150 Years Of The Atlantic July/August 2006

Idealism & Practicality

This is the sixth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic.
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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

For the full text of these articles, visit www.theatlantic/ideastour.

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