The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Nineteenth-Century Soft Power

June 2, 2005

From Anders Stephanson’s Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right, pp. 61:

“The nation,” [Seward] instructed the Senate in 1853, “that draws the most materials and provisions from the earth, fabricates the most, and sells the most productions of fabrics to foreign nations, must be, and will be, the great power of the earth.” This was his basic geo-economic premise. Command over the “ultimate empire of the ocean,” the only “real empire,” was therefore what mattered. Britain offered a glaringly obvious lesson to this effect. Laggard by comparison, the United States nevertheless had enormous potential for emulation. Here Seward was far less impressed by expanding imperial borders than, figuratively speaking, the development of steam power. Though doubtless Christian traders and civilizers, the British had become locked into the old pattern of European colonialism, subjugators forced, as it were, to rely on force. By contrast, freedom of economic activity and protection of natural rights within a constitutional system, the two ideal and ideological features of American life, put the United States in an excellent position to compete for the empire of the future. Unrestrained by old irrationalities, the nation would attract instead of subjugate: open borders and increasing commerce couple with respect for local autonomy would draw the foreign inescapably into the most advanced form of Western civilization and hence also serve to elevate.

The more things change… The question is: was Seward prescient, or is Joe Nye fooling himself?

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.