No Higher Law: American Foreign Policy and the Western Hemisphere Since 1776 (review)
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No Higher Law: American Foreign Policy and the Western Hemisphere Since 1776. By Brian Loveman. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. Pp. 552. $35.00 cloth)

No Higher Law is a worthy addition to the already bulging shelf of surveys of U.S.–Latin American relations. In contrast to much of the writing on the history of U.S. foreign relations, political scientist Brian Loveman's book is also nicely balanced in coverage, devoting as much attention to the formative nineteenth century as to the period after World War II. Indeed, in debunking the hoary myth of U.S. isolationism, Loveman breaks new ground by documenting in great detail America's rampant interventionism in the days before it became a major world power. The United States conquered a continent in the nineteenth century, he emphasizes, not through the providential design of Manifest Destiny, as contemporaries liked to boast, but rather in the mode of a conventional great power, pursuing its interests relentlessly with such tools as aggressive diplomacy, infiltration and subversion, covert operations, and wars of conquest, all in the name of grand ideals. Interestingly, Loveman reveals, the phrase "Good Neighbor," immortalized by Franklin Roosevelt with regard to Latin America in the twentieth century, was first used by James Buchanan in the nineteenth as a pretext for possible U.S. intervention to collect debts in Mexico.

Like many scholars who write on U.S.–Latin American relations, Loveman is quite critical of the United States. He probes deeply into the sources of U.S. policies, stressing the role of economic forces and domestic politics. He especially emphasizes the importance of American exceptionalism, that elusive but potent set of ideas positing that the United States was unique among nations, a repository of innocence and virtue, convictions that justified virtually any action because of the higher good allegedly served. Such attitudes among North Americans, along with a deep-seated and persistent racism, could not help but alienate Latin Americans and opened a gap in the nineteenth century that would widen as the United States emerged to great-power status. [End Page 387]

Even before the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, according to Loveman, the United States had established as a central element of its grand strategy the attainment of hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. An imperialist burst late in the nineteenth century was followed by Theodore Roosevelt's "protective imperialism" in the Caribbean and Central America. By the end of World War I, the United States had achieved an unchallenged position of strength. FDR's Good Neighbor policy, while less offensive, sought similar ends by more subtle methods. Loveman is especially critical of U.S. and Soviet Cold War policies, where, he contends, "jingoistic American ideological hypocrisy competed for influence against jingoistic Soviet ideological hypocrisy" (p. 257). The results for Latin America were economic stagnation, military coups, and dictatorships. During the post–Cold War period and the ensuing war on terror, the United States sought to extend to the rest of the world the hegemonic policies first used in the Western Hemisphere. One result, ironically, was the weakening of U.S. influence in Latin America. In response to Clinton and Bush policies, anti-Americanism surged, and Latin Americans looked increasingly to Europe and Asia.

Loveman candidly acknowledges that he seeks to "make the past speak to the present" (p. 1). Although he sometimes overstates, as when he conflates nineteenth-century U.S. naval action against Caribbean pirates with the twenty-first-century war on terror, he argues his case persuasively. He challenges us to reassess the ideas that have defined us as a nation in order better to cope with a new and complex world where we will have to deal with other nations more on a basis of equality. [End Page 388]

George C. Herring

George C. Herring is Alumni Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Kentucky and author most recently of From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776 (2008).