Let’s face it. Most of us Americans see ourselves as living not in one country among many, but in a very special country. Our sense of being exceptional reaches back to the thoroughly religious understanding of the early Puritans who saw themselves as living in a city set on a hill so that their light might shine bringing blessing to their near and far neighborhoods.
While Americans are still regarded as very religious, the idea of a city on a hill has also been adopted by non-religious Americans and has been thoroughly secularized. To this group of Americans, the original Puritan image refers to the idea giving birth to the United States, and that idea is freedom–originally being free to worship away from the conflict and control of Europe’s established churches but today being free to pursue one’s interests and happiness away from repressive government.
Today, both religious and secular Americans see themselves as marching under the banner of freedom. At home how that freedom is defined constitutes a major aspect of our culture war. However, Americans are generally united in the objective, if not always the tactics, of promoting freedom abroad. For religious Americans freedom of religious expression is an important objective overseas. For secular Americans, freedom of trade, investment and cultural expression are important goals. Seldom do we question the wisdom of our quest for freedom abroad. Rarely do we consider what legitimate limits or restraints might be appropriate in the very different cultural contexts we seek to liberate.
What this leads to is that when America goes to promote freedom abroad, which has been touted by President Bush as our overarching purpose in the Middle East, there are insufficient voices to question not only the scope of our objectives but also our means to achieving them. As the world’s only super-power and the nation with the longest running constitutional democracy, we are prone to believe not only that our system should be replicated abroad, but, even more incredibly, that freedom itself can be bestowed in the most challenging cultural contexts by force of arms. In short, many religious Americans believe God is calling their nation to spread freedom throughout the world, and many secular Americans, understanding that free and democratic countries are less prone to wage aggressive war, feel similarly summoned by history to pursue the global advance of freedom.
Unfortunately, the “call” to spread freedom throughout the world combined with our belief that we are exceptionally placed on a shining hill makes unilateral action and even preemptive war appear appropriate. This is simply hubris and irresponsibility. America needs to step back and fashion more realistic goals and more appropriate means. It should not lose sight of its worthy objective, but it is becoming ever more obvious that we need to strive for consensus with other freedom-loving nations, better understand the histories and cultures of foreign regions suffering under repressive regimes, and devise more realistic strategies that hold promise of success. In short, freedom must walk hand in hand with responsibility. Only in that way will we avoid overreach and preserve our own domestic tranquility and freedom.
Dr. Bratt received a PhD from the Fletcher School, and was in the Foreign Service for ten years with assignments in Hong Kong, Paris and Washington. He also served about a decade in the U.S. Department of Commerce and a decade in the U.S. Department of Labor, mostly working on trade policy and trade adjustment assistance issues before retiring in 1988.