Through history, the American eagle has flown overseas and back, wrestling with a dilemma: How, and to what extent, should the United States be engaged in promoting its ideals around the world? From the first time America engaged countries abroad, realists and idealists have fought to make their ideas dominant in foreign policy.
Some say this vacillation is unavoidable. Foreign policy, they argue, is in large part a response to situations arising beyond our national jurisdiction. Thus good intentions must be checked with seasoned calculation based on national strategic interest, even at the cost of displaying inconsistency. But our priority always should be the proliferation of American ideals abroad.
Flexibility is necessary; no one can refute that. But the question must be: Is flexibility tactical or strategic? What constitutes the core of our strategic interest, after all, and what element is most critical to the survival of America?
To answer that question, one needs to ponder the bedrocks upon which this country is founded. Not an incredibly long and glorious history, upon which China may rest its fate; not an unbroken lineage of a single ethnic group, in which Japan takes pride; and certainly not a powerful religious institution, which the Vatican boasts.
America, above all dictionary definitions, is a coherent set of ideas — among them self-reliance, freedom to think and express, and conviction in progress.
That dictating feature has advantages: In the past, this country’s success has largely lain in its ability to reorient the structure of world order toward its ideals. But ideas are also fragile: The survival of the country depends upon the preservation of those ideas and the affiliated social and political institutions, and such ideas can hardly be satisfied by a static success; they have to manifest themselves and proliferate continuously, or they’ll wither away. What the historian Gordon Wood labeled as the radicalism of the American Revolution has never submerged; if it were to, this nation would cease to exist.
And that relates to the issue of the pluralism and the so-called multi-polar world. We reside in a world market where different ideas on how human institutions ought to be constructed and human affairs be conducted compete with each other. Though some consider Samuel Huntington a radical for arguing that future wars and conflicts will arise more from the clash of ideas than conflict over raw material interest, history has provided the evidence for his claim.
Unfortunately, not all ideas can live together peacefully. And those who survive the competition never sit still.
One of the most fundamental challenges we face today is the speeding erosion of the international system we built and of which we are still in charge. A few players in the system now demand a change of rules, and some outside the system have launched their direct attacks against the architecture. People have just begun to realize this, and they have started worrying about it.
The hesitance and inconsistency of our foreign policy has played out again in recent international actions. The speedy removal of Saddam, the lingering in Sudan and Rwanda and our different opinions on the independence of Kosovo and Abkhazia have discredited America further as a hypocritical superpower in the eyes of our allies and opponents alike.
But those who believe America is suddenly faltering forget that a structure begins to disintegrate at the moment it is built. For centuries this country has tried to keep the system as it stands, looking gorgeously admirable. But we have failed to understand that keeping the structure as it stands never best preserves order. And we have failed to react swiftly enough to reorient the order toward an American image.
Arguing for the aggressive advancement of American ideas might not be well received by the general public under the current complex circumstances of world politics. Indeed, as Hegel once put it, the point of resolution is the point of highest contradiction. But a lesson well known to history, though, is that the greatness of a nation is measured neither in glory nor majesty, but in its capacity to carry the burden of defending its core values.
Rome failed the test in the end because that burden crushed its spirit. Now the test is upon us.
Rob Li is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.