The American Style: Our Past and Our Principles

Although the notion of national character has turned out to be of dubious validity, the notion of a national style holds greater promise. It is a postulate and a construct. It attempts to establish order in a chaotic mass of features by positing that a nation perceives the world, and its place in it, in a fashion which is never quite that of any other nation, just as no individual ever faces the world as anyone else does. This way is a procedure of selection, and therefore inevitably one of exclusion, and it is a procedure of distortion, because things that may be important are left out and also because the things selected are refracted through the prism of the nation's or individual's character.

Three aspects of America's singularity are relevant to the study of foreign policy: its past, its principles and its pragmatism. All three are part of a national experience whose relevance to the outside world is uncertain, because the conditions in which it has taken place have been so different from conditions anywhere else. And yet, Americans have never stopped projecting into their foreign policy the three facets of this experience: its historical component (the lessons learned and the mental habits derived from their country's unique situation); the American way of thinking, of apprehending the world mentally for judgment and for reform (a kind of rationalization of the American experience); and the American way of acting, of apprehending the world instrumentally, which consists of the tools that have made the American experience a success.

In this article I will leave out American pragmatism and concentrate on one aspect of each of the other two features: What has been the legacy of America's past to America's attitude toward history? And what is the nature of America's principles?

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