Since its founding, the United States has had a complex relationship with the outside world. On the one hand, foreign developments have influenced a range of domestic matters, from electoral politics to the economy to social relations.
And just as the world has shaped life inside the US, America has affected the lives of millions beyond its borders, helping some and harming others. Whether it is exporting Hollywood blockbusters, building fast-food restaurants overseas, or sending troops to Iraq in an effort to implant democracy, the United States is the most influential actor on the international stage.
Two timely and provocative books, Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America by Eric Rauchway and Überpower: The Imperial Temptation of America by Josef Joffe, examine the dual nature of American interactions with the world. Taken together, they illuminate both the influence that past global developments have had on life inside the US and the way that American power is shaping the 21st-century world.
In "Blessed Among Nations," Rauchway, a historian at the University of California, Davis, describes how globalization in the late 19th century helped the US become a world power. As Rauchway reminds us, although globalization is discussed widely today, it is not a new concept. At the end of the 19th century, two of its key elements – the flow of foreign capital and foreign workers – were increasing rapidly as billions of dollars in overseas investments and millions of immigrants flooded into the United States.
The inflow of capital helped build the railroads that were interlacing the country, fueling the growth of a potent national economy. Around the same time, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe came to the United States to work in the factories, mines, and sweatshops of the expanding industrial economy.
But Rauchway is interested in more than the influx of people and capital. America's response to globalization was distinctive. The country went "its own way," he writes. Unlike many other nations in these years, it did not erect a comprehensive welfare state that could address the social problems that industrialization had created.
Instead, the size of the American government remained modest. According to Rauchway, this was in part because the beneficiaries of such programs would have been city-dwelling, non-English-speaking immigrants – marginal figures who could not vote. Most legislators were more concerned about the needs of rural constituents, passing laws that helped those in the heartland.
In fact, many rural Americans felt threatened by global developments. Believing that foreign money, the bankers who manipulated it, and immigrant laborers were their enemies, those in the countryside worried that outside forces were pushing them to the bottom of the economic ladder.
Such fears slowed the development of the American welfare state, which would not emerge until the 1930s.
But if overseas developments stunted the growth of the American state at the start of the 20th century – even as globalization was energizing the rise of American power – the United States would begin to flex its imperial muscles after 1945.
In "Überpower," Joffe, the publisher and editor of the German newspaper Die Zeit, offers a perceptive analysis of the emergence of the American colossus and the challenges it faces in the 21st century.
After a brief but erudite traversal of European diplomatic history, postwar US foreign relations, and contemporary world politics, Joffe presents a set of recommendations for US policymakers. Neither idealism nor altruism should drive American decisions, he asserts. Instead, US foreign policy must be based on the cool calculation of national interest. And if active involvement in the world is essential, Joffe argues, crusading missions in distant lands should be avoided.
While it could be said that one policymaker's crusade is another's essential interest, Joffe does offer an especially penetrating critique of the Iraq war. Saddam posed no real threat to US security, he declares, and the war's price has been exorbitant. American legitimacy abroad has been compromised, and support for the war among the American people, along with their trust in government, continues to fall.
The most arresting sections of the book consider global anti-Americanism. As an American-educated European, Joffe understands the United States and has an exceptionally keen ear for European opinion, which has never been more critical of this country. (A 2005 Google keyword search for "anti-Americanism" showed 280,000 entries. In 2003, there were 150,000.)
Across the globe, people believe America is morally deficient and socially and culturally retrograde, Joffe writes. Europeans skewer the United States for maintaining capital punishment; for denying critical social services to all its citizens; and for electing thugs (Nixon), peanut farmers (Carter), second-rate actors (Reagan), and cowboys (the current occupant of the White House). And the war in Iraq has further exacerbated the widespread notion that Ameri- ca's international conduct is self-serving and immoral.
In an uncertain era, these two books provide much to ponder about America's relationship with the world. While its status as the lone superpower is unchallenged, the US clearly feels imperiled by threats from abroad. And so, despite its vast power, Americans dutifully remove their shoes while waiting in airport lines, and debate the merits of building a barrier along the US-Mexican border.
But American power has provided little sense of domestic security, and the past suggests the United States cannot escape the impact of global developments – anymore than the world's peoples can avoid the consequences of America's unprecedented strength.
• Jonathan Rosenberg, author of "How Far the Promised Land?" teaches American history at Hunter College of the City University of New York.