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Question: What forces have shaped the US?

Peter Beinart: Certainly in American foreign policy, America has been shaped by its relative isolation from the rest of the world, and its relative lack of threats nearby; that America has had the Atlantic and Pacific oceans; and it’s had benign neighbors to its north and south. That has allowed . . . That has had, I think, profound consequences. This is what some historians would refer to as free security in the United States. It has allowed America . . . I think it was even part of the reason that America has evolved as a more liberal society. We have not been a society that has faced, for most of our history, the threat of foreign invasion as France, or Germany, or Russia, or many other countries around the world have. That has allowed us, for instance, not to have . . . That has, I think, shaped the . . . the . . . the ability of the American military, for instance, to not dominate and control American politics in the way that it has in many other societies. It’s allowed us to have a fairly libertarian political culture, which I think in the . . . in the broad sweep is a good thing. So that’s one thing.

Question: What separates us from Europe?

Peter Beinart: I think America has also been shaped by the fact that we don’t have . . . we don’t have a feudal tradition; that in some ways America was born into the enlightenment, as opposed to being societies that climbed their way into the enlightenment out of feudal societies in Europe. And so in that way, as some have argued, that everyone in American politics is viewed from a European perspective a liberal, which in the sense they believe . . . they fundamentally argue from the . . . from the position of individual rights and individual liberty. And that there is . . . that appeals to tradition and . . . and . . . and . . . and historical hierarchies are weaker in America; and that capitalism is also for that . . . from that . . . for that reason more powerful in the United States; that America was born into capitalism; that it doesn’t have much of a pre-capitalist order to it in the way that European societies do. And we’ve also been a society that . . . that . . . that had to . . . that was born on a frontier, which meant that there was an expecta . . . that first that there was a militaristic element, a marshal element to our culture because we fought wars – and sometimes genocidal wars – to clear the North American continent of its . . . of many of its original inhabitants. But also because as the frontier moved, Americans had a greater expectation of . . . of freedom from their neighbor; of individual self-determination than people who lived in more confined spaces. That if you didn’t . . . that you could reinvent yourself in the United States always by moving along the frontier. We’re still a very mobile society, as opposed to societies where people naturally believe that they grow up in a certain community with its traditions and norms, and they are . . . and they have to stay within those. And I think American immigration is part of that story as well, because we have all of these people who have consciously made a decision to uproot themselves and to move. So we not only have Americans who move internally in the country and reinvent themselves that way, but we have many people who move to the United States and reinvent themselves.

Recorded on: 9/12/07


American Identity

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