America came to the world gradually. It took quite a long time, and quite calamitous events, to convince America, or large segments of the Americans, to leave their isolationism behind the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and engage with the world.

This engagement evolved through three cycles. The first was almost immediately after America’s victory in its war of independence from the British empire.

Founding fathers such as Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton, had no doubts about, in their view, the superiority of the political project that their nascent republic embodied and invoked. In their view, America was to be built on true freedom – of the mind, before anything else, and subsequently of the will. In the thought of several of America’s founding fathers, this meant that the republic they were building was to be endowed with the utmost of human achievement in science, the arts, and in what they considered the refined domains of knowledge.

The founding fathers, and several of those who carried their ideas forward, had immense respect for ancient civilisations, particularly the Egyptian. It was not a coincidence that the American capital, Washington DC, was to be built on geometric shapes evoking old Egyptian concepts, let alone that the Washington Monument was shaped as an Egyptian obelisk with a pyramidical capstone, to represent the American republic’s attempt at ascending towards greatness, and the founding fathers’ apotheosis towards eternity and absoluteness.

But despite having built their republic escaping Europe, America’s early founders appreciated that they needed to learn from Europe, so as to give America its chance at the greatness they sought. Dozens of key American figures in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries spent months, and in some cases years, in London and Paris and Rome, not only as ambassadors, tradesmen, and wanderers in the old world, but primarily as scholars, learning and observing. Some of their writers, such as Benjamin Franklin’s on the cause of America’s freedom, most of which was actually written during his years in London, demonstrate the intellectual wealth these men internalised from their time in the old world.

This first cycle of engaging with the world cemented in the American psyche that it was to become the city on the hill whose light was to illuminate for its people, and perhaps for others across the oceans, the way towards genuine freedom and towards realising human potential.

For some, this was quite an idealistic view of the self by the nascent republic. For others, this engagement with the world was salient to developing some of the most refined thought-patterns in American philosophy and literature.

The second cycle was different. In the early twentieth century, scores of America’s wealthy, hailing from America’s at the time rapidly growing industry and financial circles, were crossing the Atlantic towards Europe. This time the vast majority of them were going to Europe as tourists, leisure seekers, and often large-scale buyers of property, land, and art. American wealth was seeking to experience old world glamour; often the wealth was trying to acquire facades of centuries-old prestige, interestingly in many cases through marriage. Whereas in the first cycle of engaging with the world, America – through arguably its greatest political minds - came to learn and convince; this time America came to buy and acquire.

But in both cycles, America never stayed. Isolationism was too attractive to America to abandon. For almost 200 years since its founding, America was content to take from the world the knowledge it sought and to sparingly indulge in its joys.

In the third cycle, however, America came and stayed.

America was hesitant at entering World War Two. It took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour to convince the American public, and crucially important a Congress highly skeptical of the upsides of America’s engaging in a war in Europe and Asia, to commit to the effort. The War devastated Europe and Asia. Even the victorious nations of Britain, the Soviet Union, and France, finished the war having lost colossal numbers of their best, and almost bankrupt. America was effectively the sole true victor of World War Two.

Victorious and rich to a bewildering degree, America in the 1950s and 1960s came to different parts of the world, with two clear objectives. First, to deny Communism – the ideology that had challenged America’s liberal capitalism – access to all regions outside the Soviets’ direct control. And second, to open markets for America’s corporations.

This was the cycle of fighting. Militarily, ideologically, and throughout the 1950s and 1960s economically, the Soviet Union was a peer competitor of America. Perhaps knowing what we know today about the state of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, some might argue that the Soviets never had a reasonable chance at winning the Cold War. But that was far from certain at the height of the Cold War. And so, America went to Europe, South America, Africa, Asia, and of course the Middle East, to fight what seemed then a mighty empire aiming, like America, to build influence across the globe.

There were military confrontations, although always through proxies. Most of the fighting, however, was political and economic. And in those domains, America was able, after World War Two, to shape the structure, the legal framework, and the regulating institutions, of global trade and finance according to its views, and to serve its purposes in the world. Even the parts of the world that were then under Communism, or revolving in the Soviet sphere of influence, were strongly affected by the international economic system that America had designed.

As much as America’s State Department – and often the Pentagon – were key arms of America’s fighting in the world post World War Two, the US Dollar – and so, the American Treasury and Federal Reserve – were fundamental in this struggle.

America made colossal miscalculations during the Cold War. In Vietnam, as well as in other parts of the world, America often deployed its colossal military might in wars that it had defined as against Communism, but that with time seemed meaningless.

But whether in Vietnam or elsewhere, the costs and consequences of these strategic mistakes paled compared to the strategic gains in politics and economics that America had secured in almost all regions of the world in the four decades after World War Two.

By the 1980s, America was not merely winning the Cold War in terms of political influence in different parts of the world, access to markets, trade volumes, economic metrics, the attraction of American markets especially its treasury bills, and the power of the US Dollar. Equally important, America was winning psychologically, as most middle classes across the globe wanted to experience elements of America’s prosperity.

A key part of that prosperity transcended financial abundance. As the next article in this series will present, the softer sides of America’s power were increasingly fascinating hundreds of millions across the globe, especially after America had become, in the early 1990s, the world’s sole superpower.