Foreign Policy and the American Character

Ronald Reagan and Vice-President Bush meeting with Gorbachev on Governor's Island, New York City, 7 December 1988.

Foreign policy is the face a nation wears to the world. The minimal motive is the same for all states—the protection of national integrity and interest. But the manner in which a state practices foreign policy is greatly affected by national peculiarities.

The United States is not exempt from these unimpeachable generalities. As Henry James, an early American specialist in international relations, once put it, "It's a complex fate, being an American." The American character is indeed filled with contradiction and paradox. So, in consequence, is American foreign policy. No paradox is more persistent than the historic tension in the American soul between an addiction to experiment and a susceptibility to ideology.

On the one hand, Americans are famous for being a practical people, preferring fact to theory, finding the meaning of propositions in results, regarding trial and error, not deductive logic, as the path to truth. "In no country in the civilized world," wrote Tocqueville, "is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States." And, when Americans developed a distinctive philosophy, it was of course the pragmatism of William James. James perceived a pluralist universe where men can discover partial and limited truths—truths that work for them—but where no one can gain an absolute grip on ultimate truth. He stood against monism—the notion that the world can be understood from a single point of view. He stood against the assumption that all virtuous principles are in the end reconcilable; against faith in a single body of unified dogma; in short, against the delusions of ideology.

Yet at the same time that Americans live by experiment, they also show a recurrent vulnerability to spacious generalities. This is not altogether surprising. The American colonists, after all, were nurtured on one of the most profound and exacting ideologies ever devised—the theology of Calvin—and they passed on to their descendants a certain relish in system and abstraction. The ideas of the Americans, as Tocqueville found in

Loading, please wait...

This article is a part of our premium archives.

To continue reading and get full access to our entire archive, please subscribe.

Related Articles

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.