The project will study the sources of support and opposition to American foreign policy during the nation's rise as a world power. Between 1890 and 1945, the United States transformed itself from a marginal player in world politics into a superpower with global interests. The key steps along the way provoked considerable domestic political controversy. Explaining the reasons for these debates is important not only for historical reasons but also because it bears on the broader question of why divisions over national security issues exist. Because these issues ostensibly involve national interests that everyone shares, explaining political conflict over them has proven more difficult than explaining differences over foreign economic policy.

The project will bring new data and recent developments in the understanding of the relationship between economic interests and foreign policy decisions to bear on longstanding economic interpretations of American foreign policy during the 1890-1945 period. Earlier work stresses the importance of the search for overseas markets in shaping American foreign policy but largely ignores the role of demands for tariff protection against foreign competition in the American domestic market. More recent research in political science suggests that trade protection can help explain some persistent questions unanswered in older economic interpretations of American foreign policy. Demands for protection came mainly from American manufacturers concerned about European competition. This fact helps explain why advocates of the search for foreign markets, who came mainly from the industrial Northeast, focused on less developed areas of the world, even though these areas received a small share of American trade. Similarly, it helps explain why the Americans from the most export-dependent region of the country, the South, were far less enthusiastic about this search for overseas markets and the more activist foreign policy that it implied. They preferred trade with Europe, something that required lower American tariffs. Largely because of the limitations of the available data, even the older claims about the political economy of American foreign policy during this period have not been rigorously tested. The necessary data exist but not in a readily accessible form. The funds requested in this proposal will make it possible to gather the data on international trade, industrial and agricultural production within American states, and congressional foreign policy debates needed for these empirical tests. In presenting the results of this quantitative research, it is critically important to engage more conventional accounts of American foreign policy, which rely almost exclusively on qualitative evidence gathered through archival research. The investigator will thus review the qualitative sources in addition to collecting and analyzing quantitative data. Presentations of the results of this research, including the quantitative portions of it, will be designed to engage the broadest possible audience, not just those versed in quantitative research methods.

This project will shed light on historically important debates about the rise of the United States as a world power. As the popularity of works on Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and other prominent figures from this period suggests, the topic continues to interest a broad section of the educated public. The data gathered for this project will also be useful to scholars interested in other aspects of the political and economic development of the United States. The project will provide valuable research experience to graduate students at Binghamton University, as well as informing the teaching of undergraduate classes on US foreign policy and international relations more generally.

Project Report

Since World War II, the United States has been the leading world power, with foreign policy interests in every part of the globe. This project seeks to better understand how the nation arrived at this world role by examining the period when its foreign policy interests first began expanding. Between 1890 and 1914, the United States acquired overseas colonies, built a battleship fleet, and intervened increasingly often in Latin America and East Asia. Many scholars see this activism as the precursor to the country's role as a superpower after 1945. The evidence gathered for this project suggests that it actually served a very different set of foreign policy goals. Since 1945, American policymakers have sought to establish a global system of free trade, especially among the most developed countries. This system rests on a set of multilateral institutions fostering broad cooperation rather than merely promoting the interests of a single state. Before World War I, American foreign policy sought not a global order but rather a narrower set of unilateral advantages for the United States not unlike the empires that other developed countries were carving out at the time. American policy makers were skeptical of multilateral cooperation and viewed most other developed states as potential rivals rather than allies. Trade protection was central to this foreign policy, just as the promotion of freer trade has been since 1945. Previous research stresses the importance of the search for overseas markets but largely ignores the role of demands for protection against foreign competition in the American domestic market. These demands came from the country's manufacturing sector, and were most forcefully articulated by the politically dominant Republican Party. Republican policymakers' commitment to trade protection led them to focus on less developed areas of the world that would not export manufactured goods to the United States. Securing access to these markets required a relatively aggressive posture toward European intervention, especially in the Western Hemisphere. By contrast, the Democratic Party, with its roots in the agrarian and export-oriented South, preferred a more cooperative foreign policy based on free trade with the developed European states that provided the main market for agricultural products like cotton. This period of American history is interesting in its own right, but this research project also sheds light on broader questions about how foreign policy works in many other historical settings. Foreign policy, especially on security issue such as military spending and overseas intervention, is frequently treated as if it were the expression of a "national interest." The evidence suggests that this image of the policymaking process is misleading for the period before World War I, and probably for other periods as well. In fact, Americans brought many different interests to debates on how the country should conduct itself in the international arena. None of these interests were really "national," but instead reflected contrasting ways of life in different parts of the country. What was good for farmers was not necessarily good for manufacturers. Then as now, policy choices emerged from a process of conflict and compromise among groups with different points of view. The support of the National Science Foundation has made it possible to gather a range of evidence with which to test this account of the 1890-1914 period. The evidence included statistics on trade and production, available in old volumes but now converted into a machine-readable format for analysis. It also involved gathering systematic data on congressional speeches given during annual debates on naval appropriations. These debates provided a useful setting for examining whether the patterns of support and opposition to American foreign policy activism during this period really worked in the way suggested here. In addition to this quantitative data, the project involved reading the published and archival record that policymakers left behind. These records provide detailed information about how these policymakers understood the role of trade and tariffs in the shaping the nation's foreign policy interests. The final product of this research will be a series of articles and eventually a book setting out the findings. These are still in progress but the principal investigator has already given a series of presentations on the research to scholarly audiences around the country. Along the way, this project also provided an opportunity for several students to learn about both the conduct of social science research and the history of American foreign policy. They worked closely with the principal investigator to collect the data and fit them into the broader framework of the research project. They assisted in the analysis of the information we gathered and helped write up our results. Most of these students are now university teachers themselves, and can pass the things they learned along to their own students as well as using them in their scholarship.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Brian Humes
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Suny at Binghamton
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