Ark of the Liberties: America and the World. By Ted Widmer. New York: Hill & Wang, 2008. 384 pp.
"If this sweeping look at the centuries has taught me anything," concludes Ted Widmer, "it is that no single event is capable of dominating the narrative, and that it is always darkest before the dawn" (p. 324). What does this mean? That history is complicated but that it nonetheless gives cause for optimism? That would be a reasonable inference to draw from The Ark of the Liberties, Widmer's new book. In it Widmer explains how American interactions with the world have oscillated between the promotion of uplift and the pursuit of self-interests by sometimes cynical means. But the better angels, he reassures, have always pulled through, especially after phases of darkness--such as the 1850s and, one infers, the first decade of the twenty-first century.
What does Widmer's overview contribute to our understanding? It may be unfair to evaluate this book by the standards that apply to academic scholarship. For one thing, its audience is the lay reader. For another, its panoramic gaze permits only limited glimpses of complex issues. Yet, the question still bears asking, for neither breadth nor accessibility precludes analysis. Here, however, interpretation is frustratingly absent. Widmer does not so much explain as trace the history of American foreign relations, and the result is a book that tells us much that we know but with few novel insights. This is too bad because there are moments in the text when the author offers flashes of original vision.
The book's attentiveness to rhetoric is a strong point. Formerly a speechwriter for President Clinton, Widmer is attentive to language, even if he uses too much of it. Widmer explains how Woodrow Wilson spoke the idioms of Puritan vengeance as well as messianic liberalism. Franklin Roosevelt receives high marks for the clarity with which he articulated America's mission for a broad audience. Even Ronald Reagan receives particular praise for his "rhapsodic language," deeply immersed in the historical myths of America's founding. This is all well done. Widmer is at his best when he is explaining the power and the resonance of words.
Deeds, alas, do not always live up to the lofty phrases that explain and justify them. This, for Widmer, is the tragedy of American diplomacy. The book dwells upon what Widmer calls "the disconnect between the ways Americans talk about the world and the way that they truly enter...