American Destiny

Safe for the rest of the world?

Contrary to what usually is claimed in Washington, American foreign policy has rarely been directed by calculations of national interest. That policy is shaped by nationalism, fear, consideration of commercial interests, political ideology, or prejudice, but-for better or worse-the dominant force has always been a vision of national destiny, into which all the rest is subsumed. This sense of destiny has to be understood in order to acquire a sense of where the country is now headed. The victory in Afghanistan, following the Bush administration’s declaration of war on terrorism in September, provides a tangible realization of ideas that have a long history in the United States.

American foreign policy has always rested on the belief that modernization, Westernization, and Americanization are integrally related and unalloyed benefits, necessary factors in the establishment of good order in human society. In contrast, terrorism-violence against civilians in a political cause-is understood as an expression of disorder.

From the beginning, the American nation has operated on the conviction that it is destined to lead the way for humanity. This has been fundamental to the American conception of the nation’s historical role ever since 1629 when persecuted Anglican dissenters assumed control of the Massachusetts Bay Company and set out to establish on virgin land a community formed in a new religious...

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About the Author

William Pfaff, a former editor of Commonweal, is political columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His most recent book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (Walker & Company).