In a recent column on “America’s bipolar mental condition regarding foreign policy,” George Will quoted from Henry Kissinger’s World Order: “The conviction that American principles are universal has introduced a challenging element into the international system because it implies that governments not practicing them are less than fully legitimate,” which “suggests that a significant portion of the world lives under a kind of unsatisfactory, probationary arrangement, and will one day be redeemed.” This is one of those sweepingly simple insights that make you wonder, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
It is also the flip side of “American exceptionalism,” the idea currently in vogue that America is different from (and indeed better than) other countries, that we have somehow managed to evolve outside of history, chosen by God to be “a city upon a hill,” as John Winthrop preached 384 years ago. “The eyes of all people are on us.”
Both philosophies are predicated on the belief that the rest of world exists in some state of original sin from which only America can save it. Everybody wants what we have; but the forces of evil stand in the way. “They hate our freedoms,” George Bush said, as he launched the invasion of Iraq. “The world must be made safe for democracy,” Woodrow Wilson said, as America entered World War I.
It’s a foreign policy, often based on good intentions, with a fatal, tragic, flaw: it has impeded Americans from approaching the world from any perspective but our own.