Volume XIV, Number 1, Spring 2018


"Busy 240 years – The History of US Foreign Affairs" – review by Zoltán Peterecz

Zoltán Peterecz, PhD, is associate professor at the Institute of English and American Studies at Eszterházy Károly University, Eger, Hungary where he teaches American history and American culture. His main area of research is American history, American foreign policy, and American-Hungarian relations in the first half of the twentieth century. His latest book focused on the historical evolution of American exceptionalism (A kivételes Amerika, Gondolat, 2018); his first book investigated the Hungarian financial reconstruction under the aegis of the League of Nations and its American financial controller (Jeremiah Smith, Jr. and Hungary, 1924–1926: the United States, the League of Nations, and the Financial Reconstruction of Hungary, Versita, 2013). The book’s Hungarian version is forthcoming at Debrecen University Press. Email:

Az Egyesült Államok külpolitikájának története [The History of US Foreign Affairs]
Magyarics Tamás
Budapest: Antall József Politika- és Társadalomtudományi Tudásközpont, 2014, 2nd edition
782 pages
ISBN 9789638748676

 

The United States “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all,” said John Quincy Adams on July 4, 1821. He added, in case America undertook an international freedom agenda, the country “might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.” In almost two hundred years that has passed since the former president’s words, the United States have many times gone after monsters, sometimes because it was forced to, at other times of its own volition. And the world at large often reacted to American foreign policy as if it were monstrous based upon whether the American troops were viewed as liberators or oppressors. American foreign policy has played an outstanding part of and defining role in recent world history, and also in historiography.

Although countless books have been written about American foreign affairs from the beginning up until contemporary issues, in Hungarian this was for a long time missing. It was understandable due to the fact that the two countries have had a relatively short history of relations, roughly one hundred years, almost half of which Hungary spent in the socialist camp with ideological animosity against the United States, not to speak of the preceding two world wars which the two parties spent in the opposing belligerent camps. Naturally, there were various studies dealing with specific aspects of American foreign policy, especially pertaining to Hungary in the twentieth century (World War II and 1956 stand out), but a comprehensive volume was not available for Hungarian readers. In 2000, Tamás Magyarics, professor in the American Studies Department at Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary, specialist in international affairs, the Cold War, and United States history and foreign affairs and formerly director of Magyar Külügyi Intézet [Hungarian Institute of International Affairs], author, editor, and recently diplomat, undertook the task of writing such a book, and almost two decades later, he found necessary to revise and publish this topic again. The new book deals with the gargantuan job of synthetizing and making sense of almost two and a half centuries of an eventful story—that of American foreign policy and actions.

The first chapter is an introduction to the basic tenets of American foreign policy, such as the importance of trade in foreign relations, the universalist mode of thinking together with isolationist inclinations; in short, foreign policy of the first thirteen British colonies that became United States of America in the crucible of war bore already some of the founding and most lasting elements that have been so typical of the conduct of American foreign policy in general. Magyarics puts the bulky book in a very pragmatic perspective for the reader to follow. Whether it is trade through economic power, unilateral decision in the international arena, intervention for human rights or against dictatorships—many of the basic building blocks can be detected in and right after the War of Independence in this book.

The author choses to organize the immense material in larger parts (there are five such sections in the book) and thematic chapters within those parts. His organizing principle follows a two-dimensional frame: he introduces and narrates foreign policy events and related issues both in time and in geographical entities. He does not wish to squeeze everything in a given era, and this is a wise choice, since it is easier to follow events concentrated around a certain part of the world (for example, Europe, Latin America, or the Far East). In addition to this two-dimensional framework, there is another line of thought running throughout the book, namely the basic antagonism and tension within American foreign policy: realism vs. idealism. From the very beginning both can be detected and at times the two strains appear together reinforcing each other, while at other times they square off for primacy. There are also other, independent essays in the book, at least in the sense that they summarize many important features of the given era, which are stand-alone pieces. Through them readers learn about the American national security policy in the first thirty years of the Cold War, then the détente years or the post-Cold War American national security ideas. These parts provide another essential link between the two-dimensional approach to the immense subject. This organization inevitably leads to occasional repetition at places, but it is not detriment to the overall narrative, and in most cases it emphasizes and helps understand certain correlations. For example, at the beginning of the second part of the book, Magyarics convincingly and with just enough detail shows the background of the American expansionist urge in the latter part of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. This essay lays the solid groundwork for the following chapters on American foreign policy ranging in time between the Civil War and World War I. If, therefore, one only reads this introductory pages to this part of the book, one will still walk away with the overall points in mind concerning this crucial era.

The text all throughout proves to be engaging and exciting as well, which is not obvious when one takes into account the inescapable descriptive nature of such a book. But Magyarics mentions so many small and really interesting episodes woven into the fiber of the larger narrative that readers escape boredom. The parenthetical anecdotes are often funny or give an extra layer of information to the subject at hand. The occasional quotations from presidents or other high officials are well-placed, do not occur too often so as to become common place―and are well translated. Magyarics masterfully explains not only the reasons and mechanism behind the American foreign policy decision making but also that of other main powers, mostly Great Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the Soviet Union or China during the Cold War.

A major point that Magyarics emphasizes more than once in the book is the paradigm shift that occurred with the appearance of Woodrow Wilson and his policy. While in the nineteenth century (Theodore Roosevelt was the final epitome of this trend after the turn of the century) American foreign policy was mainly conducted along national security lines, Wilson made, in many ways, an ideological crusade the basis of his foreign policy. This latter effort suffered a major setback in the beginning, but the larger part of the twentieth century progressed according to Wilson’s ideas: the foreign policy of the United States was characterized by ideology just as much as by Realpolitik. As the author puts it, from Wilson’s worldview and foreign political ideas “it was only one small step to equate the security of the United States with the security of the world, and accept the principle—and also to make it accepted—that it was America’s moral right and duty to take a global role” (190-1). Magyarics also emphasizes a recurring, major dilemma of the twentieth-century American foreign policy that is related to the above point. There is often a tension between resources and aims in foreign policy, or the long-fought battle between realism and idealism; if the two are not in balance there can be long-lasting ill effects concerning national security of the country. This realist foreign policy doctrine goes all the way back to Alexander Hamilton with its most famous proponent, Walter Lippmann (in the twentieth century) and his famous Lippmann Gap concerning the imminent post-World War world from an American strategic point of view; the last proponent of this principle was Barack Obama.

Another often recurring point that Magyarics highlights is the duality of American foreign policy in the sense that although it has almost always has been sugarcoated with morality and ideology, it has nonetheless followed realist goals. By the same token, Magyarics also calls attention to the parallel but significant difference between Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. While they shared common an idealistic and global vision of free trade, open seas, and self-determination, Roosevelt was much more pragmatic than his Democratic predecessor, and tried to look at the feasibility of certain foreign policy actions, not at the underlying ideological motives only, although these also played a part. Roosevelt failed in certain important questions, but it would be too much to ask from any president to fight a world war, keep friends close, keep enemies at bay and a democratic country’s public opinion calm—all this without occasionally political or strategic blunders.

The book’s author correctly introduces, analyzes, and puts in a wider context what unfolded at various times but he refrains from evaluating it in a negative or positive light. Since the volume in question encompasses such a long time, it would be also an effort in vain, but perhaps most importantly upholding the voice of a disinterested narrator does Magyarics earn extra credit: he gives facts, not opinion; he provides understanding, not passionate defense or attack. If anyone, then president George H. W. Bush (1989-1993) appears as a small “hero” with his conduct of American foreign policy through the end of the Cold War and the Gulf War of 1991, the latter based upon an unheard of international cooperation and consensus.

Perhaps the Indian wars, of which there were many dozens in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, could have been emphasized more, since it is valid to view the American government’s Indian policy often as foreign policy even if the Supreme Court famously designated them as “domestic dependent nations” in 1831. Nevertheless, the Cold War receives more than third of the whole text; indeed, this was perhaps the most active foreign policy era in the history of the United States so far (the fact stems from the author’s special field of the twentieth century international relations with an emphasis on the Cold War). This is not criticism, although one would have liked to read in similar detail about other important episodes of American foreign policy, but is the inevitable outcome of an author’s research area. By the same token, the chapters on the Cold War deserve extra credit for their thoroughness and pedagogical vein. One cannot omit the fact that there are a few mistakes which in such a plethora of information and events. For example, the documentary source of the text of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo is in the fourth chapter instead of the third. Then, interestingly, Magyarics uses in the Hungarian translation “dragon” instead of the original “monster” in John Quincy Adams’ famous warning about American adventurism in Europe or elsewhere on July 4, 1821 (65). However, he returns later to the original “monster” term (162). Some dates are mistakenly given but these are only typos (like on page 476 the Bay of Pigs fiasco is dated April 17, 1917 (!), or the midair collision of an American signals intelligence aircraft and a Chinese fighter jet took place in 2001 instead of 1991 (although in another chapter the right date is given), and Theodore Roosevelt visited Hungary in 1910 not in 1911. There are also some minor factual mistakes as well: Magyarics acknowledges John Lewis Gaddis with the term “empire by invitation,” and he does it twice, although it was invented by Geir Lundestad (256 and 322). Nonetheless these slipups are dwarfed next to the grand narrative that is balanced, informative, and masterly combines the grand strategic political and military questions and events with smaller scale actualities throughout the two and a half centuries at hand. To know about the foreign policy of the United States is important because the USA will continue to be in the future an ongoing driving force concerning the whole globe. In Magyarics’s words, “the whole world’s fate will to a large degree depend in the 21st century on whether the strongest country in history behaves adequately and responsibly in the international arena, and whether using its available resources it can successfully combine its own values and interests together with those of the international community” (678-9). The layout of the book is truly reader friendly, especially the selected source documents are welcome, together with the pictures that are unfortunately in black and white, although the maps are in color print, as well as the chronological timetable. I am sure, this volume will be a highly popular book among Hungarian university students enrolled in American Studies (there are six such institutions in Hungary offering these programs). In addition, students learning universal history and readers who are interested in world politics or in the United States will also be among the happy recipients of this volume. Probably one of the most useful small parts will be the additional essay after the main text, which summarizes the history of American-Hungarian diplomatic and political relations. The information contained herein is not new but a very useful summary for those who do not know other works of the topic, and a succinct picture is given of the diplomatic relations, or sometimes lack of, in the past one and a half centuries.