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From George Herring

George Herring

Noted scholar George C. Herring drew upon his landmark book From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776 to offer a historical perspective on today's foreign policy challenges.  Giving the Patterson School of Diplomacy’s 2009 Vince Davis Lecture, Herring sought to dispel some of the most deeply encrusted myths about U.S. foreign policy.  He stressed that while at times the United States has pursued unilateralist policies, it has not been isolationist as popular legend maintains. From its birth, foreign policy has been central to the American experience; the nation has been an active and influential player in world affairs.

In foreign policy as in other areas, Americans have seen themselves as a people apart, a chosen people with superior institutions and a providential mission. They have claimed for themselves a special benevolence in dealing with other peoples and nations. In fact, Herring explained, despite its distinctive approach to the world and its claims of moral superiority, the United States throughout its history has behaved more like a traditional great power than Americans have realized or been prepared to admit.

Contrary to yet another popular myth, the United States, historically speaking, has been spectacularly successful in its foreign policy. By the eve of the 21st century, it had achieved a position of world power with little historical precedent.  Ironically, even as it grew more powerful, the limits to its power became more palpable, a harsh reality for which Americans were not prepared by history. And that vast power did not bring the security and freedom from fear Americans longed for. Indeed, America's "unipolar moment" was stunningly brief – by the early 21st century pundits already had begun to talk about the United States as a nation in decline.

Herring concluded that, to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing international system, Americans must disenthrall themselves of deeply entrenched ideas about themselves and their place in the world. They must put aside notions of their own exceptionalism and abandon what remains of their unilateralist tradition. They must reemphasize diplomacy, but in doing so must recognize its inherent limits and the limits of their own power.  While U.S. leadership is still vital for solving major international problems, Americans must learn to live in a world where they will not be able to call all the shots.

The Vince Davis Memorial lecture is the Patterson School's premier event to expose students and the general public to the wisdom and insights of leading figures in international affairs.

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