America: What in the World Does It Want to Be?
NEW YORK - George Washington, first
president, said this: "It is our true policy to steer clear of
permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world."
Cleaver, civil rights leader, said this: "Americans think of themselves
collectively as a huge rescue squad on 24-hour call."
Keith, populist country singer, said this: "This big dog will fight
when you rattle his cage - and you'll be sorry that you messed with the
U.S. of A."
Now: Place those three divergent
sentiments in a large bowl. Whip vigorously until blended. There you'll
have, in one curious, often contradictory recipe, the world-changing,
world-shaking world view of the quixotic species known as the American
When 21st-century Americans
contemplate their place on the planet, they confront a complex history
of isolationism and engagement, a deep instinct to live and let live
that coexists with an equally fervent desire to be a robust beacon of
freedom - sometimes by any means necessary.
means that, while a presidential transition offers many limbos, none is
quite so stark as the expected change in the approach, method and
technique of foreign policy that will come with the inauguration of
Barack Obama on Tuesday.
"It's a very plastic moment," says Eric Rauchway, author of "Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America."
arrival of Obama and his secretary of state designate, Hillary Rodham
Clinton, represents a baton-passing between two distinct versions of
the American world view - George W. Bush's interventionist,
we-know-best foreign policy and Obama's vow to "restore our moral
Both of those outlooks have their
merits and their supporters. In the era after 9/11, particularly,
Americans' hunger for security in the "homeland" is fervent - enough so
that we re-elected Bush in 2004 more than a year after he ordered the
invasion of Iraq on a false premise.
polls show an increasing dissatisfaction with how America plays with
others in the international sandbox, and the neoconservatives who
pushed a more aggressive American position toward the world - men such
as Donald Rumsfeld, John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz - left the Bush
administration years ago.
But when a new
president gazes out upon the republic and looks for clues to consider
the American mood toward the world and craft policy accordingly,
sometimes it's all quite difficult to figure out.
are a welcoming people who have embraced waves of immigrants who have
changed us - and keep changing us - in productive ways. Yet ours is a
suspicious land where accusations of Frenchness helped sour voters
against John Kerry and, days after 9/11, anti-Muslim sentiment claimed
the life of an Indian Sikh - the cultural equivalent of mistaking a
pine tree for a chrysanthemum bush.
This is a
country where ordering Chinese takeout has become a fundamentally
American activity, yet also where legions of non-passport-holders who
devour the mediated experiences of "Morocco" and "Japan" at Walt Disney
World's Epcot Center would never dream of visiting the real thing.
this is a nation where festivals celebrating faraway cultures are held
in the smallest, least diverse of communities - but where an average
senior citizen in Frederick, Md., will issue whispered warnings about
black helicopters and the one-world government that's surely going to
usurp our sovereignty.
"We need others and
others need us. And we don't like that," says Schuyler Foerster,
president of the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, one of many such
groups that work with their regions to facilitate American engagement
with the world.
Jack Holmes, a political
scientist at Hope College in Holland, Mich., studies long-term foreign
policy trends. He says American attitudes typically pinball every
couple of decades between two phases, "introvert" and "extrovert," and
are approaching the end of an extrovert phase.
He doesn't expect an introverted Obama administration but thinks the public is ready for changes in strategy, tactics and tone.
are never quite happy with what their role is in the world. Either they
want to show the world how to do it, or sit back and set an example
that the world can follow," Holmes says. But with a sharp change in
policy and attitude potentially at hand, he says, "The American public
is at a very important moment when it comes to how this country sees
Evidence is everywhere, and has been
for many generations, that this country sees itself as a "shining city
upon a hill," as one of its earliest leaders, John Winthrop, put it - a
metaphor that Ronald Reagan reintroduced effectively in the 1980s.
"Inspiration is our export," says Ted Widmer, author of "Ark of the Liberties: America and the World."
tendency to be a model for humanity created a magnificent society built
on ideas and ideals - and also got a lot of people killed.
is the instinct that makes Americans the most philanthropic people in
the world. It also makes them a wellspring of resentment by nations
that bristle at what they call U.S. arrogance - something that
perplexes many good Americans who say they are only trying to help.
"I think we do underestimate the degree that our actions are considered by people of other countries," Widmer says.
fact, when foreigners actually visit America they seem to come away
charmed. U.S. Travel, the leading industry group for the travel sector,
surveyed more than 2,000 foreign nationals and found those who had
visited the United States were 74 percent more likely to have a
favorable opinion about Americans than those who had not.
the American people are being themselves, it is proven to work," says
Geoff Freeman, U.S. Travel's senior vice president for public affairs.
been a healthy debate in this country as to, `Does it matter what the
world thinks of us?'" he says. "And I think that the past eight years
have turned much of that debate toward, `Yes, it does matter.'"
matters because, like it or not, the domino effect isn't just about
communism anymore. Markets fail in Asia, and Americans convulse. Jobs
shed in Dubuque show up in Dubai. And, most dramatically,
foreign-policy decisions executed in far-off lands can have direct
security effects at home.
At the same time,
engaging Americans in the nuances of foreign affairs has often proven
difficult. Not only does geography keep most things far away in concept
if not in fact, but many of the 21st century's diffuse global realities
are difficult to wrangle because they lack visual, Hollywood-style
Instead of dust bowls and bread
lines, we have intricate financial networks that connect us with the
world but are impossible for all but experts to visualize. Instead of
menacing footage of Nazi rallies or Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe,
we have an undefined enemy who roams the globe surreptitiously and
hides in plain sight. And instead of the movie ending with a climax -
an Iraq invasion, say - the aftermath trickles on and the mission is
not, in fact, yet accomplished.
years of Bush foreign policy, the Democrats have insisted, quite
vociferously, that they understand America's place in the world better
than their rivals. On Tuesday, they get to show us if they're right.
must use what has been called `smart power,'" Clinton told the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee at her confirmation hearing last week.
That, she said, means deploying "the full range of tools at our
disposal - diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and
cultural - picking the right tool or combination of tools for each
Is that the wariness of permanent
alliances? The huge rescue squad? The big dog unleashed? From
isolationism to Manifest Destiny, from emergence as a major power to
post-World War II consensus to neoconservative activism, American
history is replete with all three options.
the American people of the 21st century, part of a connected world for
better and worse, face the same challenge their leaders do:
understanding that, when it comes to reaching a hand into the complex
toolbox of world affairs, you'd better know how to use the implement