Book Review: Hunt, Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy

Michael H. Hunt undertakes an ambitious task in Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy: anchoring two hundred years of American foreign policy to three ideological concepts. He argues that visions of national greatness, an imbedded racial hierarchy, and fear of revolutionary unrest consistently motivated U.S. foreign policy from the Revolution through the late twentieth century. Hunt argues for the pervasive influence of these three concepts in domestic ideology as well, and posits a tension or perhaps even an inverse relationship between the projection of liberty abroad and the continued enjoyment of liberty at home. Uncovering these ideological tenets in the reasoning of such disparate persons as James K. Polk and Woodrow Wilson, Hunt argues that ideology, far from being a secondary consideration in the development of foreign policy, played a continuous and crucially formative role. Rebuking devotees of both realpolitik and revisionism, Hunt admirably defends his claim that American foreign policy cannot be understood without reference to ideology, particularly in the three concepts he identifies.

 Hunt portrays Thomas Jefferson’s conversion to the gospel of national greatness, contrary to his libertarian beginnings, as cementing American consensus to the ideology of greatness. Hunt’s distillation of American conservatism in regards to foreign revolutions is likely the most interesting interpretive tool he presents. By representing successful republican revolution as an intricate and nearly impossible balance between the two extremes of anarchy and despotism and coupling it with a paternalistic outlook inspired by racial hierarchies, Hunt presents a compelling explanation of America’s predilection for order and its tendency to support rightist strongmen. Hunt’s mildly polemical conclusion underscores the importance of understanding the national mythos: only by recognizing assumptions can they be changed, thereby hopefully preventing the potentially disastrous consequences of future actions. He urges the replacement of these precepts with the republican vision of John Quincy Adams or perhaps even Robert La Follette, Sr., whereby the United States should look to secure its own commitment to liberty at home rather than crusading for liberty abroad.

Though his work is very convincing, Hunt fails to adequately explain the transition from acquiring territorial hegemony to only preaching or intervening in non-acquisitive modes to protect liberty. While both of these actions intrinsically uphold the superiority of American civilization, the first is concerned with drawing an ever larger territory under direct rule while the other attempts to export a social and governmental form. If the ideology of national greatness countenanced mass dispossession of Native Americans, hostile acquisition of the Southwest, and annexation of several major island chains, what stopped Americans from expanding further? Perhaps geopolitical realism or economic self-interest played a larger role in U.S. foreign policy than Hunt is willing to concede. Or perhaps he might solve this conundrum by using his own argument about racial hierarchy like Eric Love in Race Over Empire. Love argues that pervasive racism and conceptions of nationalistic purity played an important role in mitigating the expansionist agenda.

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