On the Idea of America (2009)

The Engelsberg Seminar 2009

June 11th to 13th 2009 at Avesta Manor, Sweden

What is the origin of ‘the American idea,’ how has it been shaped by history, and where is it headed? The fate of the US is inextricably linked to Europe, and its inhabitants are without a doubt Europe’s most successful colonists. As early as the late 18th century, Americans had liberated themselves from the modern nation of Great Britain and through clever moves managed gradually to eliminate competing colonial powers in North America; for instance, Louisiana was purchased from France and Alaska from Russia, the Spanish were expelled in 1898, and only a weak Canada remained under the British crown. America became the home of freedom, especially religious freedom, a place of refuge for those who were persecuted for their beliefs, and the country of free enterprise. Not only that – as the historian Thomas P. Hughes writes in American Genesis, ““Men and women assumed, as never before, that they had the power to create a world of their own design.”” The US was already on par with Britain in many respects by around 1900, but it was the mistakes that the Europeans themselves made, in the form of the First and Second World War, that prepared the ground for the US, allowing it to become a real global power. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US finally emerged as the undisputed winner of the Cold War. Despite America’s positive self-image, the world has never reallly perceived American ambitions in the same way as the US evidently does. Instead of being seen as a liberator, the US rather has in general been viewed, since the Vietnam War, as imperialist nation acting in sheer selfinterest. Today, following America’s efforts in Iraq, which have been less than successful and have had little backing, and with a financial crisis predominating in the midst of a recesssion, there are once again suggestions, like during the 1980s, that the American Era is over: back then, it was Japan; today it is China and India that is considered to probably take over from the US. Also, do a low starting point and a large population in truth guarantee a global shift in power as Fareed Zakaria writes in The PostAmerican World, and is it ““an accident of history”” that small countries have historically been more successful than large ones is creating prosperity? What are the founding myths of the United States, how have the Puritans and the idea of the New World shaped American history and the country’s destiny, and how are these reflected in the American Constitution and present-day politics? How have key events in American history, like the American Civil War, the 1898 Spanish-American War, FDR and the New Deal, the First and Second World War, Korea, Vietnam etc., influenced the American idea? Furthermore, how does the influence of American national myths colour today’s American national consciousness, and how is this reflected in the American economy, in literature, art, and film? How is the idea of America reflected in the country’s reputation around the globe? Are we beginning to see the beginning of the end or is it still only the beginning of the expansion of the American idea and the American era?


The Founding Myths

Pauline Maier
Professor, MIT
Lecture: The Founding Myths of America in the 18th Century

Daniel Walker Howe
Professor Emeritus, Oxford University & UCLA
Lecture: What Hath God Wrought: Rival Visions of America’s Mission in the 19th Century

David Reynolds
Professor, Cambridge University
Lecture: The Founding Myths in the 20th Century


The Impact of the Idea of America

Philippe Roger
Research Program Director, CNRS
Lecture: The Impact of the Idea of America on Europe

Kathleen Burk
Professor, University College London
Lecture: The Impact of the Idea of America on Britain


The Soft Power of the US and the Politics of Modernisation

Reinhold Wagnleitner
Associate Professor, Salzburg University
Lecture: The Empire of Fun

David Ellwood
Associate Professor, University of Bologna
Lecture: America and the Politics of Modernisation in Europe


Aspects of American Nationalism

Anatol Lieven
Professor, King’s College London
Lectue: American Nationalism: Sleeping or Dead

Godfrey Hodgson
Journalist and Historian
Lecture: American Exceptionalism

James Carroll
Lecture: Messiah Nation


Perspectives on the Idea of America

Deepak Lal
Professor, UCLA
Lecture: The View from India

Jong-Yil Ra
President, Woosuk University
Lecture: The View from Korea

Peter Baldwin
Professor, UCLA
Lecture: A Reality Check

The Influence of the US Economy

Robert J. Shapiro
Chairman and co-founder, Sonecon, llc
Lecture: American Markets

Oliver Kamm
Leader Writer, The Times
Lecture: On the Decline of the US Influence in Global Markets

Edward Luce
Bureau Chief, Financial Times, Washington
Lecture: On the Continuing Power of the US Economy



The Future of the Idea of America

Göran Rosenberg
Lecture: Is the Future of the American Idea Possible?

Anders Stephanson
Professor, Columbia University
Lecture: America as the End of History

Alan Wolfe
Professor, Boston College
Lecture: The Future of Liberal Interventionism

Peter Beinart
Senior Fellow, Council of Foreign relations
Lecture: The Solvency Doctrine: Understanding Obama’s Foreign Policy

Oliver Kamm
Leader Writer, The Times
Lecture: The US and Europe: How Not to Improve Relations

Douglas Murray
Author, Director, Centre for Social Cohesion
Lecture: Interventionism Post-Iraq