Lincoln in the World: The Making of a Statesman and the Dawn of American Power by Kevin Peraino, New York: Crown Publishers, 2013 ISBN 978-0-307-88720-7, eISBN 978-0-307-88722-1, Hardcover, 419 pp., $26.00 (hardcover) , $15.00 (trade paperback).
Diplomacy isn’t as American as apple pie. “The Founding Fathers,” veteran foreign affairs correspondent Kevin Peraino tells us in the book under review, “derided the art of diplomacy itself.” Thomas Jefferson characterized Old World diplomacy as “the pest of the peace of the world.” And Horace Greeley, the influential mid-19th century New York editor, condemned “the unprincipled egotism that is the soul of European diplomacy.”
On the other side of the pond, the political elite was by no means admiring of U.S. diplomacy. The aristocratic but mostly sympathetic observer of American democratic life, Alexis de Tocqueville, put it this way: “I do not hesitate to say that it is especially in their conduct of foreign relations that democracies appear to be decidedly inferior to other governments.”
Honest Abe Lincoln — the president who saved the Union — never travelled outside the USA. Born in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky, the closest he “ever came to immersing himself in a foreign culture” was when he went to New Orleans as a young man, according to the historian Richard Campanella. In the Rail Splitter’s 1860 presidential campaign, Peraino notes, foreign policy was “largely a sideshow to the overriding issue: slavery and the possibility of Southern secession.”
After his election, Lincoln told one foreign envoy (in a statement twice quoted by Peraino) “I don’t know anything about diplomacy.” And, in 1861, when severe tensions developed between the United States and Great Britain over the seizure off the Cuban coast of two Confederate diplomats on a British ship (the HMS Trent) by a U.S. navy vessel, Lincoln observed to a critic that “I don’t know anything about the law of nations. I’m a good enough lawyer in a western law court, I suppose, but we don’t practice the law of nations up there.”
So, some would say, Lincoln, because of his provincial origins and self-effacing comments about his lack of international expertise, was a foreign policy naïf who depended on the cosmopolitan Secretary of State from an eastern state (New York), William Henry Seward, to handle diplomacy during the country’s greatest domestic crisis, the Civil War.
Peraino’s book is, in essence, a refutation of this Lincoln-didn’t-make-a-difference in-foreign-policy view.
In the “episodes,” as he calls them, on Lincoln’s dealing with other nations, Peraino sheds important light on the president’s handling of world-related affairs, including: his Emancipation Proclamation, meant in part to win over Europeans opposed to slavery to the Union cause; his advocacy of presidential “war powers” in order to implement his decisions without interference from Congress or constitutional limitations; his limited support for U.S. territorial expansion (it could alleviate poverty but lead to more slave-owning states); his belief (along with his secretary of state) that “economic forces — not simply cavalry and cannon — would ultimately boost the United States to world power”; and his contention that “In this age, and this country, public sentiment is every thing [sic].”
Peraino emphasizes that Lincoln broke new diplomatic ground when he “lifted a global megaphone.” “As a new force in foreign affairs,” he writes, “‘soft power’ had arrived,” thanks to innovations in communications technology such as the telegraph and mass-circulation newspapers, notably Horace Greeley’s The New York Tribune.
The president’s second inaugural address, Peraino maintains, is “one of American’s seminal foreign-policy documents … with its appeal for a just and lasting peace ‘with all nations,’ … [it] can be read as a profound meditation of America’s place in the world. Both North and South, Lincoln told the crowd, ‘Read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other.’”
The address “trenchantly sets forth the world view in which Lincoln’s Union is portrayed as one nation among others — not as God’s chosen people on earth. If morality were to be found in international relations, it would emerge from a just balance of competing national interests – not romantic crusades.”
The ever politically cautious Lincoln — who suffered from depression and often had difficulties making up his mind, including on the question of slavery — did eloquently express biblically inspired thoughts about America’s role in the world. But I’d say Lincoln’s primary foreign policy concern, in the brutal reality of the Civil War national survival, consisted of often improvised efforts, well documented by Peraino, to prevent outside powers from directly intervening in the American domestic conflict. To suggest that he developed (and went so far as to implement) a fully planned strategy on how to deal with the outside world exaggerates how his policies led to the dawn of American global power. As the fatalistic Lincoln himself admitted, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess that events have controlled me.”