American missionaries spread their faith in China, in the Middle East, in Hawaii long before it was annexed in 1898. Americans did business abroad for years, including a mining engineer named Herbert Hoover who resisted the Boxer Rebellion in Beijing in 1900.
In the 20th century, after two world wars, Americans came to understand that their nation's traditional commercial interest in protecting the sea lanes also served to maintain an international order in which freedom and democracy had a chance to prevail.
What most Americans are saying now, when they voice disapproval of the president's foreign policy, is not that they disagree with this or that decision or action. They are saying that they are seeing a world in disarray.
A 56 percent majority still wants the United States to be the world's sole military superpower, Pew reports. But 53 percent say that America is playing a less powerful and important role than it was 10 years ago, and 70 percent say the United States is less respected than in the past.
The disarray is visible, even in the moments one searches for the remote control to switch to a less disquieting channel. Disarray in the murder of a U.S. ambassador in Benghazi, about which only 32 percent in the Post/ABC poll believe the administration has disclosed what it knows.
Disarray in Syria, where chemical weapons are being used by a dictator despite the agreement brokered by Russia. Disarray in Ukraine, in Iraq, in the Far East, with clashes between China and U.S. allies and nuclear weapons in North Korea.
A policy that disrespects friends, relies on the good faith of unfriendly powers and seeks to propitiate enemies tends to result in such disarray. Friends seek other means of self-preservation, unfriendly powers concoct deals that leverage their advantage, and enemies are increasingly confident they can defy the United States.
Americans may have supported most steps along the way. But they recoil at the disarray that tends to predictably result.