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The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy [Kindle Edition]

William Pfaff
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Book Description

"For years there has been little or no critical reexamination of how and why the ultimately successful postwar American policy of 'patient but firm and vigilant containment of Soviet expansionist tendencies...and pressure against the free institutions of the western world' (as George Kennan formulated it at the time) has over six decades turned into a vast project for ending tyranny in the world. We defend this position by making the claim that the United States possesses an exceptional status among nations that confers upon it special international responsibilities, and exceptional privileges in meeting those responsibilities. This is where the problem lies. It has become somewhat of a national heresy to suggest the U.S. does not have a unique moral status and role to play in the history of nations and therefore in the affairs of the contemporary world. In fact it does not."

Cogently, thoughtfully, powerfully, William Pfaff--whose columns and commentary over the past 40-odd years have given him the widest international influence of any American commentator--lays out the historical roots behind the American exceptionalism that has animated our politics and foreign relations for decades, and makes clear why it is flawed and bound to fail. Those roots lie in the secularization of western society brought about by the Enlightenment. "My proposition in this book is that the United States' spearation from 1800 to 1941 from the common history of the west has disqualified it from the mandate it has assumed as the society that embodies the future"...and in many ways is responsible for the impasse in which it finds itself at the end of the disastrous events of the last 8 years. "It has failed to learn from experience because it lacks the indispensable experience Europeans have acquired of modern ideological folly and national tragedy."

Editorial Reviews


“In an age of charlatans and poseurs, William Pfaff has long stood for realism and sobriety. With its penetrating critique of the secular utopianism that perverts American statecraft, The Irony of Manifest Destiny affirms his standing as our wisest critic of U.S. foreign policy.”—Andrew J. Bacevich, author of The Limits of Power and Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War

“Eleanor Roosevelt once said that wishful thinking was America’s ‘besetting sin.’ In an era of seemingly permanent war, when the doctrine of American exceptionalism and the manifest destiny of the United States reigns virtually unchallenged in Washington, William Pfaff’s lucid, dismayed commentary on the follies of such triumphalism has been an island of reason in the imperial sea. If his prescriptions, which hearken back to the America of foreign policy commonsense—that is, to George Kennan rather than George W. Bush, and, alas Barack Obama too—had been followed, the United States and the world would be in a far, far better situation. As things stand, though, Pfaff’s clarity and rigor at least offer posterity a way of understanding what actually happened, and why, when national power and national blindness combined to lead the United States down the path of utopian nationalism and in the process become both a danger to the world and to itself.”—David Rieff, author of At The Point of a Gun 

“Anyone fortunate enough to have read the International Herald Tribune over the last several decades knows William Pfaff as the thoughtful and original American heir to George Kennan’s sober Niebuhurian realism. Now, in his brilliant new essay on American foreign policy, Pfaff has applied his prudent realist vision to deconstructing the “tragedy” of America’s global interventionism. In the name of what he calls “secular  utopianism,” Pfaff sees in America’s increasingly imperialist foreign policy a residue of Enlightenment exceptionalism – America as a beacon of liberty and democracy’s global “keeper.” He shows persuasively why al Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism are less perilous than we think, why our interventions in Iraq, Iran and Pakistan are successors to the futility of Vietnam, and why – despite his new spirit of multilateralism – President Obama is caught up in overseas policies likely to fail.  This is a book by an American looking from the outside in that needs to be read by every political leader and thinker caught on the inside looking out – most of all by President Obama, who celebrates Niebuhr in theory but seems caught up in the insidious practices of Dick Cheney and George Bush, Jr.”—Benjamin R. Barber, Distinguished Senior Fellow, Demos, author, Consumed and Jihad vs. McWorld

About the Author

William Pfaff is the author of 8 books on American foreign policy, international relations, and contemporary history. They include Barbarian Sentiments: America in the New Century, which was a finalist for the 1989 National Book Award, and which Ronald Steel called "a work of moral passion and striking insight by America's best foreign-affairs columnist." The late Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. said "William Pfaff is Walter Lippmann's authentic heir. Like Lippmann, he places the rush of events in historical and cultural perspective and writes about them with lucidity and grace." For 25 years, Pfaff wrote a column for the International Herald Tribune, and his essays and articles have appeared widely, in the New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Harper's, and Foreign Affairs. He lives in Paris.

Product Details

  • File Size: 431 KB
  • Print Length: 237 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0802716997
  • Publisher: Walker Books; 1 edition (July 23, 2010)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #502,553 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Something's Missing October 14, 2010
I'm and admirer of William Pfaff's writing, especially "The Bullet's Song," and this work is cetainly up to the high standards he has set in the past. It is good to read in a foreign policy tome that the Enlightenment was at best a mixed blessing, and the deleterious effects it has had on the ideas of the western "elites," and that (oh heresy!) there was a better balance when church and state (specifically, the Roman Catholic Church) were both recognized as having roles in moderating politics and the cultures (hence wars) of the western countries. One can almost hear the dim echoes of G. K. Chesterton's thoughts in this book.

I give the book four stars because of its omission of the key developments in U.S. foreign policy in the late 19th century that were spurred mainly by Henry Cabot lodge, Senator from Massachusetts, and a close coterie of supportive elders such as Henry Adams and John Hay, along with young bucks like Alfred Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt. Sen. Lodge gave a series of three speeches on the Senate floor in 1895 which pretty much encapsulate everything that Pfaff bemoans about the trajectory of U.S. foreign policy in the 20th and (so far) in the 21st centuries. A book I am now reading, "The Last Great Triumph," (Warren Zimmerman) details the lives of Lodge et al and their (hugely successful) efforts to reshape American foreign policy into an "expansionist" one. There's a wonderful photo of "The Great White Fleet" of U.S. battleships returning to Norfolk, VA, around 1910 after a round-the-world show of force, that says it all. (The Navy went to grey ships shortly thereafter.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Five EXCELLENT Stars! A great intellectual feat of foreign policy scholarship and profound historical insight. There have been many excellent books on US foreign policy and imperialism in recent times, but this book is by far one of the most insightful, comprehensive, and important. Because of its historical breadth, it may be an invaluable asset to historians far into the future as they sort through the tangled web of past and current US policies and actions. This essay is an engrossing look by author, historian, army officer, and international relations expert William Pfaff at the political, psychological, religious, and foreign affairs implications and transformations that have occurred in Western civilization from the time of the French Revolution and our fledgling American Republic to today's "experience of extreme ideological violence." When the author talks war, he has insight from the time he was an Infantry/Special Forces officer in the Korea War. When he talks tough and speaks frankly, we know he was dismissed from a decades-old news column job for his correct, unyielding assessment of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. What gives this book an extra dimension is author Pfaff's deep meditation on the shift from the overarching influence of religion on life and politics in earlier centuries to the birth of the Enlightenment's secular utopian approach, called a "terrible turn" of the two preceding centuries, which also changed the nature of warfare and the approach of governments & their citizens. Read more ›
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
I have just finished 'The Irony of Manifest Destiny' and I can sense three distinct reactions. First, gratefulness for the erudition, honesty, penetrating analysis and moral integrity of the work itself. These 190 pages read like they were chiseled out of 500 pages just so that we could understand, in the brightest light possible, the darkest ramifications of the American geo-politcal trap we are now experiencing. Second, a mournful recognition of just how much toxic war water has flowed under the briges of modesty and realism since Nixon, Johnson, Carter, Bush I, Bush II, and now Obama, and how the landscape has inexorably and permanently changed for America and Americans like me, living abroad for most of that time, trying to understand, keep up, and foresee where the country was heading. Third, a sick feeling that the jaws of the trap of militarism are too tight now even for Obama to loosen, even for reason to pierce with the frank questions we need to ask so that we can pry out answers and extricate ourselves from a tragedy of our own making. This is a profound and profoundly disturbing book, one that is entlightening in the very spirit of the Enlightenment, the historical juncture where Pfaff begins his discussion of political ideas.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dense, but worth the effort November 4, 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
William Pfaff presents an erudite, albeit rather abstruse, account of how historical factors from the Enlightenment and the development of the American nation have coalesced into a pattern of American exceptionalism and imperialism which defines our worldview in matters related to foreign policy. According to Pfaff, such worldview has led to many misunderstandings and distortions of the threats faced by the modern American nation, from Communism during the Cold War to "Islamofascism" during the War on Terror.

Pfaff argues that Americans view themselves and their nation as somehow exceptional in the history of the world. We are the "best" nation because the ideals of our democracy serve as a beacon of light to other nations and as the solution to the world's problems. Americans believe that democratic capitalism is the most superior form of government and the natural ultimate end of the progression of history.

This belief in American governmental, economic and moral superiority was initially behind the idea of "Manifest Destiny" in the 1800s, when it was virtually accepted as inevitable that the United States would stretch from coast to coast and control the North American continent.

Pfaff, however, uses the term "Manifest Destiny" in a more expansive sense to mean America's self-designated role as the world's policeman and peace-keeping force. This more expansive role initially developed during the First World War after America was forced from its isolationism. It was strengthened by America's successful intervention in World War II, and cemented when the U.S. emerged from the Cold War as the only global superpower.

The U.S.
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