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Academic Review of a Book on American Foreign Policy

Updated on January 24, 2016
Faust and the demon, Mephitsopheles.
Faust and the demon, Mephitsopheles.

The military conflicts America has been involved in during the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty first century have been ambiguous affairs at best. Furthermore, each conflict since Vietnam has been a polarizing event. People either feel strongly for it or strongly against it, with few falling in between the two extremes. Joan Hoff's book, A Faustian Foreign Policy: From Woodrow Wilson to George w. Bush regrettably falls into one of these extremes. From the very outset the book is openly opposed to American foreign policy. Even the title, which is based off the character Faust of German folklore who makes a deal with the devil which costs him his sole, drives home the point that the author is staunchly against the current conflicts America is involved in and wishes to offer a history to show how things got to be this bad.

The problem with this approach is that this is the study of history, and though opinions can never truly be removed, when a reader picks up a history book they expect a certain degree of unbiasedness in telling the events as they occurred. As was stated, opinions will reveal themselves in writing, and historians are certainly expected to offer their interpretations of events. But too often does Hoff digress into purely opinionated rhetoric. She haphazardly cites references, and overuses quotes so that the reader would have to look up every single one to know if they were taken in context. The book feels more like someone ranting than like a historical text. For these reasons, the book is certainly not groundbreaking. Though it certainly must have taken much research to compile all of this information and references into a coherent book, all of Hoff's ideas have been said before, often in far less academic mediums (television, the internet, etc).

The thrust of Hoff's book is based around the idea that America has made a “deal with the devil.” The notion here being that though the nation has attained a great power and economic prosperity, this will come with a price to be paid at a later time. In all deals with the devil in literature, the price always far outstrips what is won. As a slight digression, it may be important to note that this centering on a literary device rather than a clear thesis statement may be the biggest flaw in the book. Hoff references John Winthrop when she asserts that America's foreign policy is routed in the Puritans who wished to be like a “city set on the hill,” a beacon for all the world to see (3). This ideology carried over through the Revolution and into the American frontier where it took on the form of manifest destiny. Once Americans had secured for themselves a piece of land that stretched from sea to shining sea, they asserted themselves as a dominant force in the western hemisphere. Due to the success of Monroe Doctrine, Hoff believes President Woodrow Wilson was the one who then extended American arrogance beyond the western hemisphere operating under the notion that “whatever America 'made holy.'” (3) This arrogance backed in part by genuine prosperity and in part by religious morality fueled America's actions in the Cold War and in the more recent War on Terror. American ideals had been split into “good” and “bad” Wilsonianism, good being the promotion of free trade through security arrangements and “multilateral cooperation.” (10) While bad has been the unilateral dominance over countries with which America has dealings. Hoff asserts that both of these schools of thought are based in what she calls America's “creation myth” which harkens back to the Puritans: the notion of exceptionalism on moral grounds. (11)

It is this last statement that appears to be Hoff's thesis, but it is marred by the inclusion of this Faustian parallel. Each chapter of the book elaborates on how America has become more and more exceptionalist over time, each citing instances in which the white ruling class of the nation has done wrong against others. This alone is good enough of a thesis argument and reason to write a book; the advocacy of the downtrodden is certainly a valid goal. The Faustian comparison, however, implies that America is going to one day get its comeuppance (2). This shifts the focus and makes it difficult for the reader to understand where the author is going, lending to the notion that the Hoff is perhaps ranting.

An example of this possible ranting and bit of flawed logic can be found on pages four and five. On page four Hoff talks about the Cold War which she later elaborates in detail in the body of the book. She then touches down on how Terrorism took the place of Communism in Americans's eyes and how this nation is facing that threat still with a Cold War mindset “including the idea that the United States is always an innocent victim on the world stages.” This is a very interesting way for Hoff to put this. The Cold War was an ambiguous and difficult event. The concept of mutually assured destruction alone implicated America as not entirely innocent. The Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis all stand out in historians minds as times when perhaps the United States could have been more tactful. But it would be difficult to convince anyone that the events of September 11, 2001 were in anyway America's fault. It is true, one could make the argument that American imperialism prompted the attacks, and it is likely that was what Hoff was getting at, but to use the word innocence is a mistake. Innocence implies morality, something Hoff is trying to pull away from. It would have been better to say that these attacks were not random, but had reasons, and America would do well to learn those reasons to prevent them. But Hoff does not say this, infact she says the opposite. Earlier in the same sentence she uses the terminology “random terrorism.”

Adding to the confusion is Hoff's over use of direct quotes when she does cite sources. As a general rule, authors should only quote a text when they are drawing specific attention to how their source worded something or in the case that they need to give an example of the sources writing style. Following is an enactment of the latter. On page 171 Hoff writes:

...they agreed “that no unconventional weapons had been found in Iraq,” and so Bush suggested provoking Saddam by “flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in UN colors.”

This is a needless amount of quotation. Not only does it make the book’s style feel disjointed and pastiche, but it also makes it difficult for the reader to tell if the arguments she presents are her own or merely examples of other people's stances on the issues discussed.

Since the book reads very much like an opinion piece, it may be best to take it as so when writing about its strengths. Though clearly expressing disapproval, especially with regards to the recent actions of former President George W. Bush, Hoff at least offers support of her opinions. On page 173 she demonstrates why she feels Bush is so wrong with information regarding the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Pages 177—179 are basically an attack against neo-conservatives, but Hoff at least cites specific reasons for holding these beliefs rather than making sweeping generalizations.

Though she perhaps allows her emotions slip out in her writing, Hoff is a historian and has gone to great lengths in her research. When reading a history book, one expects something different than what they would from a book by an expert in political science. Historical precedence and application of knowledge of past events to modern day ones is essential, rather than merely an explanation of current events. On this Hoff delivers, drawing multiple parallels between past actions of the United States with present ones. She makes clear that Bush Doctrine and preemptive strikes against potential threats to America are in no way new and cites numerous examples going back as far as the CIA's intervention in Italy’s 1948 elections (168). Many historians choose to focus only on the past leaving modern politics to other social sciences, but Hoff chose to apply her expertise to breaching that gap between past and present. This paints a picture that allows the reader to better understand America's current issues and why Hoff feels so strongly about them. While she is not the only one doing this, it is still commendable.

Moving away from the opinion column feel, whenever the author does cite a hard statistical fact, there is an accurate and traceable reference often to a document or report rather than too another book or essay on the topic. On page three, Hoff cites a poll taken on what percentage of different types of Christians believed God protected the United States. Not only does she cite the poll itself but she provides a website so the reader may look up the information himself. From a purely research oriented point of view, giving the reader the opportunity to do their own research into a poll and decide for themselves how to interpret the data is very good for Hoff's credibility. It shows she is confident in her thoughts and that she is not just making this stuff up.

Hoff's book is highly informative, offering a context in which to better understand how America has gotten to the place it has today. The style, however, can distract the reader from the main points being made, and readers with strong research backgrounds may be very much bothered by the constant interjection of blatant opinion into the facts. And of course, students of history may be bothered by the use of historical facts to serve a particular political agenda rather than just being reported as they are. Hoff at least clearly backs up most of her points.

The book is very interesting in the way that a reader might feel completely differently about it depending how they approach reading it. If they are coming from a purely academic position, the book may be frustrating for reasons already listed. If, however, approached from a more casual position, it is in fact a fascinating read that sets forth a provocative theory. It is easy to forget that even though Joan Hoff is a professor of history she is still allowed to publish something targeted at the layperson. What the book seems to in fact be is a very well backed up explanation for why anti-war individuals believe what they believe. And though academically frustrating, anyone with a passing interest in politics would do well to read A Faustian Foreign Policy from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush.

Work Cited

Hoff, Joan. A Faustian Foreign Policy from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2008.


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    • emge profile image


      2 years ago from Abu Dhabi

      Interesting essay on US policy


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