- Interventions, Conventional and Unconventional: Current Scholarship on Inter-American Relations
The U.S. interventions in the Western Hemisphere were once a very conventional topic of study in a field hidebound by conventions. Two decades ago, the field of international relations seemed trapped in traditional narratives of interactions among nation-states. In 1992, the diplomatic historian Michael Hunt lamented the plight of his field with the following observation:
Our remarkably sustained exercise in self-reflection and self-criticism over the last two decades was a defensive response to the pointed criticism, if not the wounding indifference directed at diplomatic topics by an historical profession in transformation. Social historians flogged diplomatic history, and political history more generally, for seemingly old-fashioned methods and concerns, especially the tendency to identify with the political elite and to ignore the links between [End Page 257]policy and the patterns of privilege and power within American society and culture. The new cultural history added its own charges: epistemological naiveté and an impoverished sense of the importance of language for an understanding of both historical evidence and historians' discourse. Those with a strong theoretical bent consigned diplomatic historians to the role of hewers-of-wood and drawers of water in their world of international relations theory. 1
The study of international relations has changed dramatically in the years since this expression of scholarly angst. This transformation is most apparent in the area of inter-American relations, where scholars have embraced the perspectives offered by gender theory, ethnohistory, cultural studies, and business history to reexamine and offer fresh insights into what was once the most conventional of topics. 2The new scholarship seeks with increasing success to explore and understand both the American and the Latin American sides of these interactions, which have done so much to shape the history of the Western Hemisphere. On one hand, scholars have explored the formulation of a multifaceted American mission that sought to infuse Latin American societies with many of the social, economic, political, and cultural values of their northern neighbor. More recently, researchers have probed the multilayered responses of the ambitious and not infrequently violent projects of this North American colossus. These responses have ranged from strident, sometimes violent, revolutionary anti-Americanism to the incorporation of American popular culture into Latin American national identities.
As with any revolution, this one has not completely overthrown the paradigms of past scholarship. Serious debate continues over the value of some new approaches, especially cultural studies, and researchers from both the left and the right still stress the importance of realpolitik and structuralist factors in understanding inter-American relations. Furthermore, many scholars now echo the conclusion of William Appleman Williams that Latin America has served as "the laboratory of American [End Page 258]foreign policy for all underdeveloped areas." 3From this perspective, U.S. actions in Latin America offer insight into world events ranging from the global postwar struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union to the second Gulf War.
The six works that are the subject of this essay reflect the transformation in approaches to inter-American relations and the continuing debate over which methodologies offer meaningful insight into processes of encounter in...