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FROM THE ANTHOLOGY: Essays for the Presidency

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

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