What makes America America? - Enduring Parameters in U.S. Strategic Thought

Posted in United States | 25-Feb-07 | Author: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Andrea K Riemer

"The invincible is not invincible anymore"
"The invincible is not invincible anymore"
Long awaited and much discussed in the first days of 2007, President Bush’s change of strategy in Iraq turned out to be more of the same. The Administration had to argue hard to make itself and its policy understandable to the American public and to the world – without appearing stubborn. Changes in course still seem that obvious and almost forcefully at hand – at least for everybody but the Administration. It sticks to the course that “9/11” and the Global War on Terrorism justify extraordinary action such as the two interventions in Afghanistan (which was justifiable in the immediate wake of “9/11”) and in Iraq (which was troublesome from the very first moment).

From a distance of more than five years, for many observers “9/11” has changed far less than thought in the very first months after the tragic events. Very much remained more or the less – even for many Americans.

Self-perception, perceptions by the others, psychologies and vulnerabilities play an important role in preparing and executing action. Particularly the perceptive level, self-reflection and changing roles have become of high importance for a traumatized actor such as the U.S. The power of pictures regarding “9/11” led to a broad discussion on what makes America America and on who are we (the Americans and the others). Events such as “9/11” fuel arguments that everything has changed (which by nature is anyhow the case).

Understanding the U.S. from an outside point of view has always been a challenging undertaking. Iraq and Afghanistan have brought nothing new in terms of enduring parameters, despite the meager results in both interventions. Both campaigns have been embedded in a rather enduring framework of parameters which has served as a decades-lasting guideline for any U.S. intervention. Nuances may have changed; the strategic core (call it Global War on Terrorism or Cold War) has remained unaltered. Operational issues shall not be discussed in this article.

Thinking to know the U.S. often turns out to be a road of surprises. Many issues in the way the U.S. thinks seems exaggerated and distorted – particularly from the European point of view.

The following parameters may be called “enduring” in U.S. strategic thought, since they can be traced back in history. Only very few of them emerged in the past twenty years.

The Founding History

The founding history as the key emotional part in societal thought is the beginning of the U.S.. The Declaration of Independence can be seen as a point of reference, as an act of deliberate distance to Europe. The U.S. with its wide territory offered new options, being different from Europe. An ideal construct, a city upon the hill, a new Israel could be set up. The purity of ideals was enormously important for the founding phase. The founding principles are the key benchmark for societal and political actions. They have an overarching validity for the individual and the community.

Today, the promises of the founding fathers are still very present and alive. Presidential speeches almost always refer to quotes from those founding fathers. The whole founding history is an idealized process. It is the key basis for self-perception and perception by the others.

Contradictions in perceptions are mainly caused by efforts to comply to those promises and – at the same time – to go beyond them and optimize the ideal. There is hardly a state which depends that much on perceptions and reflections by the others as the U.S. is. One always has been bullying for positive comments from outside and fishing for complements because of the unique founding history. The idealization of ‘higher-faster-wider’, the system of competition, promotion of performance and a strong inner culture of dissent have led to a high level of critique and the ability to deal with it on the basis of progress. Those ideals rooted in its own history have been indicating a global trend how the world should be. On the other hand, idealization offers a huge space for attack.

The founding history forms an important ideational framework for strategic visions and thought.

Religion as indispensable part of U.S. Politics

Religion has been a key part in U.S. politics since the founding period. It is part of the American identity and culture. It molded the character of the nation, supported ideas and ideals on the world and influenced the way how the U.S. reacted to problems beyond its borders. Religion has a patriotic touch and is a means of politics. Trust in God by political leaders leads to trust by the people in its leaders (see e.g. Washington’s program God’s Providence). Patriotism and religion are closely interlinked. American Nationalism and politico-theological ambitions have often been deeply ingrained in U.S. strategic thought and been lifted to the global level.

Additionally, religion serves a basis for moral. Providence, the fight for progress etc. have been put into a moral-religion based framework. Moralism has been a key part in U.S. foreign and security policy. At the same time, religion served as an argument for war and against war. The Manichaean way of thought overlays religion and moral and leads to the often critized “black and white” American way of thinking and acting.

One reason why religion is so important to life in the United States refers to the fact that it dissipates the mix of political opinions. Partisans on all sides of important questions regularly appeal to religious principles to support their stand points. The country is so religiously diverse that one can find almost any conceivable foreign policy support in the realm of religion.

The balance of influence among the different religious streams has considerably shifted over time. Particularly in the past 30 years this balance has shifted significantly, and with dramatic consequences. Liberals strands have receded, while more conservative groups have gained ground and importance. This shift has already changed U.S. foreign policy in profound ways.

The U.S. religious tradition, which has grown out of the sixteenth-century Reformations of England and Scotland, covers many different ideologies. Three strands have been most influential:

  1. a strict tradition that can be called fundamentalist,
  2. a progressive and ethical tradition known as liberal Christianity, and
  3. a broader evangelical tradition.

Those three current strands have very differing ideas about what the country's role in the world should be (and what strategy should be!). The most important differences refer to the degree to which each promotes optimism about the possibilities for a stable, peaceful, and enlightened international order. Additionally, the importance each places on the difference between believers and nonbelievers has come to the forefront. In very basic terms, fundamentalists are deeply pessimistic about the prospects for world order and see an unbridgeable divide between believers and nonbelievers. Liberals are more optimistic about the prospects for world order and see little difference between Christians and nonbelievers. And evangelicals are somewhere in between these extreme position.

Recent years have witnessed considerably changes in the balance of religious power in the United States. The membership of the liberal, historically dominant mainline Protestant churches mostly peaked in the 1960s. Since then, while the number of American Christians has grown, membership in the mainline denominations has remarkably gone down. The rising influence of evangelicals has affected U.S. foreign policy in many ways; two topics demonstrate the changes. On the question of humanitarian and human rights policies, evangelical leadership is changing priorities and methods while increasing support for both foreign aid and the defense of human rights. Regarding Israel, rising evangelical influence has deepened U.S. support for the Jewish state, even as the liberal Christian establishment has distanced itself from Jerusalem.

Evangelical political power is not leading the United States in a completely new direction. But the country's change in orientation in recent years has nonetheless been pronounced.

Universal Values

"Mission, Crusade and the Frontier have been parameters which molded perceptions, concepts and visions of the founding Fathers"
"Mission, Crusade and the Frontier have been parameters which molded perceptions, concepts and visions of the founding Fathers"
Universal values and the right of the individual to have those rights integrated into one’s life has been an enduring parameter in U.S. foreign security policy. Universal values are embedded in the key thoughts of enlightenment. Property and freedom became a synonym. Elites pressed for a civil government, for New Freedom and a liberal republic. Thomas Jefferson made the law of nature an inseparable part of the Declaration of Independence. Universal values are part of the American Credo (S. Huntington). They are not negotiable. Exceptionalism, universalism and the self-perception of being superior led to a particular understanding of duty and responsibility.

Providence - Manifest Destiny – Exceptionalism – Mission – Crusade -Messianic Imperialism

Mission, Crusade and the Frontier have been parameters which molded perceptions, concepts and visions of the founding fathers and liberals. Missionizing and messianic attitudes have always been a more or less strong factor in U.S. foreign and security policy. Messianism has even become part of a ‚state’s doctrine’. The United States were perceived as the perfect model for mankind. Messianic Imperialism was a logic result. It is remarkable since U.S. history has been a history of strong anticolonial and anti-imperialist traditions. On the other hand, the U.S. always has been and expanding society. For reason, the self-centric position can easily be explained.

The term American Exceptionalism was coined by Alexis de Tocqueville to describe America's profound differences from other nations. American Exceptionalism has two meanings. For many politicians, it is a term of praise: the United States, compared to other countries, is unusually good. For social scientists and political philosophers, American exceptionalism presents an intellectual problem: why does the United States differ in significant ways from most other industrial democracies? American Exceptionalism refers to the apparent departure of the United States from certain assumed historical norms or laws of development. The notion is an old one with many meanings. For one reason or another, the United States has failed to produce ever sharper antagonisms between capital and labor. Hence, it appears that America is an exceptional historical case, quite different from other capitalist nations. The concept has often been diluted to something closer to American distinctiveness. The search for reasons why this could be the case has taken scholars into numerous directions. They searched for the flaws and strengths that made American politics, culture, and social relations that particular As a result of these searches, scholars focus on the ways the United States is different from other countries. The U.S. has a particular place among the others, which can be explained by its domestic structure. Moral superiority is considered a “logic consequence”. Providence and checks and balances are justifications. Americans often claim exceptionality is not in itself exceptional. But because the U.S. is the leading power in international society, the specific character and quality of its exceptionalism matter certainly a lot.

Providence is an inseparable part of Calvin’s program. God is the comprehensively acting power and sovereignty. God has a plan for the world and for men. Providence is closely connected to Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny is a kind of enigma. It is a capstone that built American history and a way to explain how America actually became America.

Although the movement was named in 1845, the philosophy behind Manifest Destiny always existed throughout American History. John O’Sullivan coined the notion Manifest Destiny (i.e. the divine right to occupy Northern America). He described a vision of an America reaching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. America had to be unified and to become an organic body. Manifest Destiny stood in close relationship with the Frontier and the conquest of Texas, Mexico and other Latin American territories. Already in 1818 Andrew Jackson took a broad interpretation of vague instructions from President Monroe; Jackson led military forces into the Floridas during the Florida crisis.

Americans believed that they had a right to any land they wanted. Manifest Destiny conveyed the idea that the rightful destiny of the U.S. included imperialistic expansion. For example, in 1846 the United States declared war on Mexico and proceeded to win much of what is now the South western United States. Manifest Destiny emerged naturally and inevitability out of fundamental wants and needs to explore and conquer new lands and establish new borders. Moral, cultural, social ideological and economical differences between people, states and countries were “natural consequences”.

Manifest Destiny came already with Christopher Columbus across the Atlantic. It is closely linked to the spirits of the Jamestown colonist and landed at Plymouth Rock with the Pilgrims. The Great Awakening added to its spread. History provides numerous examples of Manifest Destiny. However, in early American history, several synonyms were used to explain the not yet named phenomenon: Explorers, Frontier, Territories, Expansionism, Settlers, Idealism, Sectionalism and Immigration.

Without the philosophy of Manifest Destiny, phrases such as "Beyond the Great American Desert", "The North West Passage" and "The Oregon Trail", would be just empty examples of conquest. Some even claimed that Manifest Destiny was based on the idea that America had a divine providence. It prepared a fertile ground for a destiny given by God to expand its borders, with no limit to area or country. All expansion activities were part of the spirit of Manifest Destiny. It was God's will that Americans spread over the continent, and to control and populate the country as they see fit. Some considered Manifest Destiny God's will; others saw Manifest Destiny as the historical inevitability of American domination of North America from sea to sea. It was considered an altruistic way to expand American liberty to new realms. By the 1840's, expansion was at its peak.

Today, Manifest Destiny is still alive. It has become an ideational framework to expand values and attitudes around the world.

Unilateralism and Multilateralism

American isolationism can be traced back to the founding fathers. The ideational point of departure can be found in the Federalist Papers, and in George Washington’s Farwell Address. Washington’s famous saying on ‚avoiding foreign entanglement’ coined U.S. foreign and security policy for centuries. Until 1949, the founding year of NATO, the U.S. stayed away from any alliance.

In parallel, the U.S. promoted a vivid Open Door Policy and the Freedom of the Seas. Cooperations were established only in case of self-interest. For reason, the U.S. always performed a selective strategy. The current “coalitions of the willing” are not something new. They are an expression of a “multilateralism of necessity”.

Additionally, the legal structure of separation of power makes multilateral activities difficult. In relation to foreign policy, the main practical consequence often hinges on the necessity for a two-thirds majority in the Senate as a major obstacle to U.S. ratification of international agreements. No party of the President has ever commanded a two-thirds majority in the Senate, so all ratifications have to be bipartisan. In itself this separation of powers poses a severe technical barrier to U.S. participation in multilateralism. This creates opportunities for the many strong lobbying groups that operate so effectively within the constitutional separation of powers (voice opportunities). Finally, it is the particular construction of checks and balances that make multilateral action very difficult.

In the past three decades a number of examples of unilateral actions can be traced in U.S. policies:

  • 1980s and 1990s: From the Reagan administration onwards, the U.S. withheld its dues to the UN and other agencies with the declared aims of both creating pressure for reform and reducing its own share of the UN’s costs. In 1984 the U.S. withdrew from UNESCO because of corrupt management and anti-Western (and anti-Israel) attitudes. 1984 the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty. The U.S. made numerous reservations to its 1992 ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights based on concerns about its sovereignty and the effect of the Covenant on the balance between state and federal government.

  • 1997: Despite intense pressure from Europe, Canada, and many NGOs, the U.S. refused to adhere to the landmine agreement because of its army’s concerns about the effects of a ban on the safety of American soldiers.

  • 1999: The U.S. Senate rejected the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty CTBT mostly because political issues.

  • 2001: The U.S. refused to adhere to the Kyoto protocol on environmental emissions. The U.S. blocked agreement on a Small Arms Treaty and, finally, the U.S. gave notice of withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty to pursue its own national missile defense program.

  • 2002: The U.S. refused to stick on the International Criminal Court, and subsequently campaigned in Europe and elsewhere to get bilateral exemptions for all U.S. soldiers, diplomats and citizens. The U.S. announced refusal to adhere to the 1949 Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war (regarding Guantanamo Bay) and forcefully opposed the Draft Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture.

  • 2003: The U.S. went to war against Iraq without a new UNSC resolution specifically authorizing such action.

Those examples should not cast the fact that the U.S. act multilaterally – if it serves the U.S. interest. This is a rather typical super-power behavior and is done by other super-power actors alike.


"A new look is required"
"A new look is required"
The insular position of the U.S. always influenced strategic thought. Two relatively weak neighbors in the North and the South, two oceans in the East and West led to a particular self-perception. Opposing coasts have been the driving moments since Mission, Crusade, Frontier Alfred Thayer Mahan’s Maritime Strategy (1840-1914). Nicholas Spykman’ (1893-1943) idea of opposing coasts still moulds U.S. strategic thought. The current taxonomy of commands clearly shows this still existing perception.

Psychology and Vulnerability

Psychology and vulnerability have not played an important role for years since the self-perception of superiority dominated. The insular position did not require high expenditure for self-defense. The end of the Cold War led to a minimized perception of vulnerability. Since 1812 (attack by the British) and 1941 (Pearl Harbor) the U.S. was never attacked on its homeland. ‘9/11’ led to a fundamental change. Being attacked on U.S. territory switched from theory to reality. Threat assessments and threat perception, levels of tolerance altered dramatically.

Even though emotions have cooled down, the meta-narrative of “being attack on our homeland” still serves as the core of the Global War on Terrorism. “9/11” certainly created a psychological trauma for the U.S. – something the war-proven Europeans still can hardly understand.

The U.S. version of Liberalism

The U.S. is undoubtedly the most liberal of the Western states. Lipset notes the closeness of the American creed to the spectrum of values of nineteenth century liberalism (such as anti-state, laissez-faire, individualist), and the absence of conservatism in American politics. Conservatism in the sense of noblesse oblige and the responsibility of the elites (or the state) to look after the masses did not exist. In another sense, more closely attached to its economic liberalism, the U.S. is the most conservative of the Western states.

Moravscik states that U.S. has no the left and centre political blocs that are typical for most other advanced industrial countries. The absence of socialism in the U.S. means that issues are differently tackled in American domestic politics than they are elsewhere. There is no general support for welfare rights or state intervention, and a general background of economic libertarianism and anti-statism. Human rights issues fall squarely into both realms of Democrats and Republicans in ways which are rather untypical of other industrial countries.

In some respect the U.S. espouses a distinctive form of liberalism that differentiates it from others and makes cooperation difficult. It believes that liberal values are universal, and that the moral and superiority of liberal values gives them the right to claim the future of humankind. “What is good for America, is good for the rest of the world” clearly points out the core of U.S. liberalism. The “all-embracing” view is only partially accepted by the rest of the world since the U.S. serve only as a partially acceptable example of how a society should be designed. Since the late 1970s it has become less and less achievable to join the U.S. model of society. Flushing the world with cultural aspects, entertainment, fashion and lifestyle has turned out firing back. Not everything that is good for America is good for the rest of the world. This fact has not yet been bought by the U.S. Globalization led to further emancipation, particularly among actors under various societal and political pressures.


Due to experiences security has always played a crucial role in the U.S.. For reason, the process of securitization plays a different role in the U.S. as compared to Europe for instance.

The ‘concept of securitization’ refers to the fact that challenges are not something objective, but are constructed, e.g. according to personal/national interests, personal experiences and/or expectations. Securitization is an extreme version of politics and politicization. It refers to activities, which go beyond classical politics. Theoretically, issues may assume three forms: They are non-politicized and therefore not part of the societal debate and not dealt with by the state; they are politicized and therefore part of the societal discussion agenda and require action from the government, and/or near-government institutions; finally, they are securitized.

There is no typical or ideal path of securitization. Securitization is not bound to any particular group of actors, but such might, alone or in a concerted action, raise an issue to the level of general consideration and, finally, importance. The crucial point is that an existential challenge legitimizes actors to break existing rules and justifies lifting the necessary action to the level of an emergency. Moreover, it is not the securitized object that launches the procedure of securitization but the perceiving audience.

Successful securitization covers the following main aspects:

  • An existential challenge is created;

  • a perceiving audience with the necessary power within the system brings the issue to public debate and frames the issue as an existential challenge;

  • an appropriate emergency action has to be triggered;

  • a significant effect on inter-unit-relationships must be a result in case of non-treatment;

  • existing rules on a legitimate basis must be broken.

Weapons of mass destruction are an excellent example. They served as meta narrative to argue for the undeniable necessity of the war against Iraq as part of the Global War on Terrorism. Buzan calls a further development of securitization Hypersecuritization. (See Buzan, Barry: American Exceptionalism, Unipolarity and September 11: Understanding the Behaviour of the Sole Superpower, International review 38, 2005) Two examples suggest that hypersecuritization has become a feature of U.S. behavior. The first is the observed militarization of U.S. foreign and security policy with the military increasingly being the preferred instrument despite America’s abundance of soft power. The example is found in the very high levels of relative military expenditure, and the concern, marked in the National Security Strategy that U.S. forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States. For reason, the U.S. has maintained an unprecedented high level of military expenditure relative to the other major military powers.

Summarizing Thoughts – Ways out of the Trap

So, who are we, we Americans? We’re a priesthood of all believers in a civil religion that combines, often uneasily, the universals preached by Christian evangelism and the universals posited by the Enlightenment – a civil religion that blesses all sects but stand above them in the manner of a grand Freemason lodge. We’re mater builders pledged to complete the unfinished pyramid under the All-Seeing Eye of Providence that appears on our Great Seal and one-dollar bill. We’re revolutionaries devoted to creative destruction and even creative corruption so long as it hastens the arrival of a future we assume will be better than the present. We’re jealous people who react ferociously against all who dare interfere with our pursuit of happiness. And we’re a nation of hustlers and self-reinventors ready to do or believe whatever helps us worship God and Mammon, and thus feel good about doing well.” (McDougall, Walter A.: The Colonial Origins of American Identity, Orbis, Winter 2005, pp. 18-19.)

Huntington’s critical appraisal sheds light on the U.S.’s self-perception. The picture is a multi-faceted one. It shows diversity, mental openness and borders at the same time. The “who” includes contradictions and idealization. It covers religion and clear-cut competition. The question “who are we, we Americans?“ requires a nuanced answer. Those nuances can be traced in strategic thought, which is not a black-and-white idealist versus realist approach, but a texture of many layers. Enduring parameters serve as the core of those layers.

Based on those enduring parameters the U.S. needs to make itself much more understood:

  1. First and foremost, the “Post-World War II-based approach” has to be substituted by an approach adequate to the challenges of the 21st century. Coca Cola and bubble gums are certainly not enough anymore. Ideas are not enough to be accepted. Post-War Germany and Japan cannot be compared to Afghanistan and Iraq. Uncritical historical analogy in politics, oversimplifications and a can-do mentality are no ingredients to design a complex order such as the current one.

  2. What is good for America is not necessarily good for the rest of the world. The U.S. has to take the new power texture into account and integrate it into its set of enduring parameters.

  3. Self-perception needs to be retuned. The invincible is not invincible anymore. Modesty needs to receive more attention – even if the U.S. continues to perceive itself as a superpower.

  4. Basic societal concepts such as legitimacy, power, space and time need to be overhauled and embedded in a new Grand Strategy applicable to an emotionalized and globalized world.

  5. A comprehensive set of public diplomacy, understood as a package of activities accommodated to the “new realities” needs to be developed and vigorously implemented.

Washington needs to accept: A new look is required – instantly and at the same time strategically planned and executed. It will require determinedness and patience at the same time, yet it is indispensable if the U.S. will continue to be serious and seriously taken actor in the international order.