The United States is largely unique among historical great powers in its approach to the world. For the most part, American policymakers chose to avoid a traditional colonial empire. Instead, they built a globe‐spanning system of alliances described by many as a “liberal international order.” That order focused on institutions and alliances rather than imperial control, making it freer and more participatory than many in history. But it was not without its dark side; underlying the liberal order was a frequently illiberal set of policy choices: conflict, regime change, and bargains with dictators.
Why did America choose to create this system rather than a more traditional empire? What drove policymakers? And how did America’s domestic politics—notably attempts to protect the republic, democracy, and civil liberties—shape its foreign policy choices in the 20th century?
Two new books offer some answers. Richard Maass’s The Picky Eagle: How Democracy and Xenophobia Limited America’s Territorial Expansion explores the choices of American policymakers in the 19th century and the role that xenophobia played in territorial expansion. Patrick Porter’s The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion, and the Rise of Trump explores the myth of the liberal international order and the decisions of policymakers as they built America’s hegemonic system in the 20th century.