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From the start, a tension has been built into America’s relations with the outside world—a tension between idealism and practicality.

The idealistic impulse was expressed long before there was an America, in John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon about Boston’s destined role as a “city upon a hill” with “the eyes of all people upon us.” It grows from the assumption that America is a society different from all others, inventing a model of freedom, opportunity, and self-government toward which all others might aspire. America’s duty is to help the rest of the world toward this goal, by example when possible and through force when necessary. America’s responsibility to freedom-seeking people elsewhere rings through a statement as old as the Declaration of Independence and as recent as President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address, with its reminder that “America’s influence is considerable, and we will use it confidently in freedom’s cause.”

The practical impulse is based on the recognition that America is like all other nations in having territorial, economic, and military interests to defend, and limited (though large) resources with which to do so. It was expressed in the Constitution’s careful limits on the power to make war, in George Washington’s warning against “permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world,” and in current recommendations that the country cut its losses in Iraq.

Neither impulse, in pure form, is sustainable as a policy. Strictly idealistic undertakings eventually become too costly—in money, lives, and other assets. Wholly expedient and self-interested strategies eventually offend America’s self-image as a nobler exception among nations. Thus the story of American engagement with the world is the continual effort to find the right combination of idealism and practicality, and to readjust that balance almost as soon as it is set.

The eight essays collected here show the remarkable constancy of this tension through very different circumstances. More remarkable is that any of them can be read for its bearing on today’s foreign-policy debates. The starkest contrast is between views expressed at opposite ends of the Cold War: Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s, in the early years, with a case for all-fronts American engagement with the world, versus Stanley Hoffmann’s, just before the end, with a reminder of what the United States cannot control. The most eerily timely may be an essay written more than seventy-five years ago: Reinhold Niebuhr’s, on America’s struggles as an imperialist power.

James Fallows

Archival excerpts:

The Growth of Our Foreign Policy (March 1900)
by Richard Olnehy
Two years after the Spanish-American War left the United States for the first time in command of overseas territories (including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines), former Secretary of State Richard Olney hailed the country's emergence as a world power, but warned against ill-considered expansion or excessive missionary zeal.

The Ideals of America (December 1902)
by Woodrow Wilson
In 1902, future President Woodrow Wilson—then the president of Princeton University—enthusiastically welcomed "the century that shall see us a great power in the world."

Trans-national America July 1916)
by Randolph Bourne
As World War I unfolded in Europe and intensified ethnic antagonisms, native-born Americans became increasingly suspicious of the pockets of immigrant culture thriving among them. In 1916, the critic and essayist Randolph Bourne challenged such attitudes with an essay—now considered a classic of forward thinking—calling for a new, more cosmopolitan conception of America and a reconsideration of the “melting-pot” theory.

Awkward Imperialists (May 1930)
by Reinhold Niebuhr
Just over a decade after World War I, the theologian and public intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr warned of the pitfalls of America's rapid rise to power.

The New Isolationism (May 1952)
by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
At the height of the Cold War, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a Pulitzer Prize–winning Harvard history professor who would later go on to serve as an adviser to President Kennedy, warned against the resurgence of a long-standing—and in his view dangerous—aversion to American engagement with the outside world.

Foreign Policy and the Crisis Mentality (January 1967)
by George McGovern
As the war in Vietnam escalated through the 1960s, contention over America's involvement in that conflict mounted at home. In 1967, an Atlantic essay by George McGovern—one of the war's most prominent and outspoken critics—decried what the senator saw as an unfortunate American tendency to make precipitate leaps into foreign entanglements "of uncertain significance."

What Should We Do In The World? (October 1989)
by Stanley Hoffman
A month before the Berlin Wall fell, The Atlantic published a consideration by the Harvard political-science professor Stanley Hoffman of what the easing of Cold War tensions would—and should—mean for the future of American foreign policy.

Beyond American Empire (July/August 2003)
by Robert D. Kaplan
Three years ago, Atlantic correspondent Robert D. Kaplan characterized the United States as an empire at the height of its powers, and argued that in the not-so-distant future, it must relinquish its dominance to "a worthy successor."