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Ambassador John Bolton on “The Idea of America,” excerpted from The American Idea Renewed


By John Bolton Internationally, even though America is frequently viewed with admiration, there is often also a tinge of irritation, even among our allies, which shades into outright disdain and hatred among our enemies. The strong emotions evoked even by the idea of America—let alone “the American Idea”—testify to the reality that our experience has in many ways truly differed profoundly from that of other peoples and nations. Foreign observers understood this point as early and as clearly as Americans themselves. Lord North, British Prime Minister during our War of Independence, said in 1778, “For if America should grow into a separate empire it must of course cause … a revolution in the political system of the world.” And the astute French observer Alexis de Tocqueville first characterized us as “exceptional” in his masterful Democracy in America, saying, “the position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.” Since 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of World War I’s outbreak, it is worth recalling historically exactly how America has actually understood its place in the world. Many believe U.S. entry into the first World War reversed a consistent, longstanding policy of isolationism, albeit laying the foundation for the “American Century” that followed. The reality, however, is far more complex. Both before and after the American Expeditionary Force began embarking for France in 1917, we well understood that unique factors and circumstances provided us a truly different historical role and perspective. Our geographical remoteness, the lack of pre-existing social structures, and our ancestors’ intentions to find here freedom and opportunity—religious, economic, or political—all formed a historical confluence entirely different than what Europe had faced before. To be sure, Africans were brought here in bondage, and Native Americans were far too often denied elemental fairness, but these were most emphatically violations of the emerging American Idea, not elements of it. Acknowledging our errors should not lead us to denigrate or discard the idea itself, but to cherish it all the more. Americans in our earliest years were never isolationist as some mistakenly contend. Instead, they were spreading across a continent and beyond, in ways fully comparable to empire builders worldwide. We were hardly stay-at-homes, uninterested or uninvolved in the wider world. We were, however, most emphatically forging and following our own path. Our experience was unique because, unlike the others, we created, in Jefferson’s phrase, “an empire of liberty.” While other empires have disappeared all around us, our accomplishments bear names like Florida, Texas, California, Hawaii and Alaska. We succeeded where others failed by extending our principles and forging one nation, vindicating those principles in 1861-65 in one of the Nineteenth Century’s bloodiest wars. Even as we forged Jefferson’s empire of liberty, our instincts were not imperialist. While there was inspiring rhetoric about our “manifest destiny,” America’s expansion, politically and commercially, was entirely consistent with Edmund Burke’s conservative philosophy. It was organic, resting on the accretion of reasoning from our empirical reality, and far removed from metaphysical abstractions. The American Idea emerged from our own experience, starting with the Revolution. The Declaration of Independence was not speculative or mystical but reflected what had already happened on the ground. We had already become something different from our mother countries. In many respects, it is our penchant for looking to America’s own experience for history’s most important lessons that frustrates or even enrages many foreigners. We stubbornly cling to our Constitution rather than “international norms;” we remain deeply skeptical of abstract and distant multinational treaties and organizations; and we alone have mastered the art of the melting pot, despite many contemporary intellectual fashions to the contrary. We care more about our own national character than what others may think of us. And that is exceptional. Just as a Frenchman first identified us as exceptional, it is fitting that another most fully recognized the uniqueness of today’s American superpower. In 1962, visiting New York, the great French writer Andre Malraux, then Charles de Gaulle’s cultural affairs minister, made this profound observation: “I offer a toast to the only nation that has waged war but not worshiped it; that has won the greatest power in the world but not sought it; that has wrought the greatest weapon of death but not wished to wield it. And may it inspire men with dreams worthy of its actions.” No nation before, or likely in the future, has ever borne burdens such as ours, and for as long as we have. But as we look ahead to the American Idea’s future in a tumultuous world, we should be reminded again of the exceptional people who brought us to this point. And their descendants live among us today. Ambassador Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. He is now a Senior Fellow at American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

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