The Fourth Founding

The United States and the Liberal Order

The peacemakers: at the World War I peace conference in Paris, 1919. Edward Jackson/Library of Congress

The United States began as a radical experiment with grandiose ambitions. Its founders believed in Locke’s idea that free individuals could escape the perils of anarchy by joining together and cooperating for mutual benefit—and they created a country to show it wasn’t just talk. The signers of the Declaration of Independence bound themselves in a common political project, establishing a limited government to secure their rights and advance their interests. That act, noted Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in 1821, “was the first solemn declaration by a nation of the only legitimate foundation of civil government. It was the corner stone of a new fabric, destined to cover the surface of the globe.”

From the start, the United States was understood to be both country and cause, a distinct national community and the standard-bearer of a global political revolution. Destiny would take a long time to play out. Until it did, until the surface of the globe was covered with a fabric of democratic republics, the good new country would have to survive in the bad old international system. “Probably for centuries to come,” Adams guessed. So how should the nation behave during the lengthy transition? 

Coming at the problem a few decades into the experiment, Adams reasoned that the top priorities for the fledgling republic should be protecting the revolution and perfecting the union. And so just as President George Washington had warned about the dangers of alliances and balance-of-power politics, Adams warned about the dangers of ideological crusades. The United States stood for universal principles, but it need not always export those principles or enforce them abroad. It could be the “well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all” while being the “champion and vindicator” only of its own. 

The American grand strategy that emerged in this era—continental expansion and internal development combined with self-righteous aloofness from the world beyond the seas—suited a commercial republic deep in the global periphery. It could work, however,

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