H-Diplo Review of “The Imperialism of Economic Nationalism”

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Marc-William Palen.  “The Imperialism of Economic Nationalism, 1890-1913.”  Diplomatic History 39:1 (January 2015):  157-185.  DOI:  10.1093/dh/dht135.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/dh/dht135

Cross-posted from H-Diplo

Reviewed by David Sim, University College London

The Obama administration’s engagement with the Cuban government has led politicians and pundits of all stripes to reflect on the relationship between commerce and politics and, in so doing, to reanimate the concept of ‘the open door.’ Marc-William Palen, a Lecturer in Imperial History at the University of Exeter, argues that this concept has been misunderstood and misapplied by historians of American foreign relations from the 1960s to the present.  Building on his work on the global impact of the highly protectionist McKinley Tariff of 1890, Palen sets out to rethink the characterisation of American power at the end of the nineteenth century by outlining what he describes as the “imperialism of economic nationalism,” as distinct from the “imperialism of free trade” (163).1

What is striking, he suggests, is not the American commitment to liberalised trade and the free movement of goods, people and capital, but rather the tenacity with which a band of influential Republican statesmen married their commitment to a high tariff to a programme of reciprocity and, ultimately, to an imperial foreign policy in the late nineteenth century. Convinced of the maturity of American industry but anxious that the U.S. domestic market had become saturated, these statesmen sought a solution in what Palen calls “an expansive closed door,” as administration after administration “coercively enforced a policy of closed colonial markets in Hawaii, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba.” (163).

Palen opens this sharp article with a smart pair of quotations. The first is from William Appleman Williams, arguably the single most influential historian of American foreign policy in the second half of the twentieth century. “The Open Door Policy,” he writes, “was America’s version of the liberal policy of informal empire or free trade imperialism” (157). The second person quoted is Benjamin B. Wallace, long-time member of the U.S. Tariff Commission, who would not have recognised Williams’s characterisation. “The open door does not and should not mean free trade,” he bluntly stated in March 1924 (157). These two interpretations offer a neat frame for Palen’s study, and highlight a basic but important historiographical insight that informs the article. Historians have long noted the protectionist credentials of the late-nineteenth-century Republican Party, yet the analytical purchase of ‘free trade imperialism,’ formulated in the context of British imperial history by John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson and imported to American historiography by Williams and others, has endured.2  Why have so many insightful historians persisted with such an obviously ill-fitting concept?

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