We come from diversity

When will people learn that it is the spirit we are of, not the machinery we employ, that binds us to others? - Thomas Babington Macaulaym.

I write as a citizen of the United States, long involved in international affairs, who often is asked by people in other countries to explain where we Americans are coming from.

Washington, D.C., is a great electronic bullhorn, its noise amplified far beyond the significance of what is said. You are bound to listen to our loudest voices, the voices who hold important offices. It is functional for us all to listen to what they say because they are temporarily in public office. But our constitutional system guarantees that a few years from now we will be listening to different voices from Washington. They may not be more sensible but they are going to be different.

Remember it is the American people who make the basic foreign-policy decisions and set the long-term goals for the kind of world we want to live in.

Our central purpose is still what President John F. Kennedy captured in a single phrase: to ''make the world safe for diversity.'' A pluralistic world, a world with nobody in charge and all of us partly in charge, a world with room for many cultures, protected in going their self-selected ways - that won't be a comfortable world, for Americans or anyone else. But for Americans, it should be an understandable world, even a congenial world - because diversity is where we come from. (The next town you visit, drop into the local library, borrow the Federalist Papers, and read Federalist No. 10, James Madison's essay on pluralism.)

There exists in this world a good many nations whose leaders passionately believe some single national state, some unifying political doctrine, some monochromatic race of people can and should dominate the world. But most Americans know that nations are too interdependent, doctrines too dangerous, ethnic and cultural groups too proud, and individual men and women just too ornery to give these pretensions a chance in the long run. We know these things not because we have figured them out rationally, but because that is the kind of people our experience has taught us to be.

Visitors to the US often find us confusing. Especially visitors who can describe their ''system'' with words from ancient manuscripts or modern manifestoes.

We do not, of course, have a ''system''; we have a protected plurality of systems. The Englishman Edmund Burke, in his famous speech about how to get along with those wild men across the Atlantic, said in despair that our religion was ''the dissonance of dissent.'' Americans, Burke thought, were ''a people who are still, as it were, but in the gristle, and not yet hardened into the bone of manhood.''

In the two centuries since those words were spoken, we have kept relearning, from hardening, bone-building experience in peace and war, that the best and more durable way to manage our public business is the undogmatic, loose-reined, checked-and-balanced, part-public-part-private governance we call democracy. We have learned to distrust the idea that any one person's or any one group's view of society is the correct or authorized version.

The one essential thing about democracy is this: that no individual ever gains the exclusive right to say, with authority, what democracy is. That, for most Americans, is also the first principle of world order.

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