Mission Impossible

America's Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century

by Tony Smith
Princeton University Press/A Twentieth Century Fund Book, 455 pp., $24.95

America’s Mission is a book with a mission. Its aim, for most of its pages, is nothing less than to overthrow the hitherto dominant theory dealing with American foreign affairs and to put in its place a different one. The old theory is said to be “realism”; the new one, which is more “idealistic” or “moralistic,” is called “liberal democratic internationalism.”

Whatever else may be said about this effort, there can be no doubt about its lofty seriousness and high ambition. The book is sponsored by the Twentieth Century Fund and was chosen for inclusion in the Princeton Studies in International History and Politics, edited by three well-known academics. In effect, it is a bid by Professor Tony Smith of Tufts University to replace some old gods and put himself in their stead. It seems sure to create a good deal of controversy, which Smith makes no effort to avoid.

By “realism,” Smith means an interpretation based primarily on balance-of-power principles. He names as its practitioners Walter Lippmann, George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Neibuhr, and Henry Kissinger. By “liberal democratic internationalism,” Smith basically understands a policy of promoting free elections and constitutionalism abroad. Promoting democracy elsewhere is, however, not viewed as altogether altruistic; it is said to be wedded to the advancement of American national security. In this way, Smith can have both the idealistic sponsorship of democracy and the realistic gain of national security.

Smith is an aggressive writer who, more than once, tells the reader that he has done something that no one has ever done before. He claims to be the first who thought of truly investigating the American “ambition” to foster democracy abroad. He goes out of his way to criticize other writers, including Samuel Huntington, who he says had inspired him.

To make his case, Smith uses both history and theory. He primarily restricts himself to the twentieth century and effectively starts with the Spanish-American War of 1898. But his main interest takes hold with Woodrow Wilson, because he considers that liberal democratic internationalism is synonymous with Wilsonianism. Subsequent presidents are judged by their degree of Wilsonianism.

In the end, Smith’s book stands or falls by whether his history supports his theory. To what extent did US policy actually foster democracy abroad in the twentieth century?Are we dealing here only with an “ambition” and rhetoric or with a long-term policy carried out with determination and success?What does Smith’s own history tell us about his theory?

Smith covers so many countries and subjects that he has necessarily written potted history. Nevertheless, he tries to do justice to it, even at the expense of his theory.

The Philippines offers an early example of Smith’s historical problem. It was fortuitously conquered from Spain in the war of 1898, which had been fought over Cuba, not the Philippines. But the one-sided naval victory in Manila Bay by the US fleet under Commodore George Dewey opened the islands to US occupation. The land assault on Manila was supported…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.