“We have it in our power to begin the world all over again.” Tom Paine’s bold assertion, dating from 1776, captures an enduring facet of America’s national self-image and self-assigned responsibility to history.
The ongoing Russo-Ukraine War offers an opportune moment to reflect on Paine’s claim. Does it still hold? With 1776 itself now the subject of controversy, does beginning the world all over again remain part of the nation’s repertoire?
The American experience is replete with fresh beginnings. On the one hand are various “Great Awakenings,” both religious and secular, undertaken to purge the nation of injustice, inequality, and evils of various kinds. On the other hand are countless armed conflicts, typically styled as crusades on behalf of liberty, even if informed by overt or covert imperial ambitions. String together these various new beginnings and there emerges a triumphal narrative sufficient to command the fealty of most Americans most of the time, at least until recently.
Events of the post-Cold War era raised serious questions about whether this narrative remains viable. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 had prompted expectations of the United States claiming a position of political, economic, technological, military, and above all ideological primacy. Yet efforts to extend the life of the American Century resulted instead in a series of missteps and disappointments that would have given even Tom Paine pause.
Read the full article in The American Conservative.