When the first European settlers came to New England, they deliberately set out to create a new and more moral society than the one they had left behind. This new society was to be "a city upon a hill," and a beacon to all mankind. Arrogant as that theme may sound, it has been a constant refrain through much of American history. The men who signed the Declaration of Independence saw their rebellion not as a simple matter of wanting to exchange one form of government for another, but of standing up, in the sight of the world, for certain immutable principles of liberty and democracy. A little over a dozen years later, many of these same men cheered the French Revolution as a candle lit by their own flame. And in the midst of a great civil war, Abraham Lincoln called the American form of government "mankind's last, best hope."

There are some who see American diplomacy as little more than blending together democratic idealism and a realistic concern for national interest. The American goals of liberty, democracy and free enterprise are, in their eyes, most worthy goals which other nations ought to be encouraged to emulate. American wars, in this mindset, have been fought for noble purposes. And there is no question but that Americans have been most comfortable when foreign policy has led to war if they could honestly believe that they were fighting for justice and democratic ideals.

A second school of thought, shared by laypersons and scholars alike, labels itself as more realistic. This group believes that too often in its past, the United States has been naive in its foreign policy, and because they do enjoy a democratic society, Americans tend to oscillate between a policy of isolation designed to insulate the country from evil foreign influences and meaningless foreign wars, and a policy of militant internationalism designed to make other nations over into their own image.

The truth is somewhere in between, but probably closer to the "realist" point of view. There is no question but that a more hardheaded analysis of American interests might have led to less belligerency and less involvement in some overseas adventures. But it is also true that American ideals are not simple abstractions, but do in fact play a key role in determining American policy.

The United States was blessed for well over a century after gaining its independence by its ability to avoid entangling itself in foreign affairs. Given the simple modes of transportation and communication available at the time, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans served as great natural barriers to insulate the country from the rest of the world. This is just what the founding generation wanted, and at least in part the purchase of the great Louisiana territory from France in 1803 was designed to give Americans sufficient room to expand for generations. When European nations lost additional colonies in the New World, the United States was strong enough to tell them that the Americas were no longer subject to European designs.

But the world changed, and the United States, slowly and reluctantly, had to change as well. Against its wishes, the nation was drawn into two world wars and then, as can be seen in Part IX, it became entangled in a forty-year Cold War as well. Whether one wishes to consider it naivete or not, the articulation of American foreign policy aims in terms of ideals was important, not only to the people at home, but to nations and their citizens overseas. Just as the Declaration of Independence took on meanings far beyond what its drafters may have intended, so Wilson's vision of a world order as articulated in the Fourteen Points, Franklin Roosevelt's notion of mutual security and the Atlantic Charter and Jimmy Carter's belief in the need for international decency also took on meanings that far transcended their immediate purpose.

Cynics may complain that these high-sounding phrases meant little, that all they did was to cover up base motives of imperialism and expansionism. But words are important, and statements such as these regarding foreign policy help to define a nation's character as much as do noble declarations of internal policies.

For further reading: Gabriel Kolko, The Roots of American Foreign Policy (1969); Thomas A. Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People (1980 ed.); Thomas G. Paterson, J. Garry Clifford, and Kenneth J. Hagan, American Foreign Policy: A History (1983 ed.); and Jerald A. Combs, The History of American Foreign Policy (1986).

  1. George Washington, Farewell Address (1796)
  2. The Monroe Doctrine (1823)
  3. Woodrow Wilson, Fourteen Points Speech (1918)
  4. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Address at Charlottesville (1940)
  5. The Atlantic Charter (1941)
  6. Foreign Aid and Human Rights (1976)
  7. Jimmy Carter, Human Rights and Foreign Policy (1977)
  8. Sanctions Against South Africa (1986)

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