Buck on Walldorf, 'To Shape Our World for Good: Master Narratives and Regime Change in U.S. Foreign Policy, 1900-2011'

C. William Walldorf
Brandan Buck

C. William Walldorf. To Shape Our World for Good: Master Narratives and Regime Change in U.S. Foreign Policy, 1900-2011. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019. x + 280 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-3827-2.

Reviewed by Brandan Buck (George Mason) Published on H-War (October, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54834

A seemingly endless stream of academic and popular works have been penned in recent years concerning the American foreign policy apparatus and the forces which created and sustain it. Scholars of various stripes have argued that American foreign policy, particularly post World War II, has been motivated by material demands of a globalized world, elite designs on world order, and concerns for prestige. Political scientist C. William Walldorf Jr.’s To Shape Our World for Good: Master Narrative and Regime Change in U.S. Foreign Policy, 1900-2011 adds to this crowded conversation. Walldorf argues that master narratives are the primary initiator of US foreign intervention and restraint on the global stage. He presents two master narratives—the liberal narrative and the restraint narrative—as the intellectual mechanisms which either initiate, prevent, or constrain direct US military interventions abroad. Walldorf defines the liberal narrative as “the collective national will at any given point to advance the liberal political order abroad, either by promotion … or protection” He defines the restraint narrative as “a story about events that creates collective taboos against using military force in certain places, by certain means or for certain kinds of goals abroad” (p. 6).  He argues that these narratives push or restrain American political leaders to “do something” or “do nothing” on the international stage. According to Walldorf, this “narrative pressure” forces politicians into “myopic and short-sighted decisions” which incentivize short-term and magical thinking antithetical to the needs of statecraft (p. 6). In his account, American political leaders are beholden to the pressures of public opinion due to regular elections and an open society. This perspective is a welcome respite from a field of study that often overstates the free hand of government officials and influence of corporate interests. Walldorf’s periodization is indicative of his overall thesis. While the bulk of his content lies within the Cold War and subsequent period of American global hegemony, his analysis begins during the zenith of the Progressive Era and the various Latin American incursions contained therein. For Walldorf, American efforts at regime change constitute a longer history of liberal internationalism and the ebbs and flows of violent action abroad.

As the work’s subtitle suggests, Walldorf explores the impact of grand narrative on US regime change from 1900 to 2011. His work is divided into seven chapters. Chapters 1 and 2 expand upon his thesis, lay out his methodology, and apprise the reader of his evidence. In addition to the qualitative use of traditional sources, Walldorf uses quantitative analysis of newspaper editorials, Presidential State of the Union addresses, and other printed materials. He uses these methods in chapter 2 to illustrate macrolevel trends of foreign policy attitudes, discourses which fluctuate between periods of assertiveness and retrenchment. These trends in turn inform public attitudes and tropes such as a desire to appear “tough on communism” or in periods of restraint to avoid “another Vietnam.” These larger trends and public discourses inform and constrain the actions of American foreign policy officials, often against their own ideologies and instincts because, as Walldorf claims, “elites are sensitive … to audience” (p. 75).

Chapters 3 through 6 outline the impact of US intervention (or lack thereof) in Korea, China, Cuba, Vietnam, El Salvador, Grenada, Iraq, and Libya. At the end of each chapter he argues against unsatisfactory theories as to the impetus of US action. Among the alternative explanations Walldorf attempts to dismantle are “elite polarization,” the homogenization of political thought, “geopolitics,” the tendency of the strong to do what they will, and “prestige,” the desire to save face among international political peers and the public. Chapter 7 focuses on the ramifications of master political narratives and the deleterious impact on American politics and self-image. In it, Walldorf claims that the preeminence of narrative-based foreign policy prevents the United States government from making substantive changes in response to public political and policy critique; in other words, Walldorf contends that the government is not spurred by morality or apolitical self-interest. To illustrate this point, he invokes postmortems on Vietnam, Iraq, and Libya as lost opportunities to recalibrate American action abroad. These roads not taken are caused by an immature bipartisan discourse on US foreign policy wherein politicians from both parties benefit from belligerence and taring one’s opponents as soft, naïve, or complicit.

The work’s primary fault lies within the scale of its analysis. At times, Walldorf’s macro approach glosses over key historical actors and events that determined the success or failure of the liberal and restraint narratives. The result is an often ahistorical account of these narratives and their impact on US interventionism or restraint. An instance of such is Walldorf’s treatment of the Korean War and the policy debates related thereto. Walldorf asserts that after the initiation of the Korean War, the liberal narrative was strong enough to push the previously tightfisted, fiscally conservative Republicans to drop their previous opposition to robust defense spending. According to his interpretation, the GOP “dropped, without reservation, all former opposition to aid for Korea and a larger military in general” (p. 94).

This raises the question: which Republicans? Historians of this period such as Michael Hogan and Justus Doenecke have noted that the Korean War’s principle political opposition came from the Old Right wing of the Republican Party. A number of these mostly midwestern, staunchly conservative Republicans held on to their opposition despite the prevailing winds of elite and public opinion.[1] Such voices of restraint were not politically vanquished until the hotly contested 1952 Republican National Convention and the defeat of the Bricker Amendment in 1954.[2] These events suggest a longer, politically driven ascent of the liberal narrative, a historization which is lacking in Walldorf’s work. This is not to say that Walldorf’s thesis is unconvincing, but one can argue that elite polarization and narrative pressure are symbiotic phenomena.

Similarly, Walldorf is at times uncritical of his sources. Again, on the issue of Korea, Walldorf quotes then secretary of state Dean Acheson as saying, “if the Republicans hadn’t been hammering on Harry Truman, he’d never have gone into Korea” (p. 95). Walldorf does not introduce that politics is a two-way street, and that Acheson could have very well been motivated to disperse the blame of a bloody stalemate on the Korean peninsula. 

These issues aside, To Shape Our World for Good: Master Narrative and Regime Change in U.S. Foreign Policy, 1900-2011 is a thought-provoking addition to scholarship on US foreign policy and the intellectual mechanisms that motivate it. Walldorf presents a compelling argument about the impact of master narratives on US action abroad and parts with a call for a deeper dialogue on America’s role in the world. 


[1]. See Michael J. Hogan, A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State, 1945-1954 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998); and Justus D. Doenecke, Not to the Swift: The Old Isolationists in the Cold War Era (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1979). 

[2]. Murray N. Rothbard, The Betrayal of the American Right (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2007), 146.

Citation: Brandan Buck. Review of Walldorf, C. William, To Shape Our World for Good: Master Narratives and Regime Change in U.S. Foreign Policy, 1900-2011. H-War, H-Net Reviews. October, 2020. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54834

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