In The Global Republic: America’s Inadvertent Rise to World Power, Frank Ninkovich offers a sweeping revision to traditional accounts of [End Page 263] U.S. foreign policy that proves insightful and provocative. Ninkovich argues that the U.S. rise to power was an inadvertent consequence of foreign policies aimed at adapting the nation to the constraints and opportunities of an industrializing and globalizing world. In doing so, he rebuffs exceptionalist accounts of a United States motivated by a desire to remake the world in its own image, as well as realist accounts of a United States self-interestedly pursuing its own wealth and power. A conceptual history of America’s response to globalization, The Global Republic offers students of U.S. foreign policy history much to think about.
Driven by its focus on the relationship between globalization and U.S. foreign policy, the heart of the book concerns the century between 1890 and 1990. Across seven of its ten chronological chapters, Ninkovich recounts how U.S. leaders during that century identified national prosperity as rooted in globalization, came to value a stable and cooperative international system that allowed globalization to flourish, and worked to restore such a system during the Cold War after it was imperiled by World War II. As Ninkovich neatly summarizes, “Globalization began as a process largely independent of international politics, but after a certain point it probably would have collapsed without active political involvement on the part of the United States” (p. 294). In one of the book’s most prominent arguments, Ninkovich describes how the revived globalization produced an international consumer culture that grew increasingly unsatisfied with the “sufficiency” provided by socialism and demanded the “superabundance” championed by capitalism, setting the stage for Gorbachev’s reforms and the end of the Cold War (p. 237).
Among the book’s notable strengths are its consistent attention to characteristics of the international system (social, intellectual, economic, political, and geographical) and its bottom line: that the unique role of the United States in the world resulted not from exceptional ideas but from U.S. leaders’ ability to take advantage of systemic opportunities (especially globalization). Whereas early U.S. leaders saw a geopolitical vacuum and pursued territorial expansion, [End Page 264] their successors’ embrace of industrialization and globalization produced remarkable economic development, a broad middle class, and, eventually, unprecedented international power. A particular highlight is Ninkovich’s consideration of U.S. internationalism during the first half of the twentieth century (including substantial discussion of the less-studied peacetime administrations). Overall, he shapes a compelling tale of a U.S. rise achieved by self-interested policies acutely tuned to the international context, including expansion driven by “material interests” (pp. 30–31), a “decidedly nonutopian” (p. 20) trade policy reliant on heavy protectionism, and a conscious use of power to create the conditions for its own further growth. In light of this, Ninkovich’s frequent derisions of realism feel incongruous, as he repeatedly insists that pursuing wealth and power with unprecedented success by embracing globalization somehow violates realism’s assumption that states pursue wealth and power.
The book suffers when globalization is replaced as the subject of interest by a vaguely conceptualized “international society,” which fluctuates across economic, cultural, and political cooperation that is at different times elite- or mass-based. The term’s primary role seems to be to illustrate an assertion that U.S. foreign policy was essentially altruistic, entailing “self-subordination,” which prioritized international society “ahead of the national interest” (pp. 274, 151). However, this area of argumentation is unnecessary to the otherwise-persuasive central narrative since U.S. interests walked hand-in-hand with globalization (both materially and ideologically). Particularly unconvincing in this regard is Ninkovich’s claim that the United States entered World War II because “America’s identity was presumed to depend on international society” rather than concerns about power and security (p. 160). Consciously framed as an interpretation rather than a “fact-laden narrative history” (p. 6), the book builds...