Technology is ubiquitous in the history of US foreign relations. Throughout US history, technology has played an essential role in how a wide array of Americans have traveled to and from, learned about, understood, recorded and conveyed information about, and attempted to influence, benefit from, and exert power over other lands and peoples. The challenge for the historian is not to find where technology intersects with the history of US foreign relations, but how to place a focus on technology without falling prey to deterministic assumptions about the inevitability of the global power and influence—or lack thereof—the United States has exerted through the technology it has wielded.
“Foreign relations” and “technology” are, in fact, two terms with extraordinarily broad connotations. “Foreign relations” is not synonymous with “diplomacy,” but encompasses all aspects and arenas of American engagement with the world. “Technology” is itself “an unusually slippery term,” notes prominent technology historian David Nye, and can refer to simple tools, more complex machines, and even more complicated and expansive systems on which the functionality of many other innovations depends. Furthermore, processes of technological innovation, proliferation, and patterns of use are shaped by a dizzying array of influences embedded within the larger surrounding context, including but by no means limited to politics, economics, laws, culture, international exchanges, and environment. While some of the variables that have shaped how the United States has deployed its technological capacities were indeed distinctly American, others arose outside the United States and lay beyond any American ability to control. A technology-focused rendering of US foreign relations and global ascendancy is not, therefore, a narrative of uninterrupted progress and achievement, but an accounting of both successes and failures that illuminate how surrounding contexts and decisions have variably shaped, encouraged, and limited the technology and power Americans have wielded.