Exploring the History of American Foreign Relations (review)
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Reviewed by
Michael J. Hogan and Thomas G. Paterson, eds., Exploring the History of American Foreign Relations. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 366 pp. $60 hardcover, $23 paper.

Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations was originally published in 1991, and this new edition ably reflects the continued evolution of the field once known as diplomatic history. All the essays are deeply informed and highly professional, and most are lucidly written and well edited. Though sometimes critical of competing approaches, most also eschew the vituperation, condescension, and nitpicking often found in academic discourse. A spirit of sharing—scholars learning from each other even if disagreeing—infuses this volume. Because most essays appeared in earlier form in the first edition or in other venues, experts will find few surprises. Nonetheless, this book is outstanding as both an update for insiders and a primer for newcomers (graduate students preparing for examinations should grab it for its succinct summaries of a wealth of scholarship).

Long gone, this volume makes clear, are the days when a few stark oppositions—realist versus idealist, traditionalist versus revisionist—structured the field, when its boundaries were neat and tidy, and when the field seemed insular. Continuing to diminish is its focus on the state, and on the United States. Once the overriding preoccupation, the Cold War is still a major concern but in this volume never a stand-alone category, instead warranting analysis within other frameworks. Gone, too, editors Michael J. Hogan and Thomas G. Paterson proclaim, is the first edition's "defensive tone" (p. vii) about the field, although the very denial of defensiveness sounds a tad defensive and contributors more often note how their specialty has borrowed from other fields than how it has influenced them. The volume celebrates a plethora of approaches to American foreign relations, and few authors make bold claims about which will stand the test of time. But some make their case better than others, among them a senior contributor, Akira Iriye, writing about "Culture and International History."

Because no single volume can do everything, to note what this one neglects is less to criticize than to situate it. Explaining how the field has changed, the contributors stress intellectual currents within and beyond it but not the most obvious spur to change—transformations in the world in which they operate. Implicitly, they position themselves outside the world they observe, but perhaps no field is more engaged with it. A political history of the field would be useful in showing, for example, how the declining [End Page 96] focus on the state reflects the state's wobbly recent fortunes, not merely the march of intellectual progress.

The volume's democratic spirit also comes at a price. With so many roads for exploring American foreign relations, none emerges as a superhighway, although "the turn toward cultural history is perhaps the most significant transformation in the field since the first edition," the editors note (p. 7). Likewise, the volume rarely singles out any grand narratives or interpretations for special attention. In many essays, how to do work in the field takes precedence over the conclusions then to be drawn. Titles define approaches to the field—from "Bureaucratic Politics" to "Theory, Language, and Metaphor"—more than grand themes in the history itself. Some familiar categories make scant appearance—no essay contains "war" or "empire" in its title, and few discuss them at length, with "hegemony" often preferred over "empire."

In these regards, Explaining American Foreign Relations reflects the skepticism among historians generally in recent decades about synthesis and grand narrative. Jessica C. E. Gienow-Hecht seems happy that "there is no central paradigm" in her field of "Cultural Transfer" (p. 275). Frank Costigliola celebrates an approach that "rubs against the prevailing discourse in academic history: the authoritative narrator, who is assumed to have mastered the subject matter" (p. 286). Emily Rosenberg is delighted to cast into the dustbin of modernism "the habit of mind that seeks to impose an overarching, centralized, view-from-above upon the object of study," preferring "reflexivity and multiple frames" (p. 192).

Though laudable, this skepticism has now operated so long that to flog authoritative grand narrative as...