The notion that their national history might be important is unlikely to shock many Americans, despite the habitual perception of their nation as a ‘young’ country. In addition to having, in fact, been around for rather a long time by the standards of states – besting the claims of Germany, Italy and a good many others in the Old World to longevity – the United States has also tended to be a rather self-conscious polity when it comes to history. This does not, of course, imply that the majority of Americans know all there is worth knowing about their nation’s past; few professional historians could make that daring claim of themselves. But the American people’s acquiescence in – indeed implicit demand for – their leaders’ daily invocation of tradition and shared values, and their fervent attachment to the symbols and institutions of their system of government, reflect a deep commitment to the idea that the shared story of the national past matters a great deal. More mundanely, American bookshops’ brisk and apparently perennial trade in the biographies of long-departed statesmen reflects an interest in dead presidents that stretches far beyond the merely pecuniary. The central purpose of this volume will therefore make intuitive sense to

most readers. That purpose is to combine elements of the disciplines of international relations and history in the hope of saying something worthwhile about why America is the way it is. Its challenge is to say something useful to scholars belonging to the former tribe without doing undue violence to the more particularistic sensibilities of the latter. The broad focus of the book, as the title makes plain, is US foreign policy. More specifically, it is the strategic visions or ‘worldviews’ constructed by certain US statesmen concerning the nature of the international system and America’s role within it. To sum things up in a sentence, the book seeks to argue for some causal connection between these historically evolved ideological constructions and the character of the nation’s more recent international strategy. For the sake of simplicity in labelling, it terms this the ‘national ideology’ approach to explaining foreign policy, though it has features in common with established approaches, as the next chapter sets out. The research culminating in this book was first motivated by a striking

contrast, as this author saw it, between the language used to craft the central

concept of the 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS) and the reality of its underlying ideological assumptions.1 The conceptual centrepiece of George W. Bush’s first NSS was the proclaimed aspiration to create ‘a balance of power that favours freedom’, thus apparently invoking one of the favoured concepts of the realist school of thought, the pursuit of a ‘balance of power’. Yet on analysis the document declined to embrace the assumptions upon which an understanding of order based on power balancing should rest, and spurned realism as a guiding mindset. Unlike realism, it did not base its analysis of America’s international

situation upon the assumption of inherent conflict between the national interests of rival great powers. On the contrary, it supposed that unprecedented scope existed for a comprehensive alliance of all the world’s major powers on a single ‘side’. This vision of a thoroughly imbalanced distribution of power was premised upon the historically inevitable triumph of a set of idealized liberal values with which the United States identifies itself.2 This prospective universalization of American principles – or, as believers in the theory would have it, the realization in the concrete of universally valid principles – would lay the ground for peaceful concert between all powers. In contrast to realistic approaches, the strategy did not allow for the existence of material counterweights to American power in the international system. Rather, it assumed the existence of an unchallengeable American hegemony in terms of military capacity and supported its entrenchment as the basis of world order for the indefinite future. For these reasons, though it centred on a piece of terminology creatively appropriated from the lexicon of realism, the NSS did not reflect any genuine embrace of realist principles on the part of administration. It embodied their utter rejection. Based upon this initial analysis, further questions occurred: Was this intel-

lectual tendency a peculiarity of the moment, or was the rejection of balanceof-power thinking about international order an identifiable feature of American history over the longer term? Was President Bush’s administration aberrant in adopting this strategic perspective, or was such thinking a recurring characteristic of American leaders’ strategic worldview? And if the latter were true, might closer study of America’s history shed light on the origins of this national characteristic? Efforts to address these questions lead one swiftly into an area of long-

standing debate within the study of US foreign policy. The classical realist school of thought, including among its notables George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger, has argued since the end of the Second World War that ‘unrealistic’ thinking has been a relatively consistent feature of American foreign policy.3 By this they mean that American leaders have been unwilling or unable to see with due clarity that the basis of international relations lies in state power and national interest, displaying instead a preference for what Kennan termed a ‘legalistic-moralistic’ mindset with inadequate grounding in reality. More recently, neoclassical realists have reprised the spirit of this analysis, arguing that ideological choices to pursue

liberal universalist goals have led to repeated mismatches between American aspirations and available resources.4