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Obama is hardly out of step with Americans. In past decades, the portion of people who support the US advancing democracy abroad has fallen, with a sharp decline since 2001 from 29 percent to 13 percent, although Americans do support the use of diplomacy, investment, and other “soft power” tools.
A Hagel Pentagon might be a far cry from Thomas Jefferson’s vision of America as an “empire of liberty” or the current vision by many strategists of the US as indispensable to global stability. It could alter America’s identity from that of having a mission to the world based on its founding values to that of being miserly in its foreign commitments.
An early Puritan minister, Peter Buckley, helped set America’s identity by telling the Christians of New England that “the Lord looks for more from thee, than any other people.” That sense of mission continued into the 19th century when Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.” But the nomination of Hagel could reflect a new America, one far more uncertain of engaging overseas.
He once told a West Point class that the US should send soldiers into combat only for “a mission that matters.” For the sake of Americans being clear on their role in the world, he should tell senators what kind of missions he would support. It would be critical if Obama is to define America’s special role.