The United States has played a paradoxical role in world order:

. . . expanding across the continent in the name of Manifest Destiny while abjuring any imperial designs; [exerting] a decisive influence on momentous events while disclaiming any motivation of national interest; and [becoming] a superpower while disavowing any intention to conduct power politics.

How do we explain this ambivalence, and what are its implications? Can we have it both ways? Does it depend?

Expert Answers

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The ambivalence regarding westward expansion and Manifest Destiny can be explained by sociological relationships between Native Americans and white settlers. Political officials of the era dismissed accusations of imperialism by denying personhood to Natives. In their minds, European imperialists oppressed fellow Europeans, or they physically invaded faraway nations. American settlers expanded West across the land on which they already lived. Perception explains this paradox.

However, the ambivalence regarding international politics cannot be explained by societal perception. If the United States was not driven by national interest, there would be no involvement in or influence over major events. Defense of other nations is driven purely by trade concerns and self-preservation.

In becoming a superpower, power politics are unavoidable. The United States has a long history of extending its political reach in order to increase its sphere of influence. Therefore, any claims of avoiding power politics are false. The United States cannot have it both ways. A nation cannot forcefully expand without imperialism. A nation would not influence international events were it not for national interests. A nation cannot be a superpower without conducting power politics.

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