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America, ‘Moby Dick,’ and the Other

“John Quincy Adams warned Americans not to search abroad for monsters to destroy, yet such figures have frequently habituated the discourses of U.S. foreign policy,” offers a succinct summation of newly published U.S. Foreign Policy and the Other. Following, editors Michael Patrick Cullinane and David Ryan use Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick as a cautionary tale, explaining that the U.S. should revise its policy of “othering” to avoid a fate similar to that of Captain Ahab and crew.




Herman Melville’s Moby Dick persists in literary history as one of the greatest American novels. The book takes readers on a terminal voyage in the Pequod as it sails over oceans in search of a monstrous white whale that robbed its captain, Captain Ahab, of his leg on an earlier expedition. As literature goes, this classic depicts the struggle for identity, identification, and the distinctiveness between the self and the “other.”


The mysterious Ahab is described loosely with short mention of some facial characteristics and, of course, his whalebone leg. Readers only learn about the “real” Ahab when confronted with his relationship to Moby Dick: his fateful expedition that crippled his body and soul, his obsession with revenge that intoxicates the Pequod’s crew, his focus on a singular task, a singular end. Ahab reduces the world to a zero-sum dichotomy. He will kill Moby Dick, or die trying.


Melville published Moby Dick in 1851, just as the tide of Free Soil sentiment crashed into the immoveable institution of slavery and set off the national tempest that became the Civil War. Other than the War of Independence, no other event up to that point played so dominant a role in determining the identity of the nation, and Moby Dick read in this context became a tale of unwavering commitment to purge the world of an intolerable evil. During the Civil War the North saw slavery and disunion as its white whale, while the Confederacy ventured to destroy their own in the form of the imperial authority of an oppressive federal state.


In subsequent years Americans revived Melville’s great “other,” especially when threats to the national identity appeared most precarious. During World War I, book sales surged as Americans fought to sustain western civilization. In 1956 Gregory Peck starred as Ahab in the film adaptation delivering a metaphor for Cold War audiences. In 2014, when asked to list literature’s foremost monsters, Guardian blogger Chris Power named Ahab, “the obsessive, revenge-driven nihilist.” Melville’s book illustrates the dangers of binary realities constructed by those who conceive others as a perfect opposite. In the end of Moby Dick the ship is shattered and crew destroyed. Only Ishmael survives to tell the story, to tell the lesson perhaps.


Historians of American foreign relations often repeat John Quincy Adams’ similar-sounding caution. On international interventions, Adams advised the United States not to go “in search of monsters to destroy.” Yet from the inception of the nation, Americans have done the opposite. From the tyrannical British, the uncivilized Native American, the dueling identities of the Civil War, the despotic Spanish in Cuba, the Hun, the fascist dictators of the 1930s, global communism, and Islamic fundamentalists, American foreign policies conceived fiendish enemies that require slaying. With every effort to eliminate global threats to its future, the United States did exactly what Adams advised against, and failed to heed Ishmael’s warning. Of course none of these episodes of American history actually represent wholly antithetical identities, but in each of these cases U.S. foreign policies aimed to project the image of a foreign “other” as distinctly different and menacing to the American “self.”


U.S. Foreign Policy and the “Other” examines the processes and outcomes of “othering” at times of international discord in an effort to understand the cultural creation of the other and thereby the promotion of a certain exceptional identity. In all cases the other created by U.S. foreign policy makers or through cultural discourse is a rarified one seen from afar and above. It has little to do with ontological realities and talks extensively to epistemological constructions. That said, once the construction takes hold the cultural discourse significantly affects the ways in which policy is constructed. The image of the other constrains the latitude of the decision maker because their depicted character is frequently one with which the United States should not, or could not, do business with.


All sorts of echoes of appeasement arise in the cultural response to certain crises. And as a result, depictions of the other might push the United States down lines that impel a more confrontational response. It is instructive to consider two self-styled realists. In some of his Policy Planning Studies George Kennan regretted the ideological content of U.S. diplomatic rhetoric; he thought it would hamper American options. Hans Morgenthau too, worried that an overly aggressive public diplomacy might limit American options at the negotiating tables; for who could compromise with these monsters. There are numerous extremists the United States has engaged and confronted in its history and foreign policy. Although new ways of looking at these events can sometimes be liberating, they frequently fall back into old ways of seeing. Isaiah Berlin, following Hegel, understood how easily “great liberating ideas” could easily become “suffocating straitjackets.” US Foreign Policy and the Other explores the American experience with the global neighborhood over the course of its history and examines the construction of opposing identities that have at times liberated or confounded diplomatic thinking. It leaves the reader with Ishmael’s identity crisis, wondering how much the United States defined itself or was defined by others.




Michael Patrick Cullinane is Senior Lecturer of U.S. history at Northumbria University. He is the author of Liberty and American Anti-Imperialism, 1898-1909 (2012) and numerous articles on diplomatic history in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.


David Ryan is Professor and Chair of Modern History at University College Cork, Ireland.  He is the author of US Foreign Policy in World History (2000) and Frustrated Empire:US Foreign Policy, 9/11 to Iraq (2007), and he has co-edited Vietnam in Iraq: Tactics, Lessons, Legacies and Ghosts (2007, with John Dumbrell) and America and Iraq: Policy-Making, Intervention, and Regional Politics (2009, with Patrick Kiely).