A Monumental Quest for America's Heroes
October-December 2017
By: John Delury

Irony is not the strong suit of monumental historians, and Green fails to acknowledge the irony in his own thesis, namely that Americans tend to carve out one exception to the rule of zero tolerance for hegemons, and that is the United States itself. Indeed, the current geopolitical tension in the Asia-Pacific boils down to whether the United States can settle for shared or partial hegemony, and whether Beijing can do the same. If not – if China adopts the American principle that no other power should have hegemonic control or if the United States insists on maintaining the status quo of its post-1945 hegemony – then we are sailing into the jaws of American political scientist Graham Allison’s so-called Thucydides Trap, where war between states becomes inevitable.

We will return later to Green’s treatment of China’s rise, but first, let’s look at how his monumental approach shapes the story of the preceding centuries.

Providence, design and contingency

The concept of “design” is central to Green’s argument, explaining the meaning behind the book’s poetic title. The United States did not merely stumble into its role as the pillar of security in Asia after victory in August 1945. Instead, Green argues that American predominance as a Pacific power is the fruit of centuries of deliberate strategic effort by key statesmen and their advisers. Great leaders and brilliant strategists are the prime movers of this story, the agents of a history that goes back to the earliest days of the Republic in the late 18th century.

This emphasis on “design” gives rise to a danger inherent in monumental history: the temptation of teleology. Determined to find his grand design in the past so as to educate the present and future, Green runs the risk of reading history backward and distorting its true complexity. The alternative to “design,” after all, may be contingency, rather than providence. Life is messy, reality is complicated and international affairs do not play out according to strategic plans agreed upon in situation rooms and command centers. Common sense tells us this every day as we scroll through the news, but there is a temptation when looking back in hindsight to give things a greater sense of coherence than they deserve – whether thanks to providence (the laws of Karl Marx) or design (the great men of Thomas Carlyle). American historian Henry Adams put it well: “History is a tangled skein that one may take up at any point, and break when one has unraveled enough; but complexity precedes evolution.” In Green’s history, however, design obscures complexity.

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