Research

My research explores the moral, political, and legal boundaries of the modern nation state. I am interested in the question of how Americans have tried to reconcile claims of national solidarity with international, trans- (and sub-) national commitments and allegiances. For much of the nineteenth century this question played out domestically in contests over citizenship and civic inclusion. The consolidation of the nation state in the aftermath of the Civil War only deepened the dilemma as the U.S. set out across the globe championing universal liberty and national interest, often in the same breath.

Historically, few Americans paid close attention over the years to the paradox inherent in the ideologies of manifest destiny, 100% Americanism, empire for liberty, and war to end war. My first book The Lost Promise of Patriotism focuses on those who did. It scrutinizes a group of American cultural critics—W.E.B. Du Bois, Jane Addams, Eugene V. Debs, among others—who resisted the imperialism latent in American civic identity and opposed the tendency of nationalism to swamp other social and political affiliations.

My second book Guantánamo: An American History elaborates on and extends these themes. The book sets out explain the development of a place beyond the reach of U.S., Cuban, and international law. In order to understand an apparent anomaly, it reaches back beyond the expansionary dreams of colonial Americans to the discovery of the New World.

I’m now at work on a biography of the young Fidel Castro, with a focus on Castro’s intellectual inheritance, political philosophy, and decision-making process—subject matter curiously absent from Castro biographies. Rather than interpreting Castro as a pawn in East-West relations, I show him attempting to chart a culturally specific (pluralist) path to political and economic development in a bi-polar world, while wrestling with a dilemma fundamental to war-torn postcolonial societies, namely how to balance civil and political liberties against more basic needs like access to food, clean water, healthcare, and education. A voracious and catholic reader, Castro drew simultaneously on European enlightenment and counter-enlightenment traditions, attempting to reconcile their universal lessons with what he believed to be a distinctive Latin American and, especially Cuban, history and culture. There is much Marx in Castro’s thinking, but no little Weber, much of the French Revolutionaries, but no little Romanticism, all of which, of course, yields pride of place to Cuba’s own José Martí—a veritable hodge-podge of intellectual influences in desperate need of sorting out.