Too Much History: American Policy and East Asia in the Shadow of the Past (November 2017)
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The great genius but also the Achilles’ heel of American diplomacy is an irrepressible “can do” optimism — a conviction that every problem has a solution, that no conflict is too wicked or too intractable to defy resolution. De Tocqueville observed that Americans “have all a lively faith in the perfectibility of man. ... They all consider society as a body in a state of improvement.”1 That view has propelled America to great achievement in forging an era of peace and prosperity for nearly three-quarters of a century after World War II, ending wars and brokering peace among apparently implacable foes, and building institutions to tame economic cycles and interstate rivalries. Much of that optimism stems from our “eyes forward” approach to contemporary challenges, a conviction that the past is not prologue and that past performance is not indicative of future results. This optimism is rooted in our earliest experiences as a nation, a belief that the New World could and should forge a fresh approach to foreign policy, one not snared in the ancient quarrels of the Old World, but springing from an enlightened vision of harmonious relations among free peoples. It was an approach fitting for a nation whose very founding was an attempt to escape from the past. As Thomas Paine noted, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”2 The founders were not ignorant of history — they simply were determined not to be shackled by it.