America: Dual Role

America: the new “promised land” isolated from the rest of the world. But also a “light for the nations” in the defense of justice and human rights. The interaction of two opposing tendencies will determine the moves made by American foreign policy in 2002

By Lorenzo Albacete

As Americans look at the world at the beginning of 2002, the most noticeable thing is that they are looking at the world. And as they look at the world, Americans feel the same contradictions that from the beginning have been part of the American experience of the world beyond its borders.

The relationship between America as a nation and the rest of the world has been historically characterized by a conflict between two different views held at the same time. This continues to be the case today.

On the one hand, the myths or narratives that express and guide the American experience have been fashioned in terms of the Biblical Exodus story about the formation of the “promised land.” It involves three stages: the old situation from which the people are set free, the divinely guided passage from old to new, and the settlement and construction of the new land, a completely new world.

According to this view, the world beyond the borders of the new land is the “old” world, a world ruled by self-appointed religious leaders, tyrants, and decadent aristocracies, with its inhabitants sunk in poverty, ignorance, and superstition. If there is an embodiment of what the “old” stands for, it is the Catholic Church (and corrupt Protestantism.) It is “Romanism” and its two most corrupt expressions: the Pope and Spain. Liberation, true freedom, comes from a return to “pure Biblical Christianity” in the new Promised Land. The American land with its vast open spaces is God’s gift to those who will live according to this faith. America is the new Zion, the New Jerusalem, the city built upon a hill for all to see, admire, and envy.

This original myth was totally secularized in the thought of the “founding fathers” of the American republic, but the format still remained and is part of the American narrative even today, even if unconsciously.

In another world
This means that the American people tend to see themselves as separate from the rest of the world. Therefore, this feeling of isolationism was part of the American founding experience itself, and it is not surprising that in his last address as President, George Washington warned against “entanglement” with foreign alliances. Today, even when Americans are more aware than ever of the rest of the world, even though so much of the quality of American life depends on resources coming from outside the United States, in spite of a globalization of economics that favors the United States, the American people still harbor this isolationism that makes them think of “foreign policy” as important only when the security of the United States is clearly threatened.

This sentiment obviously works against any idea of a particular “role” or mission or responsibility for the rest of the world. A deep part of the American psyche resents having had to perform this role in two world wars and beyond. Appeals by our leaders to policies dictated by a “unique role” in the world do not evoke a great response. At the present time, the President may speak of “freeing the world” from terrorism, or of fighting against “evil” in the world, but these things do not move the American people for long. The American empire is not the outcome of the “imperialism” of the American people. They would be perfectly satisfied with a foreign policy based on “live and let live.”

Of course, it was easy to maintain this attitude as long as two oceans separated the American land from the old world, making difficult an attack on the United States by foreign powers. During the Cold War, the American people realized that technology had made their territory vulnerable and so its leaders were able to justify a strong American presence around the world. At the end of the Cold War, isolationism again became respectable, and popular. Attention turned immediately inwards. Domestic issues gained priority. After the Gulf War crisis, a relatively unknown governor of a southern state was able to defeat a President whose popularity soared to record highs during the crisis. Most of the people couldn’t care less that Governor Clinton was inexperienced in foreign policy. The expertise of George Bush I was of no avail to him.

Immigrants and dominant culture
On the other hand, it would seem that in a nation founded by immigrants, the different immigrant communities would seek to keep the attention of their new nation on their lands of origin. While this has been true in some cases (most dramatically, of course, in the case of the Jews and Israel), the power of assimilation into the one dominant Anglo-Saxon culture prevailed over such particular interests. In recent times, the vast number of non-European white immigrants has led some to question the assimilating power of the dominant culture and its founding myth, but there is not yet any really serious basis to doubt that the fundamental categories of American life will be determined by the original model. Of particular interest in this regard is the assimilation or non-assimilation of the huge numbers of Hispanic or Latino immigrants, of which around 70% identify themselves as Catholics. Their Spanish origin–even if mixed with African and native cultural patterns–and their Catholicism make them look like a cultural threat to those still affected by the original anti-Catholic, anti-Spanish dimension of the founding narrative. There is, however, no real evidence that in the end Hispanics will not follow the same path of assimilation into a dominant culture that will be admittedly less homogeneous, but in continuity with the present.

The patriotic outburst that followed the events of September 11th shows that in spite of all the recent talk about multiculturalism and the breakup of the unifying American narrative, the American people are still united by a common experience in continuity with past generations. In a recent article in the December issue of the magazine The Atlantic Monthly (“Are We Really One People?”), David Brooks concludes that the attacks of September 11th “neutralized the political and cultural leaders who tend to exploit the differences between Americans. Americans are in no mood for class warfare or a culture war. The aftermath of the attack has been a bit like a national Sabbath, taking us out of our usual pleasures and distractions and reminding us what is really important. Over time, the shock will dissipate. But in important ways the psychological effects will linger. The early evidence still holds: although there are some real differences between Americans, there is no fundamental conflict. There may be cracks, but there is no chasm. Rather, there is a common love for this nation–one nation in the end.”

Light unto the nations
American isolationism, however, is opposed by another aspect of the founding Exodus-model myth. The immigrants’ passage to the new land was seen as a work of Divine election and Providence, a kind of covenant that requires the American people to be grateful for their fortune by living a civic morality based on the Bible. In this way America, just like the Biblical Israel, would stand as a “light unto the nations.” The American people would thus be those to whom the hopes and future of humankind have been in some way entrusted. Here again, even if the intellectual framers of the new nation were not guided by a strictly Biblical faith, they saw their work very much in moral terms, appealing to the “conscience of the world” for their acts.

Therefore, when moved by this aspect of the American experience, the American people have shown a great willingness to sacrifice to help allies and friends around the world even beyond the interests of national security.

This is why so often American foreign policy appeals to the demands of morality, to the demand to promote and defend human rights and justice and freedom around the world, and why American leaders appeal to America’s “special role” in the world almost in religious terms, such as the very title of the current campaign, “Enduring Freedom.”

“Freedom” is of course the key concept here. Freedom in the American experience, however, is an evolving concept that has not followed ideological lines, and so it has been quite adaptable to different situations, especially periods of national danger. Underlying all of this, however, is the growing view of liberty as precisely the freedom to define what it means according to the rules of democratic life. That is, the American view of liberty has evolved to include the liberty not to be bound by any unchanging definition of liberty, leading to a tolerance for a great variety of particular views and an on-going struggle not to allow the imposition on all people of any of these particular views. The fundamental liberty, therefore, is the liberty to define liberty as protected by the interpretations of the Constitution. The Constitution itself provides ways to challenge its different interpretations throughout history, and this is the core, the untouchable basis, the unifying point of the American experience.

When the President speaks of “Enduring Freedom,” most of the American people today understand this as vague and broad enough to allow for different interpretations. The people are uncomfortable with too much philosophical thinking about the basis of freedom. It is almost as if it was held to be something truly “self-evident,” as the Declaration of Independence states.

Natural law
Philosophically speaking, one could be tempted to say that therefore a “natural law” view of freedom prevails, and although intellectuals for or against this view discuss this, for the majority of people it is something more experiential than theoretical. For them, liberty is, above all, the liberty of individuals to fashion their own world, the liberty to express one’s creativity, the liberty to set and define one’s own goals in life without restrictions based on theoretical, abstract systems.

It is this liberty, above all, that the American people have experienced as threatened by the events of September 11th. That is why it has motivated such a strong sense of patriotism. That is why they have been so willing to put many different (and theoretically incompatible) views aside to defend themselves. As a result, at the beginning of the New Year the American people are again looking at the rest of the world as hostile to America, confirming their perennial temptation of isolationism, and leading Americans to a distrust of all that is “foreign,” as well as to a unilateral foreign policy. On the other hand, this temptation will be opposed by the recognition of another opportunity to lead a worldwide alliance on behalf of human liberty, human rights, and human dignity that reveals America as the bearer of humankind’s hopes for freedom. The two tendencies are present in the Bush administration and among leaders of both political parties.

Their interplay will determine the future of American foreign policy in the New Year.

Everything depends on how the American people understand the freedom that they perceived as threatened by the attacks of September 11th. Now that the American people can no longer consider their borders a defense from those who would deprive them of this freedom, there is undoubtedly an opportunity to consider anew what freedom really means. Theoretical arguments, however, will not prevail. The future belongs to those that can show that they are really free.