David C. Hendrickson's Union, Nation, or Empire is a history of American thinking about international relations between 1789 and 1941. Its most important insight comes from Hendrickson's examination of the role that the federal union played in American conceptions of statecraft and international organization.
Hendrickson's title reminds us that nomenclature has been a source of controversy since the American Revolution. At times, people reached first for "union" and at other times for "nation" to describe the United States. In the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, they rarely used "empire" in a way that a twenty-first-century reader would readily recognize, because they were so attuned to "union." It was not simply semantics; the names mattered. They influenced the ways in which leaders understood the place of America within the international state system. The founders, Hendrickson argues, created "the unionist paradigm" to avoid both anarchy and despotism by uniting states in a functioning federative system (pp. xii-xiii). They recognized that the key was not establishing such a [End Page 83] government, but maintaining it—an effort that forced American leaders to become skilled diplomats. The Civil War revealed weaknesses at the heart of the federation, which were subsequently addressed by putting "nation" before "union" (p. 234). This true nation-state thereafter faced the world as one entity, but it maintained an affection for the concept of union. The United States relied upon memories of its (formerly "their") domestic foreign policy as a foundation for its approach to the international state system in the opening decades of the twentieth century. Key U.S. leaders believed that federation would always be essential to the security of republican states. Faith in the utility of the American model inspired Wilson's call for the League of Nations and, eventually, Roosevelt's for the United Nations.
Similar (though far more accessible) to Bounding Power: Republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village (2008) by Daniel Deudney, Union, Nation, or Empire argues that American leaders were consumed by the pursuit of national security from the beginning. They not only looked at outside powers, but at the balance of power within the union itself, where it was most vulnerable. In this retelling, Henry Clay's famous compromises become as diplomatically important as John Quincy Adams's treaties with Spain and Britain. The point is important, because it helps to explain why the United States made the diplomatic choices it did at the moment of its greatest power. Hendrickson ends his book in 1941, but its real message is about the post-1941 period when the United States deliberately created a new world order. "The idea that union was required to arrest the malign forces of anarchy and despotism was no late arrival to American history," he argues, "but rather the oldest idea in the American approach to international relations; on it the republic had been built" (p. 366). The take-away message seems to be that the Roosevelt and Truman administrations made union a vital part of their foreign policy not simply because they feared the power of first Hitler and then Stalin, but because union had always been at the heart of the American quest for security.
Hendrickson's book is a valuable contribution to the growing [End Page 84] scholarship that helps to locate the origins of Cold War and post-Cold War foreign policy deep in the American past. It challenges the utility of the old "internationalist" and "isolationist" paradigms by constructing a new one that offers a richer interpretation of the connections between "domestic" and "foreign" in American history. In the end, it reminds us that the United States thought a great deal about "state systems" throughout the entirety of its existence, which left it far better prepared to take on the security challenges of the post-World War II period than many historians have been willing to admit.
Amanda Kay McVety is an assistant professor of history at Miami University...