Placing the US in the World

A welcome trend among academic historians seeks to de-exceptionalize America's role in the world. But scholars shouldn't get carried away and let the United States off the hook.

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In the last three decades, the field traditionally known as “diplomatic history” has been transformed.1 First, it’s been rebranded. Now, scholars no longer study “diplomatic history”; instead, they study the history of the “US in the World.” The new phrase, many argue, has two primary benefits. First, it suggests that manifold different subjects, besides the interactions of diplomats, are legitimate focuses of analysis. Second, it combats American exceptionalism by underlining the fact that the United States is one of many countries in the world and that to understand the history of the former one must also study the history of the latter.

In addition to this rebranding, the field of the “US in the World” has been transformed by two historiographical “turns” that have reshaped how scholars understand the history of US foreign relations. The most important of these is known as the “international turn.” Instead of focusing on domestic actors and processes—elections, the personality of leaders, lobbying groups, etc.—those who have taken the international turn have instead trained their eyes on how foreign groups, peoples, and movements shaped US behavior in the world. In this way, scholars have attempted to “de-exceptionalize” US history by emphasizing the non-US origins of US foreign policy.

In addition to the international turn, numerous scholars have also embraced a “transnational turn” that explores how nonstate actors, movements, and processes that flowed across borders likewise shaped the US role in the world. Though this turn has been less influential than the international one, it has nonetheless helped reveal the sometimes-important role nonstate phenomena play in influencing US foreign relations.

To a significant degree, the rebranding of diplomatic history and the advent of the international and transnational turns were products of the post-Cold War era of globalization. In the 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the beginning of the “end of history,” and the emergence of a genuinely globalized political economy suggested to many historians that theirs was an era of unprecedented international and transnational exchange. These scholars then read their era of globalization back into history, searching for moments in which international and transnational actors and processes shaped US foreign relations.

Without a doubt, the international and transnational turns effectively demonstrated that in several instances non-US processes influence the US role in the world. To take one example, new research into the history of South Vietnam has revealed that the United States was often reacting to, rather than shaping, events on the ground.

Nonetheless, the recent emphasis on transnational and, especially, international history has implicitly downplayed the structuring role the United States has played in world affairs. To again take the Vietnam example: while it might be true that the United States was oftentimes reacting to events on the ground that it did not create and which it could not control, the United States nevertheless made the Vietnam War what it was. As myself and a colleague, Fredrik Logevall, wrote in a recent piece, “it was Washington that committed millions of troops to the war effort [in Vietnam], and it was Washington that dropped some 8 million tons of bombs on North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos between 1962 and 1973.”

Thus, while Vietnamese actors no doubt impacted how the war proceeded—and, of course, it was the Vietnamese who eventually won the war—the United States played a structuring role in the war’s course. Simply put, without the United States, the war would have likely been far less deadly than it was.

As this suggests, it’s crucial that we do not deemphasize the ways in which the United States itself has shaped international affairs, often for the worse. While it’s important to appreciate that non-US actors were not merely objects of American manipulation, it’s also important not to forget that in the era after 1945 the United States was, by far, the world’s overwhelming military and economic power, and through both its specific actions (as in Vietnam, and also in places like Iran, Guatemala, Chile, and elsewhere) and general structuring of geopolitics (via basing, international institutions that it dominated, and dollar supremacy) made the world we live in today.

Put another way, when assigning moral responsibility for the condition of the world after 1945—and especially after 1989—we must center the United States. No other nation—not even the Soviet Union—approached its sheer power, and no other nation had the ability to influence world politics in the ways that it did. Thus, while we must always be careful not to exceptionalize the United States as some sort of moral beacon, we must at the same time be careful not to de-exceptionalize the United States when looking at the state of the world. If we do the latter, we run the risk of missing the forest for the trees.

1

This piece is based on Daniel Bessner and Fredrik Logevall, “Recentering the United States in the Historiography of American Foreign Relations,” Texas National Security Review 3, no. 2 (Spring 2020), 38-55. I have received permission from Fred Logevall to summarize and expand on the piece here. All mistakes are, of course, my own.