The Lesson America Can Learn from Its Own History

News Abroad

Mr. Neem is an assistant professor of history at Western Washington University in Bellingham and a writer for the History News Service.

Over a century ago, the British historian Lord Acton warned that absolute power corrupts absolutely. While he acknowledged that humanity may be capable of much good, Acton worried that possessing too much power would tempt us to do wrong. And it has.

As far back as the 16th century political thinkers argued that only a balance of power among states, the international equivalent of checks and balances, would preserve peace. Unchecked power would destabilize the world. They might have had the current United States in mind. Since September 11, 2001, the United States has abused its position as the world's sole superpower.

One result has been the reinvigoration of balance of power theory among those who now seek to protect themselves from American ambition. But the revival of balance of power theory -- admittedly in response to American actions -- undermines another American tradition that American leaders and diplomats once celebrated: the idea of an international order premised on law.

Law protects the weak who lack the brute power to impose their will on others. Following the American Revolution, and for most of America's history, the United States was a weak nation. It lacked the military strength to challenge major European powers. Instead, the United States urged the world's strongest states to abide by shared principles.

Thomas Jefferson, for example, believed peace was possible only when all states treated each other as equals. He argued that the Declaration of Independence's principles of equality and liberty should determine not just how individuals interact at home but how states interact with each other. He urged free trade rather than entangling alliances and condemned European powers when they violated Americans' rights abroad.

As Jefferson put it in his Second Inaugural Address in 1805, "We are firmly convinced, and we act on that conviction, that with nations, as with individuals, our interests soundly calculated, will ever be found inseparable from our moral duties."

Over a century later, at a time when the United States was emerging as a world power, Woodrow Wilson reasserted these Jeffersonian principles. As he contemplated American entrance into World War I, he told Congress in 1917: "Our object now, as then, is to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power and to set up amongst the really free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth ensure the observance of those principles."

As the war ended, Wilson called for a reformation of the world order in his famous Fourteen Points address. Not only did he urge a world governed by law, but he also supported the formation of "a general association of nations," what would become the League of Nations, to adjudicate international conflicts according to higher principles.

Americans have often resorted to violence in their foreign policy -- from displacing Native Americans and Mexicans in the West to toppling unfriendly regimes during the Cold War -- but only recently have we abandoned a broader commitment to a world governed by law instead of force.

Recent events have revealed the limits of American power. The United States' military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan have broadcast to the world that we are not as strong as we think we are. Recognizing our limits may be a good thing if it makes Americans look back to the ideas they embraced when they were weaker players on the world stage.

While absolute power corrupts, awareness of one's limits can make a people wise. A chastened America now has the opportunity to revive the best in our tradition and recommit ourselves to those principles and ideals that once made us a beacon to freedom-loving people.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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More Comments:

R.R. Hamilton - 1/15/2008

Thank you, Ms. Reyes; if you hadn't made the point, I would have. Btw, I think it's "Barbary", not "Barbery" (not that Jefferson was any friend of barbers, either).

Nancy REYES - 1/15/2008

Is that the same Jefferson who decided to go to war against the Barbery pirates when a more peaceful Europe had put up with them and bribed them according to law for 300 years?

Just wondering.

James W Loewen - 1/14/2008

It gives one pause, if not paws, to see Woodrow Wilson quoted in favor of non-intervention. Given that he intervened repeatedly in Mexico, throughout Central America and the Caribbean, and even in the USSR, he should be quoted only as an example of hypocrisy. Sigh.

Mike A Mainello - 1/14/2008

OK, you disagree with the war, I see that. So do you disagree with all wars? Should America ever engage in armed conflict?

The US actions in Iraq and Afghanistan have not been military failures. They have displayed our ability to topple corrupt governments with a minimum of life lost. Our government has displayed patience and conviction in allowing the people of these nations to establish governments. We have also engaged in effective building of institutions that hopefully will enable the Iraqi and Afghani people to create a long term, functioning society.

Yes mistakes have been made, but the US has shown that they engage in a flexible policy that learns from its mistakes.