This thesis interrogates the changing parameters of the 'colonial question' in American foreign policy debates from 1865 to 1960. It does so through the lenses of the normative structures, social practices and corresponding identity claims that underpinned these debates. By the end of the nineteenth century, the United States had established formal control over a variety of dependant territories that encompassed the Caribbean, the Pacific and East Asia. A range of economic, strategic and ideological motivations underpinned American expansion. Most importantly, however, America's rise as a great power took place in the social context of a 'world of empires' in which colonialism was viewed as the natural, and indeed, ultimate expression of national status. Underpinning this order were a variety of social practices that reinforced the legitimacy of colonialism: the application of a 'standard of civilisation' premised on racialist assumptions; the denial of self-determination to colonised peoples, and colonial powers' right to intervene in the affairs of subjugated territories. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the domestic debates within the United States concerning its role in areas such as the Philippines reflected the force of these practices. Indeed, those that challenged the 'imperialist urge' in United States foreign policy were marginalised on the basis of these norms.
By the mid-twentieth century, however, formal colonialism was being challenged by evolving international norms that prescribed alternative social practices: legal racial equality; a right to national self-determination for colonial populations and; the application of principles of sovereignty and non-intervention to colonial territories. The subsequent institutionalisation of these social practices necessarily implied a fundamental change in the normative assumptions underpinning international society in the post-war period. After the Second World War, the United States would attempt to project an 'anti-colonial' identity through criticism of European colonial powers and the articulation of very different identity claims with respect to its own former dependent territories like the Philippines and Cuba. In less than fifty years, America had seemingly transformed from a 'status-quo' oriented power, committed to the reproduction of the existing colonial structure, to a 'revisionist' power, intent upon restructuring the normative basis of international order.
Given this shift, the research problem to be investigated is: how best can the evolution of the content of debates within America concerning the legitimacy of colonialism as an expression of its great power status from 1865 to 1960 be explained?
The response to this question presented here highlights the explanatory power of a 'constructivist' explanation of the changing parameters of the colonial question in United States foreign policy. This is premised on two interrelated arguments. First, I argue that the evolving content of the debates regarding the 'colonial question' in United States foreign policy were not principally about an unchanging set of American 'interests' but were about the identity claims that necessarily underpinned these interests. That is, these debates were centred upon the question of what norms and social practices would give meaning to its material capabilities and structure its relationship with both the European and non-European worlds. Second, because they involved relational or 'social' practices, I contend that the evolution of these debates regarding America's identity must be primarily viewed within the context of those changing, dominant norms and institutions that framed the legitimacy of colonialism at the level of international society. That is, because these debates concerned the construction of America's 'social identity', any meaningful account of American considerations of the colonial question must take into account the impact of dominant international norms and social practices in structuring these identity debates.