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.
By Richard Olney
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.
Though historians will probably assign the abandonment of the isolation policy of the United States to the time when this country and Spain went to war over Cuba, and though the abandonment may have been precipitated by that contest, the change was inevitable, had been long preparing, and could not have been long delayed. The American people were fast opening their eyes to the fact that they were one of the foremost Powers of the earth and should play a commensurately great part in its affairs. Recognizing force to be the final arbiter between states as between individuals, and merit however conspicuous and well-founded in international law to be of small avail unless supported by adequate force, they were growing dissatisfied with an unreadiness for the use of their strength which made our representatives abroad less regarded than those of many a second or third class state, and left American lives and property in foreign countries comparatively defenseless ...;
The United States has come out of its shell and ceased to be a hermit among the nations, naturally and properly. What was not necessary and is certainly of the most doubtful expediency is that it should at the same time become a colonizing Power on an immense scale ...
[No great power] can afford not to attend strictly to its own business and not to make the welfare of its own people its primary object—none can afford to regard itself as a sort of missionary nation charged with the rectification of errors and the redress of wrongs the world over. Were the United States to enter upon its new international role with the serious purpose of carrying out any such theory, it would not merely be laughed at but voted a nuisance by all other nations—and treated accordingly.
Volume 85, No. 509, pp. 289–301
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.”
It took the war of 1812 to give us spirit and full consciousness and pride of station as a nation. That was the real war of independence for our political parties. It was then we cut our parties and our passions loose from politics over sea, and set ourselves to make a career which should be indeed our own. That accomplished, and our weak youth turned to callow manhood, we stretched our hand forth again to the west, set forth with a new zest and energy upon the western rivers and the rough trails that led across the mountains and down to the waters of the Mississippi. There lay a continent to be possessed ...
That rolling, resistless tide, incalculable in its strength, infinite in its variety, has made us what we are; has put the resources of a huge continent at our disposal; has provoked us to invention and given us mighty captains of industry. This great pressure of a people moving always to new frontiers, in search of new lands, new power, the full freedom of a virgin world, has ruled our course and formed our policies like a Fate. It gave us, not Louisiana alone, but Florida also. It forced war with Mexico upon us, and gave us the coasts of the Pacific. It swept Texas into the Union. It made far Alaska a territory of the United States. Who shall say where it will end? ...
The day of our isolation is past. We shall learn much ourselves now that we stand closer to other nations and compare ourselves first with one and again with another ...
It is by the widening of vision that nations, as men, grow and are made great. We need not fear the expanding scene. It was plain destiny that we should come to this, and if we have kept our ideals clear, unmarred, commanding through the great century and the moving scenes that made us a nation, we may keep them also through the century that shall see us a great power in the world. Let us put our leading characters at the front; let us pray that vision may come with power; let us ponder our duties like men of conscience and temper our ambitions like men who seek to serve, not to subdue, the world; let us lift our thoughts to the level of the great tasks that await us, and bring a great age in with the coming of our day of strength.
Volume 90, No. 542, pp. 721–734
By Randolph S. 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.
No reverberatory effect of the great war has caused American public opinion more solicitude than the failure of the “melting-pot.” The discovery of diverse nationalistic feelings among our great alien population has come to most people as an intense shock ...
The foreign cultures have not been melted down or run together, made into some homogeneous Americanism, but have remained distinct but cooperating to the greater glory and benefit, not only of themselves but of all the native “Americanism” around them.
The failure of the melting-pot, far from closing the great American democratic experiment, means that it has only just begun. Whatever American nationalism turns out to be, we see already that it will have a color richer and more exciting than our ideal has hitherto encompassed. In a world which has dreamed of internationalism, we find that we have all unawares been building up the first international nation ... What we have achieved has been ... a cosmopolitan federation of national colonies, of foreign cultures, from whom the sting of devastating competition has been removed. America is already the world-federation in miniature, the continent where for the first time in history has been achieved that miracle of hope, the peaceful living side by side, with character substantially preserved, of the most heterogeneous peoples under the sun. Nowhere else has such contiguity been anything but the breeder of misery. Here, notwithstanding our tragic failures of adjustment, the outlines are already too clear not to give us a new vision and a new orientation of the American mind in the world ...
America is coming to be, not a nationality but a trans-nationality, a weaving back and forth, with the other lands, of many threads of all sizes and colors. Any movement which attempts to thwart this weaving, or to dye the fabric any one color, or disentangle the threads of the strands, is false to this cosmopolitan vision ...
The attempt to weave a wholly novel international nation out of our chaotic America will liberate and harmonize the creative power of all these peoples and give them the new spiritual citizenship, as so many individuals have already been given, of a world.
Volume 118, No. 1, pp. 86–97
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.
Our empire was developed almost overnight. At the beginning of the World War we were still in debt to the world ... We wiped out our debt and put the world in our debt by well-nigh thirty billion dollars in little more than a decade, and we have increased our holdings in the outside world by one to two billion dollars per year ...
We are not prosperous because we are imperialists; we are imperialists because we are prosperous ...
We are a business people who know nothing about the intricacies of politics, especially international politics, and in the flush of youthful pride we make no calculations of the reactions to our attitudes in the minds of others.
Our lack of imagination is increased by the fact that we have come into our position of authority too suddenly to adjust ourselves to its responsibilities and that we are geographically too isolated from the world to come into intimate contact with the thought of others. It was only yesterday that we were a youthful nation, conscious of making an adventure in democratic government which the older nations did not quite approve, and we still imagine that it is our virtue rather than our power which the older nations envy ...
We hold ourselves aloof from international councils because we feel ourselves too powerful to be in need of counseling with others, but we are able to practise the deception of imagining that our superior political virtue rather than our superior economic strength makes such abstention possible and advisable ...
It has always been the habit of fortunate people to ascribe their luck or their fortune to their own moral qualities rather than to any inscrutability of history, and our fortune-favored nation has developed this habit with the greatest possible consistency ...
We still maintain the fiction that nothing but the love of peace actuates our foreign policy. A certain amount of hypocrisy which varies between honest self-deception and conscious dishonesty characterizes the life of every nation ...
We make simple moral judgments, remain unconscious of the self-interest which colors them, support them with an enthusiasm which derives from our waning but still influential evangelical piety, and are surprised that our contemporaries will not accept us as saviors of the world.
Volume 145, No. 5, pp. 670–675
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.
Today we face a New Isolationism, bent upon what promises to be a fundamental attack on the foreign policy to which the United States and the free world are presently committed.
The internationalist euphoria of the past decade should not lead us to overlook the deep roots which isolationism has in the national consciousness. Americans have always had a natural and splendid exultation in the uniqueness of a new continent and a new society. The New World had been called into existence to redress the moral as well as the diplomatic balance of the Old; we could not defile the sacredness of our national mission by too careless intercourse with the world whose failure made our own necessary. Two great oceans fostered the sense of distance, emphasized the tremendous act of faith involved in emigration, and, at the same time, spared the new land the necessity for foreign involvements ...
How are the New Isolationists to get around the fact that their proposals are greeted with loud cheers in the Kremlin? ...
The triumph of [isolationism] could lead abroad only to an overflow of Soviet power into the regions from which we retreat—until we are forced back into the Western Hemispheres, or, what is more likely, until we perceive what we are doing and then, having invited Soviet expansion, strike back in the panic of total war ...
The words of the New Isolationism count less than the deeds; and the deeds shape up into a sinister pattern. The consolation is that this is probably a last convulsive outbreak of an old nostalgia. Once we have exorcised this latest version of isolationism, we may at last begin to live in the twentieth century.
Volume 189, No. 5, pp. 34–38
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.”
The thirteen colonies which leveled their muskets against the established order have evolved into the world’s mightiest power in a highly dangerous nuclear age. This is a responsibility which demands a rare capacity to distinguish between fundamental forces at work around the globe and localized crises of uncertain significance.
But there is a disturbing American tendency to overreact to certain ideological and military factors while overlooking issues of vastly greater relevance to our safety and well-being. A civil insurrection in Santo Domingo or Vietnam is dramatic, but what is its significance compared with such quiet challenges as the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the surging of nationalism and social upheavals in the developing world, or the mounting crisis of hunger and population? What, too, is the relationship of the quality and strength of our own society to our position in the world? How will the world see us if we succeed in pacifying Vietnam but fail to pacify Chicago?
Volume 219, No. 1, pp. 55–57
By Stanley Hoffmann
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.
In the world we have entered there will be many things that the United States can do nothing about. We should accept this state of affairs and, incidentally, perhaps even be grateful for it. It is a world in which war is no longer the principal and often inevitable mode of change; change comes more often now from domestic revolutions, about which we can and should do very little, because usually we do not understand the political cultures and trends of other countries and often we make mistakes. Change also, now that the pressures exerted by the Cold War are easing, comes from the rebirth of nationalisms. Many of the new forces of nationalism may lead to explosions and revolutions, about which, again, there will be very little that we or anybody else in the West can do. The task therefore is not to eliminate trouble everywhere in the world. Instead, we must devise what could be described as a new containment: not of the Soviet Union (although this will be part of it, insofar as conflicts of interest with the Soviets will continue) but of the various forms of violence and chaos that a world no longer dominated by the Cold War will entail. It is a complicated agenda, but it is at least different from the agenda we have had for so long.
Volume 264, No. 4, pp. 84–96
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.”
No doubt there are some who see an American empire as the natural order of things for all time. That is not a wise outlook. The task ahead for the United States has an end point, and in all probability the end point lies not beyond the conceptual horizon but in the middle distance—a few decades from now. For a limited period the United States has the power to write the terms for international society, in hopes that when the country’s imperial hour has passed, new international institutions and stable regional powers will have begun to flourish, creating a kind of civil society for the world ... There will be nothing approaching a true world government, but we may be able to nurture a loose set of global arrangements that have arisen organically among responsible and like-minded states.
If this era of reluctant imperium is to leave a lasting global mark, we must know what we are up to; we must have a sense that supremacy is bent toward a purpose and is not simply an end in itself. In many ways the few decades immediately ahead will be the trickiest ones that our policymakers have ever faced: they are charged with the job of running an empire that looks forward to its own obsolescence.
Winston Churchill saw in the United States a worthy successor to the British Empire, one that would carry on Britain’s liberalizing mission. We cannot rest until something emerges that is just as estimable and concrete as what Churchill saw.
Volume 292, No. 1, pp. 65–83
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