slave-owners.  A social history of the USA might seem of little use in understanding its strategic outlook, but Howard Zinn’s 1980 work shed new light on the other side of the American story – the story of how power, money, profit and control played their own part in the evolution of the contemporary, world-spanning United States, how the working class were exploited, or distracted, or bought-off throughout the years.  Again, this text is about understanding America and its world outlook, rather than examining any specific policy challenge.  In this case, Zinn’s work helps the reader to appreciate that recognising America’s strategic and ideological failures is as important as appreciating it’s triumphs.

Guy Roberts is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne.  His thesis examines the ‘China Policy’ of President George W. Bush.


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‘When you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite’.

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