The luxury of America's circumstances -- particularly its physical security and detachment from the world's ethnic and tribal quarrels -- has given Americans an optimistic view of their future. And it has produced a strain in U.S. foreign policy that seeks to do good across the globe.
That optimism can often obscure the grimmer realities of international politics. Americans never really knew the mentality of the small power -- the fear of living on the knife's edge, the trauma of being without, and the viciousness of ethnic and tribal struggle.
U.S. nationalism was defined politically, not ethnically. Anyone can be an American, regardless of color, creed, or religion. America's public square has become an inclusive one -- and is becoming more so, not less. That's all good news, but too often, it leads Americans to see the world on their terms and not the way it really is.
Just look at America's recent foreign-policy misadventures. Americans' mistaken belief that post-invasion Iraq would be a place where Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds would somehow look to the future to build a new nation reflected this tendency. It's the same story with the Arab Spring: From the beginning, America seemed determined to impose its own upbeat Hollywood ending on a movie that was only just getting started and would become much darker than imagined. The notion that what was happening in Egypt was a transformative event that would turn the country over to the secular liberals powered by Facebook and Twitter was truly an American conceit.
Americans weren't alone in creating this false narrative, but that doesn't make their inclination for self-delusion any more comforting. This annoying tendency to see the world as they want it, rather than how it really is, can get them into real trouble. Just take Egypt, which is now in the hands of that country's two least democratic forces: the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Army -- both of which the United States is supporting.
American arrogance and ambivalence
Being powerful and relatively free from the threat of attack means Americans don't have to care much about what the rest of the world thinks. And like all big powers prior, America has taken full advantage of this privilege: It has championed human rights while supporting dictators and has mouthed support for the United Nations and international law while undermining both when U.S. interests demanded it. America's recent behavior in the Middle East serves as a case study: The United States encouraged reform in Egypt and largely ignored political unrest in Bahrain, highlighted women's rights in Egypt but not in Saudi Arabia, and intervened in Libya but not Syria.
What sets the United States apart from past world powers is Americans' ambivalence about their country's role abroad. Americans have an almost schizophrenic view: They want to be left alone on some days (the post-World War I era, for example) and on other days try to fundamentally change the planet (Iraq in 2003). This is related to the fact that they can come and go as they please -- a luxury of America's location. It's almost as if U.S. foreign policy is discretionary.
I would have thought that in the wake of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the United States would be entering a period of full-fledged retreat from global affairs. And though President Barack Obama is indeed extricator in chief -- determined to take America out of old wars, not get them involved in new ones -- he has also been a wartime president since his first term.
Obama may well remain a wartime president until he leaves office. The crisis on the Korean Peninsula, mission creep in Syria, and the prospect of military action against Iran all hold out the likelihood that the next four years will see America more involved in trying to solve the problems of the world. And if the April 15 attack in Boston turns out to be perpetrated by an al Qaeda contractor or part of some Iranian-sponsored black ops, the deadly business of whacking bad guys will intensify. After all, the organizing principle of a country's foreign policy is protecting the homeland. If you can't do that, you don't need a foreign policy.
There's much good America can do in the world. It remains the most powerful and consequential actor on the world stage and will likely maintain that status for some time to come. Americans just have to be smart about how they use that power -- and always remember that not everyone is lucky enough to have Canadians, Mexicans, and fish for neighbors.