The City, and the Citadel, on the Hill

The conspirators who attacked the World Trade Center chose it as a symbol of American wealth and power to dominate, and the supposed helplessness of the poor and the weak before that power.

The conspirators who attacked the World Trade Center chose it as a symbol of American wealth and power to dominate, and the supposed helplessness of the poor and the weak before that power. What they did not intend was to expose the inner struggles of the American soul; they could not have foreseen that the collapse of the two towers threatened how Americans saw their country as the City on the Hill.

The idea of the City on the Hill, in Governor Winthrop's famous locution, expresses a national messianism close to the hearts of most Americans. But, until roughly a half-century ago, Americans lacked the power to project that light upon the world. Since then, however, American leaders have striven to use U.S. power for good, for humanity, for civilization-at least as they have seen it. For most people outside, including in Asia, that is not America's only heritage, however. Consciously or not, the United States became the successor to diminished European empires, particularly to the great but short-lived empire the British had erected around the globe. Some of the remnants of this heritage, notably in Asia, were placed in American care after the end of World War ii. America is thus both exemplar and empire, both a City on a Hill and a citadel that dispatches gunboats and loans with strings attached.

The Cold War was a secular civil war whose origins were established long before World War ii by European ambitions to dominate the world; when those ambitions failed, the United States and the Soviet Union, two self-appointed interpreters of the Enlightenment, sparred over the wreckage. Thanks to the Cold War's Manichean characteristics, however, the United States could emphasize the light that its people stood for against the darkness of godless communism. Accusations of American imperialism or neo-colonialism, and a host of other unflattering images, were brushed aside. This was made easier by the fact that the Communist opposition could not disguise its ruthlessness, was poor in marketing its ideological wares and was ultimately a failure in economic performance. With the end of the Soviet Union, however, the second side of the American metropolis came into clear view; in glaring light, the imperial side of the City, its citadel, could not be hidden. Without a zone of darkness in opposition, the double American heritage of civilizing mission and informal empire stood more sharply exposed than ever before.

September 11, and the understandably forceful response to that tragedy, have together brought America's dual international personality to the global center stage. America's actions now, more than ever, will affect which side of its character will predominate. Above all, the actions that matter most fall into two categories: how America sees its allies and friends, and how it sees its adversaries and challengers.

We will take up these two categories in turn, but it must be said that, so far, great uncertainty shrouds our understanding of American intentions. At its core, U.S. power exists to protect its national interest; and if the United States were an ordinary country, it would be obvious that it has much more power than is necessary for that purpose. The United States can, if it wishes, destroy any regime that stands in its way. But the question is: What is its way? The war on terrorism may be narrowly focused on certain groups of terrorists, or widened into a crusade against all those ill-disposed toward the United States and its allies. In declaring a state of war, it is not clear to many national leaders in Asia whether the United States is genuinely debating the scope of retaliation-or whether it is practicing a form of strategic ambiguity that will allow it to pick and choose whom, when and where to support or destroy. If the former, debate may be portrayed as the City agonizing over how best to gather all good people to a great cause. If the latter, it suggests that the United States is determined to expand its power to achieve absolute security against all comers, the seed of the will to empire.

Inevitably, this uncertainty will be interpreted around the world against the evidence forthcoming as to how America conceives of and acts toward its friends and enemies.

As to its friends, does America want its many friends and allies simply to stand to be counted, but otherwise just wait for the telephone to ring; or does the United States wish them genuinely to share in seeking a long-term answer to protect what they all believe in? This depends on the purposes to which American power is applied. It is one thing for that power to be used to protect modern civilization, another to seek absolute national security at all costs. The former task requires genuine partners; the latter would drive them away.