- Domestic Publics and Twentieth-Century U.S. Foreign Relations
In A Sense of Power, John A. Thompson weighs in on the perennial debate over how and why the United States emerged as a major world power by the middle of the twentieth century. While he emphasizes power and the sense of responsibility it engendered as the driving force behind America’s embrace of extensive overseas commitments after World War II, Thompson also highlights the crucial role domestic public opinion played in shaping U.S. foreign relations. His work shows that the ideas opinion leaders articulated, and that members of the public espoused, sometimes propelled and other times constrained America’s role in the world. The interplay between domestic public opinion and U.S. foreign policy is a key theme that also runs through Michael G. Thompson’s For God And Globe and Joe Renouard’s Human Rights in American Foreign Policy.
This point of thematic cohesion among three books that examine U.S. foreign relations through different scales of time, casts of characters, and lenses of analysis underscores the significance of the questions that their authors seek to answer. In addition to exploring the formation of public opinion and how that opinion translated into meaningful policy influence, these books also ask readers to consider U.S. internationalism anew. Why and in what ways did that internationalism evolve over the course of the twentieth century? Which groups or individuals wrought its evolution? How did the internationalist impulse reflect and refract the historical tensions between realism and idealism [End Page 151] in diplomacy? In various ways, domestic politics and publics lay at the heart of the answers that Thompson, Renouard, and Thompson give to these weighty questions.
John A. Thompson opens A Sense of Power by laying out what he sees as the fundamental problems scholars face in their efforts to explain why the United States took on a major role in world affairs and why it has sought to maintain its predominant global position into the present day. After noting that direct external threats to the nation did not account for the sustained nature of U.S. internationalism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, he addresses four other common explanatory factors: power, national security, economic interests, and ideology, each of which he finds wanting. To wit, while he does not dispute that preponderant economic and military power ensured that the United States had the capacity to influence global politics, Thompson contends that capabilities alone do not adequately explain U.S. willingness to intervene abroad so extensively and at such cost. He rejects realist arguments that U.S. national security in the postwar period depended on expansive action to prevent a hegemon or coalition of powers from seizing Eurasia and its war-making resources or launching “an amphibious transoceanic invasion” of the United States (p. 13). By virtue of its geography, along with its military and economic prowess, the United States enjoyed a comparatively safe position in the world, he concludes. Likewise, Thompson finds economic arguments unconvincing based on his appraisal of the “limited scale in proportional terms of America’s overseas economic interests” and the lack of a direct connection between sectional economic concerns and U.S. policies (p. 16). His doubts that “the commitment of most Americans to the spreading of freedom and democracy abroad [was] deep enough to sustain strenuous and costly foreign policy enterprises” lead him to dismiss missionary ideology as a sole causative factor (p. 21).
Yet he notes that many Americans came to believe that U.S. security, prosperity, and values depended on the country’s foreign policy...