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Understanding American Foreign Policy

Max Paul Friedman

Max Paul Friedman

Max Paul Friedman recently published a book on the history of U.S. foreign relations. But before he was writing history books, he was writing the first draft of history—the news.

Even though he double majored in history and Latin American studies at Oberlin College for his undergraduate degrees, Friedman found himself working as an assistant producer at National Public Radio after he interned there.

“When I was in college, I wanted to go and do something that would make a difference,” the AU history professor said. “I thought journalism could be a vehicle for social change.”

Friedman said he did a lot of in-depth research as a journalist. He was a research assistant for Daniel Schorr, a former CBS reporter and then senior news analyst at NPR. Friedman said it was “historical” to work with the older, three-time Emmy winning journalist.

“The way he would analyze the news is, ‘What does this conflict today remind me of?’” Friedman said. Schorr often drew from his own personal experiences of reporting in the Soviet Union and working abroad, which then Friedman fleshed out with more historical research.

While he was working at NPR, Friedman also moonlighted as a research assistant for Seymour Hersh, the investigative reporter best known for uncovering the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. Hersh was writing a book on the Israeli nuclear weapons program, The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy, and Friedman said he did a lot of research on the history of U.S. relations with the Middle East.

Friedman said that while journalism calls for some analysis, it really emphasizes speed and the news of the day. He realized that he liked the stories that other journalists classified as “thumb-suckers”—long-form, analytical stories that look at the historical origins of an issue and all the people involved.

“You’re not advancing the story, you’re not getting the scoop,” Friedman said. “You’re going backwards. You’re sitting there, sucking your thumb, instead of hitting the pavement and finding out the secret of the day, and getting it before anybody else.”

Friedman went to graduate school and got his doctoral degree because he said he thought it would make him a better journalist. That decision set him on a path to write book-length thumb-suckers, like his most recent, Rethinking Anti-Americanism: The History of an Exceptional Concept in American Foreign Relations.

“I’ve been a critic of U.S. foreign policy since I was a child,” Friedman said. He grew up in Berkeley, California, and said he was very aware of the Vietnam War protests happening there. As he questioned the policies of U.S. leaders, Friedman said he found history was a useful way to answer those questions.

“Understanding: what have been precedents for U.S. foreign policy, how have we gotten involved with different regions of the world?” he said. “And also how have we confronted dilemmas in the past that are reproduced in the present?”

Friedman cited the saying that history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes, and he referenced the many parallels between the Vietnam War and the war in Afghanistan.

“It’s a very difficult strategy to suppress a revolutionary force or an insurgency by backing a government that itself is very unpopular,” he said.

Using other historical “rhymes,” Friedman made the case in Rethinking Anti-Americanism that the perception of foreigners as anti-American has been a problem for U.S. foreign policy for the past 200 years. One of the examples he gives in the book is the comparison of the outrage against the French for their lack of support before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the same outrage that occurred in the early 1960s when the French did not support the United States getting involved in Vietnam.

“We couldn’t listen to the recommendations of our allies because we have this idea that foreigners are anti-American,” he said. Americans wrongly tend to think that “they hate us—they hate us because we’re free, they hate us because of our wealth and our success, because our country is so great.”

Friedman said he realized that the United States has a problem with anti-Americanism, not with so many foreigners hating the country.

“It’s a word that has a great deal of power, and I think a really pernicious effect, in standing between Americans and a better understanding of the world,” he said.