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All Hail America?

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Reviewed by Joseph S. Nye Jr.
Sunday, July 1, 2007

ARE WE ROME?

The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America

By Cullen Murphy

Houghton Mifflin 262 pp. $24

Psychologists say that we tend to become the stories we tell about ourselves. One of our country's oldest stories involves is the notion myth of the American miracleexceptionalism. GoingWith roots extending back to John Winthrop's 1630 admonition that we should be a city upon a hill, America's basic founding myth describes us as is that we are a people whom selected by Providence selected from the old world to found a new world of liberty and hope, not just for ourselves but for the entire human race.

This myth legend of American exceptionalism has led to self-deception as well as a moral progress. On the Fourth of July we one can tell the traditional story that "all men are created equal," or the one can tell a counter-story of a constitution that treated slaves as three-fifths of a person, broken treaties with native inhabitants, and a doctrine of manifest destiny used to legitimize aggression against Mexico. As Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, points out in her thoughtful, and well-written bookessay, both stories may be true at the same time. In a nation held together by ideas rather than ethnicity, fierce debates over values "have driven our history forward. Democracy once meant suffrage only for propertied white men. At the dawn of the Revolution, liberty meant slavery for 20 percent of the population. Equality once meant segregated schools. And justice has often not been for all. Successive groups and generations of Americans have challenged the meaning and the implementation of these values -- calling on our government to make good its promises and also disputing precisely what was promised."

For David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale and regular contributor to the Weekly Standard, "most nations are based on no principles; they are based instead on shared descent or ethnicity. The United States is different. It has a religion because it must have. Without one, it is a band of displaced persons and little more."

Each generation confronts new problems, encounters new facts and tells our history somewhat differently. These three books about the past reflect the post-9/11 historical era and are really about our future role in the world.

The centrality of values in our national myths has long led to oscillation between realism and idealism in our foreign policies. Neither liberals nor conservatives are able to escape it. Hard-nosed realism in the narrow pursuit of national interest -- whether it be Teddy Roosevelt or Henry Kissinger leading the quest -- has not captured the imagination of the American people, but as these books attest, Americans disagree widely on how to combine interests with values. As Cullen Murphy, editor-at-large at Vanity Fair, argues in his fascinating comparison of America and Rome: "America isn't grasping for territory; our substitute for territory . . . is the ideology of democracy and free markets. Should we push them aggressively, even by means of pre-emptive war, hastening the world toward its destiny? Should we hold back, to conserve the tenuous gains we've made and let the impetus of history gradually have its way? Well, we don't do either with any consistency."

John Quincy Adams famously warned against going abroad in search of monsters to destroy, while Woodrow Wilson sought to make the world safe for democracy. Should we rest on the soft power of attractive ideas and example, or should we pursue a more "activist Americanism" as George W. Bush has advocated? Gelernter locates Bush in the Wilsonian tradition and argues that "Bush's activism has, predictably, split the ranks of American true believers. The split is felt in practice as a disagreement among American conservatives." Gelernter comes down firmly on the neo-conservative side. "If there is to be justice in the world," he writes, "America must create it."

Gelernter argues that America is a biblical (not secular) republic, and Americanism is a biblical (not civil) religion. The universal ideas of liberty, equality and democracy are rooted in Puritan Christianity, which in turn was shaped by the Bible. Gelernter is surely correct when he defines a "biblical republic" as one that "has the Bible on its mind," and he provides ample evidence of how political leaders have drawn upon the Bible in our history. His treatment of the Puritans is convincing, and his chapter on Lincoln (whose Gettysburg Address he calls "the best expression of the American Creed") is beautifully written.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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