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Americans are in the fortunate position that the values asserted in 1776 have in large measure been accepted by all the world.
Whatever it was Thomas Jefferson and the other founders meant in asserting that “All men are created equal,” this statement by now has nothing exclusively American about it.
It may even be the dominant one today in the world at large, if debates in the United Nations are any evidence, and in large parts of the American population as well, particularly among the educated young, to judge by the general tenor of editorials in college newspapers.
There is no question that the image the United States holds of itself must affect its role in foreign affairs.
Indeed, the first major problem in talking of American values in relation to foreign policy is whether the values that have guided our foreign policy have truly been the benign ones embodied in our founding documents, or whether they have in contrast been the values of racism, imperialism, class domination, and national arrogance.
We in this country seem to believe, first, that there is something distinctive about our values, such that we can speak—even if with some uncertainty—about values; and, second, that these values do, or should, affect our foreign policy.
We do not drag out the theme of American values in their relation to foreign policy only because we happen to be celebrating our bicentennial and feel therefore that some special Sunday topic, some ceremonial theme, is necessary.
We are used to talking about American values in many contexts besides foreign affairs—our domestic social policies, our racial policies, the urban crisis, the state of religion, or of the youth, or of the family.
When the American government acts in foreign affairs, what should be our bias toward that action?
Should we—initially, at least—accept the protestations of our leaders that their policies are meant to advance democracy and freedom as well as, one assumes, the interests of the United States?
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Has it been a defense of freedom by a strong nation, which has suffered some recent reverses but can still recover?