The best that history can give us is to arouse our enthusiasm"-Goethe's famous reflection on the value of history has found little favor with historical scholars who can rightly claim that a careful analysis of past events and of the structure of the society of other times can help us to understand the complex character of the world in which we live. Yet if we consider the impact of history in more general and more primitive terms, there is much truth in Goethe's statement. The re-evocation of outstanding national achievements and of a nation's great leaders reinforces social coherence and creates pride and confidence in the future. The commemoration of victories, the observance of the anniversaries of crucial years in the history of a nation-as much as such celebrations have the danger of stimulating the worst instead of the best in the national character-have a justification in revealing the values on which a society was built and in strengthening the bonds that hold it together. When Machiavelli stated that, from time to time, every society must return to its beginnings, "its principles," he gave a conscious formulation to that which every country has practiced in the past and will continue to practice in the future.

Even if we accept that such observances are inherent in the nature of political life, it must be recognized that the celebration of great events of the past has special characteristics and peculiar dangers in the United States. If the message of the past in the great European countries, which, in their long and extended history, have undergone many changes and revolutions, has been rather indistinct and might be summed up as enthusiasm, such celebrations have a much more precise meaning in the United States, still relatively close to the years of its emergence as an independent power. They contain an appeal to return to the principles on which the new state was founded. If the present world does not fulfill the original expectations, the reason is a conscious or unconscious deviation from the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. The beliefs and convictions which are thought to have inspired the organization of the early republic still have validity and applicability, and national celebrations serve to remind the American people of the true character of the republic and of the excellence of its institutions. America still lives under the constitution which was established in the eighteenth century. As far as internal developments are concerned, all changes that have taken place have emerged from the framework set up at the beginning. There is meaning in considering the principles which inspired the original establishment, for they provide the criteria against which the political life of the present might be measured.

But it is something entirely different if the same authority is assigned to the doctrines which determined the thinking on foreign affairs in the young republic. For in a democracy, the internal organization of the political society lies in the hands of the citizens, and they can build on the basis which was laid, according to their will. An equal freedom of choice, of direction, an equal amount of self-determination does not exist in the area of foreign affairs. Foreign policy takes place in an arena which only to a small extent can be shaped by the national will; other powers and external factors play their part in its formation. Accordingly, the influence which can be exerted on changes in the constellations of foreign policy is limited. There are dangers, therefore, in extending to foreign affairs a belief in the permanent validity and authority of the principles which guided the first steps of the young republic. Yet such views have been tenuously held; even if it is realized that the world in which we now live is widely different from the world that was, there is still an inclination to cling to the assumptions and prejudices which colored the attitude toward foreign affairs in the past. The present celebration of the bicentenary gives reason to reflect on what the ideas and actions of the Founding Fathers in the field of foreign affairs actually were and what they have meant in the course of our history.


The constellation under which the British colonies in North America became an independent sovereign state was unique. With the French surrender of Canada and the weakening of the power of Spain in the south, foreign nations no longer represented a threat to the narrow stretch of settlements along the Eastern Atlantic coast. Their expansion toward the west had always been a task taken on by the settlers themselves rather than by the military forces of England. The colonies on the North American continent were not regarded as more-perhaps even as less-valuable than other British possessions such as the sugar islands of the West Indies. For the British, the American colonies were useful chiefly as a market for manufactured goods, and unavoidably the question arose whether the protection which Britain offered was worth the disadvantages of the restrictions which were implied in the colonial relationship and which hampered the commercial development of the colonies. All this is known, but it needs to be mentioned because it explains why freedom of commerce and freedom of navigation appeared as the most essential element of sovereignty and the most fundamental aim of foreign policy when the new nation was founded.

Yet the demand for a new regulation of the relations between England and the American colonies arose at a moment-and that was the most significant factor in the unique constellation existing at the time of the birth of the United States-when the entire system of European politics had come under heavy criticism, when the ruling classes seemed to disregard and suppress those groups and interests which represented the most vital forces in society. In this period, the middle classes, as the driving forces in the expansion of commerce and the promotion of industrial activities, felt strong enough to challenge the monopoly of power, and the privileges, possessed by a ruling class rooted in the traditions of a feudal past. This tension created the climate for the accusations which the philosophes of the Enlightenment raised against the oppressive and irrational institutions and mores of the Ancien Régime. A particular target was the conduct of foreign policy. The partitions of Poland, by which a whole nation was rubbed off the map as a result of the arbitrary decisions of three despots, were seen as a prime example of the criminality of the foreign policy of the Ancien Régime. Voltaire's haunting description of a battlefield in Candide was intended to show the senselessness of wars and the contemptuous disregard of rulers for the lives of their subjects. If rulers would only follow the dictates of reason and reasonableness, peace would reign.

But the rejection of war, of military triumphs and territorial expansion, also implied criticism of the entire scale of values from which the activities of power politics arose. Manly prowess, honor, heroic behavior-these were virtues of a class formed in the age of feudalism. They were not the virtues which the bourgeoisie esteemed and cultivated. Their actions and the success of their actions were based on prudence, on rational calculation, on a reputation of reliability, on recognition of reciprocity of interests. Transferred into the field of foreign affairs, the true methods and aims of foreign policy became willingness to compromise; the interest of an individual nation was regarded as inextricably bound up with the common interest of all nations, the general interest. The aim of foreign policy was the establishment and maintenance of peace. The gist of these ideas can be found in a famous eighteenth-century comedy, Sédaine's Philosophe sans le savoir; there the modest and prudent merchant emerges as a person far superior to all the elegant figures of aristocratic society. By pursuing his trade, which extends to the farthest corners of the world, he serves the interest of all nations and ties the entire globe together in peaceful cooperation. Sédaine's comedy expresses the belief, widely held by the intellectuals of the eighteenth century, that the era in which feudal values had dominated was at its end and that a new era-a novus ordo seclorum-was beginning.

The people who were the personal embodiment of the amorality of the politics of the Ancien Régime were the men who served the despots in carrying out their sinister plans in foreign policy: the diplomats. The philosophes spoke of them in most biting terms. They were "competitors in grimaces," they were the practitioners of an "obscure art, which hides itself in the folds of deceit, which fears to let itself be seen and believes it can succeed only in the darkness of mystery." Secrecy, incitement of hatred, deception and fraud-these were the characteristics of diplomacy. Diplomats constructed complicated systems of alliance, but light-heartedly broke commitments whenever it seemed convenient. They insisted on strict observance of complicated rules of etiquette although such rules were meaningless and ridiculous. They pretended that diplomacy was a science, based on concepts like "reason of state" and "balance of power." Actually, such notions achieve only to "please both the ignorance and the laziness of the ministers, ambassadors and clercs." And the idea of "balance of power," which the diplomats pretend to be an instrument to secure peace, in fact is dangerous, even disastrous, because "the system of balance of power is a system of resistance, consequently of disturbance, of shocks and of explosions."

The Ancien Régime-its institutions and attitudes-had not crossed the ocean or taken roots in the alien soil of North America, certainly not in New England. If "the new man" existed anywhere, it was there. And more important, it was also there that the belief in the coming of a new world order touched a deep religious vein. Although much had changed since the pilgrim fathers had set out to escape from the tyranny of a catholicizing church and monarchy, there remained a strong feeling that their aim ought to be the building of an ideal society: they had not abandoned the dream of "the city on the hill."

It follows that the thinking of the leaders of the new nation, as far as foreign affairs were concerned, would be patterned by the criticisms which the system of the power politics of the Ancien Régime and its diplomacy had provoked. It is less clear, however, what these general assumptions meant for the concrete course which the new republic should pursue in its foreign policy. European corruptness and amorality might lead to the conclusion that it would be best to consider the ocean as a wall which ought to separate the European from the American world and to withdraw as far as possible from contacts with the European nations. Such an inclination was reinforced by the English ties of the colonists. Since the Hanoverians had ascended the English throne and their concern for the interests of their continental fiefdom had become a factor in British foreign policy, a public debate had been engendered in England about the appropriateness for Britain to conclude alliances with continental powers and to become involved in continental wars. Some of the political pamphleteers argued that "treaties of commerce are Bonds that we ought to contract with our neighbors," but all other continental connections and involvements were dangerous and in contrast to the true interest of England: "Nature has separated us from the continent . . . no man ought to endeavour to join what God Almighty has separated." Therefore, England's foreign policy ought to be guided by "principes isolés."

But if religious belief and echoes of disputes in England recommended to the colonists the breaking of all ties with Europe, the same feeling of opposition and hostility toward the Ancien Régime might also lead to a different course: to take the lead in terminating a system that trampled on the rights of humanity, and to assume an active role in establishing a new and better world order, in which there would be peace and prosperity through commerce. Eighteenth-century optimistic trust in progress easily combined with a feeling of religious duty: the Enlightenment's conviction of the perfectibility of humanity reinforced the missionary element in Protestantism. There was also considerable realism in this view of the task of the new nation. Its organization took the form of a republic, and as such it was an outsider in the world of monarchies; it could be argued that, in order to survive, a republic would have to destroy the system of monarchical absolutism which held sway in Europe. With the outbreak of the French Revolution, this issue became a matter of practical decision.

A confusing array of interrelated but also contradictory ideas and suggestions for the course of American foreign policy was contained in the discussions and writings of English radicals and enlightened philosophes, to whom the colonists felt a natural affinity and whom they considered as natural allies. Peace and unrestricted commerce seemed the basic aims and exigencies of a new world order. The corruption and amorality of the Ancien Régime made withdrawal from the European world an appropriate attitude, but did not such separation require a thorough change and a novel organization of economic life, and was it not incompatible with the development of commerce which appeared to be the natural instrument for developing the resources of the new nation? And did a move toward isolation and separation not mean acting against the prescripts of God and Nature? Was it not a duty to take an active part in creating a new world order, which, as many signs seemed to indicate, was the next and final stage in the development of history and near attainment?

Moreover, decision about the road to be taken could not be based on purely theoretical considerations. Possibilities and choices were limited and restricted by the need to attain and secure the independence of the new nation in a world which was still ruled by the principles and notions of power politics, balance of power and reason of state.

Divided opinions about aims and actions dictated by the needs for survival during the early years of the American republic resulted in a wavering course, and sometimes produced a lack of frankness which was hardly compatible with the ideas and ideals of a new diplomacy. Examples are the negotiations about French support in the war of independence, and later those about peace with England. Certainly, the representatives sent to France received as instruction a "Model Treaty" which restricted any connection with France to trade and precluded preference to particular nations; commerce ought to be entirely free. When the treaty was concluded, however, it contained not only commercial but also political arrangements; it was a traditional political alliance. Restriction of diplomatic agreements to treaties securing complete freedom of trade remained the American ideal, but such agreements were concluded only with a country like Prussia which was barely involved in trade on the Atlantic Ocean.

In the peace negotiations with England, the representatives of the United States proceeded behind the back of their French ally, and if such behavior was successful, it hardly corresponded to what one would expect from the protagonists of a new morality in foreign affairs. But if the wavering course of American foreign policy revealed not only the difficulties which a novel and idealistic approach in foreign policy encountered in practice, it also reflected the uncertainties in the minds of the leading American statesmen about the right course; they themselves wavered and shifted in their views.


When the United States became independent, John Adams and Jefferson were leading advocates of a new diplomacy. In the early months of 1776, Adams set down his views on the relations which an independent America should establish with other powers; he emphasized that they ought to be neither of a political nor a military character, but entirely limited to "commercial connections." He himself drafted for the American mission to France the "Model Treaty" which formulated these ideas about the need for a new approach in relations among nations. When he was sent to Paris, he reported with lively approval the criticism which the men of the Enlightenment uttered "against the practice of lying, chicanery and finessing in negotiations," and emphasized that he was a diplomat in a new key. He told the French Foreign Minister that "the dignity of North America does not consist in diplomatic ceremonies or any of the subtleties of etiquette; it consists solely in reason, justice, truth, the right of mankind and the interests of the nations of Europe." But when he became involved in the conduct of the peace negotiations, he was almost more distrustful of the intentions of the French allies than the skeptical diplomats of the old school would have been, and he was not incapable of a certain amount of deception. In his later years he became convinced of the need for alliances, particularly with Great Britain, in order to guarantee the security of the United States; he even began to recognize the usefulness of an "equilibrium, a balance of power."

In the case of Adams, the evolution from an idealistic to a realistic concept of foreign affairs probably corresponds to his general development. The young radical became a conservative in his later years; in this, he is a more interesting and richer mirror of his time than the television hero holding with cantankerous obstinacy to the simple virtues of his youth.

In contrast to Adams, there is in the case of Jefferson less an evolution of thought than a lifelong adherence to different, even divergent, strains of thinking. Originally, Jefferson had been the most extreme advocate of a complete separation from Europe; he saw in commerce the great danger of luxury and corruption and regarded an agrarian society as the form of life most appropriate to America because, as an agrarian country, she could exist by herself, independent of contacts with the outside world for the fulfillment of her material needs. Even when Jefferson was forced to admit that this was not the route the Americans were traveling, he considered the maintenance of diplomatic relations with other powers-and that meant the existence of an American diplomatic corps-as superfluous and dangerous for peace; a few consuls at centers of trade ought to suffice. Jefferson also fervently believed in the coming of a new and better world order, and wanted the United States to use its influence and strength to support those movements and nations which struggled for this aim against the powers of the Ancien Régime. The notion that the United States had to set an example and had a mission to fulfill-to bring about the end of war, power politics and old-style diplomacy-was firmly fixed in Jefferson's mind. This view is reflected in the sympathy which he felt for the French Revolution and its leaders. But when the situation demanded, he could threaten war or pursue an expansionist policy for the United States.

There was one figure on the American scene who never shifted or felt hesitations, who had only contempt for the missionary approach to foreign policy and who believed that the United States should become one state among others: that was Alexander Hamilton. He found nothing concrete or substantial in the "idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exception from the imperfection, weaknesses and evils incident to society in every shape. Is it not time to awaken from the deceitful dream of a golden age and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?" Hamilton had no doubt that the United States would have to follow a course of power politics. If he ever made any concession to the demand for keeping the American and European worlds apart, it consisted in envisaging a restriction of American power politics primarily to the Western Hemisphere: the United States ought to aim at "an ascent in the American system." But Hamilton was an exceptional figure; in domestic affairs as well he was inclined to favor centralized institutions directed from above; his authoritarian and aristocratic tendencies show that he was a man of old Europe rather than of the New World.

In comparison to Hamilton's clear and decided attitude, the wavering between a variety of aims and methods by the other leaders of the new nation leaves the impression of uncertainty and weakness. But it ought to be recognized that what might appear as indecision was an almost necessary consequence of the political constellation into which the American republic arrived. A new state will always meet opposition before it is accepted as an independent equal, and it will have to feel its way tentatively and cautiously to a place in the existing state system. For the United States, this task was all the more difficult because the state system itself was in crisis and every step could mean involvement in the conflicts which were developing.

Of course, the main conflicts in the young republic were over domestic issues, but with the outbreak of the French Revolution, foreign policy was unavoidably drawn into the struggle. The questions whether the United States ought to withdraw into a completely neutral position, whether it should tolerate the British blockade of France and thereby reconstruct a special relationship with England on a new basis, or whether it should support the French attempt to set political life in a new framework, were deeply connected with issues of economic interest and of social organization. A pro-French versus a pro-British attitude almost became the crucial and divisive issue in American party politics.

It is well known that an important motif in the composition of Washington's Farewell Address was the President's fear that the divisions over foreign policy might be fatal to national union. But his conciliatory purpose could not be achieved if he pronounced for one side in this conflict. It is characteristic that leaders of the two opposing factions, Madison and Hamilton, had a hand in drafting the Farewell Address, and, indeed, the most influential part of the Farewell Address, the section on foreign policy, was an attempt to embody the various strands of the thinking on foreign policy and to synthesize them.

Emphasis is placed on the separation of America from Europe; and the view of the distinctiveness of these two continents is expressed in terms of the doctrine of the interests of the state, popular with writers and diplomats of the Ancien Régime: "Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none or a very remote relation." In accordance with the foreign policy practiced in the Ancien Régime, Washington acknowledged the necessity of alliances although he would like them to be "temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies." The dislike of traditional diplomacy, which this limitation to temporary alliances suggests, was then directly expressed in the contemptuous way in which Washington spoke of "the toils of European ambition, Rivalship, Interest, Humour or Caprice." Washington rejected the immorality of the diplomacy of the Ancien Régime; he demanded that the United States should not accept the view that the interests of a nation are sufficient reason to disregard the moral code and to practice deception and infidelity: "I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs that honesty is the best policy." The wish that the United States enter upon a new kind of diplomacy is implied in the "great rule" with which this section begins: it is necessary "in extending our commercial relations to have [with foreign nations] as little political connection as possible." At the end it is then hinted that if commerce is left free, following "a natural course of things," then a better age might be reached, in which there will be "harmony and a liberal intercourse with all nations." All the various themes that had been raised in the discussion on foreign policy are here interwoven into a whole. Jefferson, remaining convinced of the need to get rid of the entire system of diplomacy, could take up a single theme of the Farewell Address in his warning against "entangling alliances," and John Quincy Adams, in drafting the document that became the Monroe Doctrine, could enlarge on Washington's distinction between a European and an American system.


Whereas, in the light of the intellectual trends prevailing at the time when the United States entered upon the political scene, the substance and impact of the Farewell Address can be easily understood, it needs to be explained why the meaning of Washington's message was primarily seen as a recommendation of isolationism, and why Washington's advice was raised to a dogma which was assumed to possess validity for all future times. In the eighteenth century, many rulers and statesmen composed documents-political testaments-in which they expressed what they considered to be the "permanent maxim" of their state, but most of these recommendations fell into oblivion as soon as the author had died. What gave Washington's "political testament" superior and more lasting authority?

In the United States, an almost binding force on all future generations was ascribed to the pronouncements of the Founding Fathers, partly at least to emphasize unity, coherence and continuity and to counter the dangers of disintegration. Washington's "great rule" shared the esteem enjoyed by all the pronouncements of the Founding Fathers. But this is not the only, and probably not the decisive, reason for the authority which the section of the Farewell Address on foreign policy acquired. Just as the thinking about the direction which the foreign policy of the young republic ought to take was linked to the particular intellectual and political constellation existing at the end of the eighteenth century, so also the fact that the Farewell Address gained the character of a dogma and that its content became reduced to a recommendation of isolationism was determined by the political constellation which emerged in the nineteenth century. After the upheavals of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, Europe entered upon a period of restoration and reaction. This was no time for a missionary idealistic policy based on the belief in the coming of a new age of peace and democracy. The United States turned westward, whereas Europe, when it emerged from the stillness of reaction, became occupied with the tensions and fights accompanying the creation of national states in Central Europe. Although there were disputes over the northern borders of the United States, over European interference in Mexico or the continuous problem of the freedom of the sea, these tensions were ephemeral episodes that did not alter the main fact: during most of the nineteenth century, as far as foreign policy was concerned, Europe and the United States lived in different worlds.

At the end of the nineteenth century, in the age of imperialism, there was a twilight zone, when the American government could not withstand the temptation to expand in the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean by accelerating the demise of the Spanish Empire, and when America's interest in extending her influence into other parts of the world was concealed under the slogan of an open-door policy. The United States was no longer an island remote from the rest of the world. The First World War put an end to views which indeed had become illusionary.

It is striking, however, that even then the policy of cooperation with a group of powers was presented and justified as an attempt to realize the aims and traditions of the Founding Fathers. Wilson saw the entry of the United States into the war as a step toward the establishment of permanent peace. The beginning of a new era in foreign policy and diplomacy was to be secured by the creation of a League of Nations in which democracy would extend into the area of foreign policy: great and small powers would have the same vote; the policy of special alliances, of a balance of power among great powers, dominating the smaller ones, would no longer be possible. The rational and liberal ideas of the Enlightenment had a strong hold over Wilson's mind; something of the internationalist spirit and the missionary zeal of these years lived in him. In abandoning isolationism and embracing internationalism, he felt sure that he was striving for the same goals the Founding Fathers had pursued.

However, Wilson's opponents, by emphasizing the ambiguities which his program contained and by making full use of the mistakes which had been made, returned to the doctrines of nonentanglement and isolationism as representing the true American tradition in foreign policy. Thus began a debate which lasted through the 1920s and 1930s and up to the beginning of the Second World War.

It was a consequence of this debate that when Roosevelt slowly and gradually moved toward support of the powers fighting Hitler, he played down the idealistic element which, in the war against the Nazi dictatorship, undoubtedly had a justified appeal, and instead emphasized the idea of "national security." When this concept entered political consciousness it became clear how remote from the present the concepts of isolationism and internationalism had become. Looking back to the 1930s, the debate about isolationism versus internationalism which then patterned so much of the thinking on foreign policy has a ghostlike character. The relevance of the great pronouncements on foreign policy from the early years of the republic has ended; they have become history. The world is no longer divided into different political spheres; the United States has become part of an interconnected global system. Although an all-embracing world organization exists, it is based neither on common values, identical constitutional forms nor an unimpeded flow of trade. There are blocs in which the great powers lead; there is no full equality between large and small states. In the constellation in which the foreign policy of the United States must now operate the prescriptions of the past are no longer applicable.


There remains the question, however, whether, although the pronouncements of the Founding Fathers can no longer be regarded as authoritative, the attitude that lay behind them has also disappeared. The answer to this question surely must be negative. In American opinion on the significance of diplomats and diplomacy, in the strongly moralistic element which permeates all considerations of foreign policy, in the assumptions about the leading role of the United States in the world, we find beliefs and hopes similar to those which inspired the thinking on foreign affairs in the early years of the republic.

Of course, such views and attitudes are not unique or peculiar to the United States. This is a democratic country, and distrust of diplomacy, an inclination to view political questions as moral questions and the notion of a special national mission are features in the attitude of all democratic nations. Diplomats, accredited to courts or governments, moving in the upper strata of society and charged with expensive representative duties requiring a high personal income, are suspected, in almost all democratic countries, of being remnants of a monarchical age and tending to authoritarian or autocratic forms of government. Nor can the assent of the people be gained to actions which might involve material losses, personal risks and even the sacrifice of life, if they are not convinced of the righteousness of the course and the special and unique value of the existence of their nation for the world. The need for a wider consensus in foreign policy forms a desirable, almost necessary obstacle to the dangers which arbitrary or emotional reaction might bring about.

The paradox of the present situation is that, if the need for an ideological consensus leads to caution and deliberateness before taking action, in our world of opposing ideologies it also increases the tension between nations. But this is not the place for a discussion of the complex connection between ideology and power politics in the twentieth century. The question is whether the preservation of feelings which dominated the thinking on foreign affairs in the early years of the republic has magnified and intensified the problems inherent in the foreign policy of a democratic country and has created difficulties and been a burden in the conduct of American foreign policy.

The attitude of the American people to diplomacy contains elements of an eighteenth-century belief that misunderstandings and conflicts among nations are the fault of governments which prevent direct communication from people to people. There is distrust, therefore, of the views of diplomats, who are servants of the governments and whose business is with the governments of other nations. The knowledge of a businessman who has spent some time in financial negotiations in another country, or of a military man who has talked to a few generals of a foreign country, inspires more confidence than the views of a professional diplomat who has observed developments in these countries for years. It is striking that in the United States-probably more than in any other country-important diplomatic missions are entrusted to people who are not professional diplomats. The weaknesses and limitations of the diplomatic profession are obvious, but in the United States it is frequently forgotten that it is a profession which is needed and has virtues.

However, the most outstanding feature of American foreign policy is its extremely moralistic character. Actions taken to adjust to new developments are explained as determined by the need to maintain principles basic to a moral world order; Washington's statement of the "great rule" and the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine have been patterns for various presidential "doctrines" justifying recent actions of American foreign policy. The aura of moral philosophy, bestowed on contingency measures, imparts to American foreign policy a rigidity unsuited to the rapid changes in the political scene of the twentieth century. Wars in which the United States becomes involved are "crusades"-a notion which requires complete victory; it prejudices negotiation and compromise. The moralistic approach to foreign policy produces the almost intuitive assumption that, when the policy of the United States meets resistance, it is because its opponents are evil. To consider politics as a fight of good against evil makes it easy to believe that interference in the internal affairs of another state in favor of one party against another is permissible, even a duty. This disregard of the sovereignty of other states has been a source of deep resentment against the United States.

But the most perilous legacy which has come down to us from the eighteenth century is the American claim to world leadership. Certainly, the United States is one of the superpowers, one of the decisive forces in the world of today. But this is not identical with the idea that it is the one leading power, superior to all others. It is this notion, however, deeply ingrained in American thought, which is still strongly held and which we find in the speeches of politicians and statesmen. World leadership is a dangerous term, for it has a vagueness which invites almost limitless application; it has been presented as implying that the United States must be the most powerful, the economically strongest, the militarily best-equipped power. If leadership is weighed in material and quantitative terms only, it seems a means to justify domination and control rather than an appeal to cooperation; it becomes an impediment to what must be the paramount aim of foreign policy in the nuclear age: the preservation of peace. Perhaps the most valuable lesson which the Bicentennial can impart to American foreign policy is that world leadership is not a possession which can be inherited, but a privilege, for which every generation must strive anew.

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  • Felix Gilbert is Professor Emeritus and a member of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. He is the author of To the Farewell Address; The Diplomats and other works.
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