Santa Clara University

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HIST 171: The New Nation

Perched in the corner of George Giacomini’s office is an old Underwood portable typewriter, a miner’s lamp from the north of England, and a Curious George stuffed toy (a gift, that). But front and center on Giacomini’s desk is a portrait of John Quincy Adams. The image is of the sixth president in profile, etched in glass. The portrait has held that place of prominence for years; look at photos of Giacomini’s office from 20 years ago, and there’s JQA on the desk. So, not surprising, when you ask Giacomini whether he, as a diplomatic historian, has any heroes from the annals of foreign policy, he points to Adams.

“Greatest secretary of state the United States ever had,” Giacomini says. “Not a great president, but a great secretary of state. He had a vision for the United States and its place in the world that I agree with. I used a quote from John Quincy Adams in the 1994 talk I gave to the Honors Program convocation: ‘We go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.’ The United States shouldn’t be a crusader; we set an example, and they can follow our example, but we’re not out there crusading. At the same time, John Quincy Adams defined the boundaries of the Louisiana Territory, ending up on the Pacific Coast, the 42nd parallel.”

The Honors Program convocation Giacomini delivered was “The Not-so-New New World Order,” offering his assessment of the first years post–Cold War. Then—and now—Giacomini says, he saw that, in the early 1990s, “we were moving into a period like the 19th century, when the U.S. didn’t play much of a role internationally, and thus, we didn’t have a lot of good experience to apply. The New World Order is really an Old World Order. But we didn’t play in that Old World. So I thought then that we were going to have some problems, and that’s exactly what we have. And now, we’re playing the Great Game.”

In the Great Game the first time around, it was largely the British and Russian empires vying for influence in Central Asia—with present-day Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq on the table. These days, China and the United States are among major players in the region. With anxiety over oil, terrorism, and nuclear weapons there to keep things interesting.

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