- No Higher Law: American Foreign Policy and the Western Hemisphere Since 1776
Recent years have brought the publication of numerous surveys of U.S.-Latin American relations, but few are as ambitious as Loveman’s No Higher Law. In examining U.S. policy in the Western Hemisphere since 1776, Loveman aims to reveal “a continuity in certain beliefs, institutions, policies, and practices in the American experience as part of the country’s evolving grand strategy” (p. 2). In particular, he argues that U.S. unilateralism and preemptive war, usually associated with George W. Bush’s “War on Terror,” are rooted in the long history of U.S. intervention in Latin America. In Loveman’s words, Latin America has served as “a laboratory for foreign policies that were later ‘exported,’ with some tailoring, to the rest of the world as the United States became a global power” (p. 5).
This unabashedly presentist approach yields important historical insights. For example, Loveman finds in U.S. policy toward Spanish Florida in 1810–1811 the origins of the preemptive war argument, as well as the “no-transfer principle” that would frame the Monroe Doctrine and pre-1898 U.S. policy toward Cuba and eventually find echoes in Cold War containment. Similarly, he gives the 1846 Bidlack-Mallarino Treaty with Colombia its proper due as a critical step in the history of U.S. expansion. As Washington’s “first protectorate,” giving the United States the responsibility for maintaining transit across Panama, the treaty prefigured the imperial arrangements the United States would eventually extend to much of the hemisphere, and indeed the world.
No Higher Law is also distinguished by its attention to the long-standing relationship between U.S. foreign policy, domestic politics, and presidential power. As early as the 1810s, he argues, the imperial presidency was already taking shape, particularly in the context of perceived threats and covert actions in Spanish America. Over the following two centuries, presidents have formulated foreign policy primarily in response to domestic political and economic pressures, all the while remaining determined to keep the United States, as Calvin Coolidge put it, “independent and free” (p. 233). In the context of U.S.-Latin American relations, this unilateralism translated into a persistent push for regional hegemony regardless of international agreements or other nations’ claims to sovereignty. In Loveman’s words, “There could be no higher law than the American mission, as defined by [the] president and his close advisers” (p. 305).
Overall, No Higher Law makes a good case for the Western hemisphere as the cradle of U.S. “grand strategy.” The U.S. reluctance to respect Latin American sovereignty, often marked by unilateral overt and covert intervention, clearly laid the foundation for similar policies worldwide. In this context, the extra-hemispheric connections of the Iran-Contra scandal or the Guantánamo Bay detention center seem a natural outgrowth of U.S. policy in Latin America. Despite these strengths, however, Loveman’s study has its flaws. In addition to its sometimes confusing organization and redundant discussions of topics such as the Bidlack Treaty and the Ostend Manifesto, No Higher [End Page 163] Law frequently wanders into extended treatments of tangential topics, resulting in puzzlement regarding points of emphasis. The book devotes more space to the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam, for example, than it does to the 1965 U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic, which would seem a critical example of unilateralism and unchecked presidential power in Latin America.
Nevertheless, No Higher Law merits wide readership. Much like Greg Grandin’s Empire’s Workshop (2006), it highlights the pivotal role Latin America has played in framing U.S. policy toward the rest of the world, including the Middle East. Indeed, in light of Loveman’s interpretation, it is difficult to argue, as many observers have, that the Bush doctrine represents a break from American tradition; it may, rather, indicate the return of U.S. foreign policy to its hemispheric roots...