Doing Well by Doing Good

Americans have never stopped asking themselves what sets them apart from the rest. Rightly so. America was different in its formative years, and it's different now.

Issue: Winter 1997-1998

Walter A. McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter With the World Since 1776 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).
Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives (New York: Basic Books, 1997).
Richard N. Haass, The Reluctant Sheriff: The United States After the Cold War (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Books, 1997).

Is America just a nation among nations or novus ordo seclorum? That is the ur-question, and since the days of John ("City upon a Hill") Winthrop in 1630, Americans have never stopped asking themselves what sets them apart from the rest. Rightly so. America was different then, and it still is.

First, by dint of history. America started from scratch at a time when the other powers had been around the block a few times, for several hundred years, in fact. As late-comers, Americans were bound to ask new questions: how to fit into the power game, what cards to play, or whether to play at all with those corrupt potentates they had fled to build the "New Jerusalem."

Add to this geography. None of the others could even dream of a time-out option. Not to play was to perish; only Britain, with the world's nastiest navy and a nice stretch of ocean for a border, could occasionally stay aloof. But for the young republic it made sense to believe, as Washington put it, that "our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course."

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