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June 2008

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The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance

Reviewed by Henry E. Mattox, Contrib. Ed.

Michael H. Hunt, THE AMERICAN ASCENDANCY: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, N. C. 2007. Illus. 405 pages. $34.95

Emerson Professor of History Michael Hunt of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill devotes his latest book, his tenth, to an insightful, detailed interpretation and overview of the United States' rise to world power. Beginning his analysis in the late nineteenth century, he lays the foundations for that global achievement and recounts in some helpful (to the serious student of this aspect of American history) detail the rise, temporary decline, and growth again of America's preeminence in the world.

The core of his study as reflected in the title — chapters four through six — covers the emergence of global American strength beginning with the Second World War and continuing to the period marked by the onset in 1968 of U. S. forces' lack of success in the Vietnam conflict. From that point onward, America, in Professor Hunt's formulation, faced some two decades of challenges and significant difficulties until the early 1990's. At that point the author begins a detailed discussion of the success in America of what he identifies and terms “militant neoliberalism” — a concept more easily identifiable to many, including this reviewer, as “neoconservatism,” along with the tenets of its leaders, the “neocons.” The central set of values concerned, whatever the appellation, looks back to laissez faire economics and “hands-off” government, at least in theory. A form of these principles, as developed in the author's formulation, came to be paramount in guiding U. S. attitudes toward the world, above all in the aftermath of 9/11. Included in this section of the study we find insightful comments on the interpretations of Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington, among many others. (Somewhat surprisingly, he does not mention historian William Appleman Williams in an earlier context, given that this the reviewer has reason to believe Professor Hunt holds Williams in high professional regard as an interpreter of the nation's initial rise to power.)

A concluding note: After assessing almost exhaustively specific policies as well as policy-making over more than a century, Professor Hunt sums up a central theme: The “how” of America's ascendance can be found in 1) accumulated economic might, 2) a sense of national purpose, and 3) an ability to pursue goals deliberately and with a sense of purpose. No small set of achievements. And, he adds, America also benefited from good luck in the timing and geographic location of major trends.

Most readers who harbor more than a passing interest in America's place and role in the world, whether of a generalized or a specific professional nature, recognize the necessity for a sound historical grounding in U. S. policy deliberations. This almost encyclopedic overview, along with its penetrating analysis, goes far to meet that requirement. It should be on the bookshelf of every scholar of America's position in the world.


Henry Mattox, the journal's contributing editor, was a Foreign Service officer from 1957 to 1980, serving in France, Portugal, Brazil, Nepal, Haiti, England, Egypt, and Washington. After retiring he entered academe, studying, writing, teaching, and earning a Ph.D. in U.S. diplomatic history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1986. He was editor of American Diplomacy from its founding in 1996 until July, 2007.

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