Walter A. McDougall.The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. 424 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-21145-0.
Reviewed by Christopher Hemmer (Air War College) Published on H-War (June, 2017) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
With a title echoing William Appleman Williams’s classic The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959), Walter McDougall’s new interpretive history of American foreign policy is equally sweeping and polemical. McDougall’s Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy also echoes his own modern classic, Promised Land, Crusader State (1997), a book that had a great impact on the current study of US foreign policy in general and on this reviewer in particular. While the greatest contribution of Promised Land, Crusader State came in the categories highlighted in the title, the greatest contribution of Tragedy is likely to come from its focus on the mechanisms for change in American foreign policy–mechanisms that may also allow for more hope for the future of American foreign policy than McDougall’s Tragedy foresees.
The central concept in Tragedy is what McDougall calls America’s civil religion (ACR), which at its core represents the conviction that Americans are God’s new chosen people and that He has blessed America’s republican experiment. The driving question of Tragedy is, “What does that divine-right republicanism, if you will, have to do with the history of U.S. foreign relations” (p. 30)? The answer to this question is complicated by the protean nature of this civil religion, which McDougall describes as “mystical, magical, [and] shape-shifting,” where “orthodoxies can turn into heresies and … heresies can turn into new orthodoxies” (pp. 31-32). Not limiting himself to just analyzing the impact that this sense of divine backing has had for American foreign policy, McDougall takes a clear stand on what he thinks America’s civil religion should mean for American diplomacy—or even more decisively, what it should not mean. As he summarizes it, the goal of the book is to “trace the deformation of American Civil Religion over the nation’s entire history,” (p. 359) which has led the United States into the tragedy of the title.
Although focusing on the concept of America’s civil religion, Tragedy is not an attempt to offer a new single-factor explanation for American foreign policy. Instead, for McDougall, American civil religion is both “motivation and justification for U.S. foreign policies” and needs to be combined with other factors like “strategy and economics in a sort of unified field theory” (p. 359). Indeed, the first chapter of Tragedy explores how multiple single-factor explanations fail to adequately account for the Bush administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003. McDougall’s distaste for single-factor analyses is one of the primary ways that he distances his Tragedy from Williams’s, by (uncharitably in my estimation) treating Williams as an economic determinist (pp. 73, 255, and 360). This, unfortunately, obscures the ideological components of America’s open-door policies that Williams was also concerned with, which are not radically different from major aspects of McDougall’s characterization of America’s civil religion.