The American conception of sovereignty has traditionally included another element: the right to national privacy, the capacity to fend off external intrusions into domestic affairs. This concern was rooted in the original American sense of separateness and differentiation from Europe. The New World had broken off from the Old World, and maintaining the sharpness of the break was deemed essential to retaining the valued newness of the qualities of American political society. The isolationist tradition combined cautions against being drawn into European affairs and against Europe's poking into American affairs.
The latter concern is typically expressed with reference to international organization by the concept of domestic jurisdiction. Participation in multilateral agencies necessarily involves exposure as well as commitment; nothing can be done with the collaboration of, or for the benefit of, a member state without something being done to that state. American enthusiasm for international organization has always been qualified by fear of expanding the national vulnerability to external interference, a concern that was manifested in the drafting of both the League Covenant and the UN Charter by vigorous insistence upon provisions protecting domestic jurisdiction. The campaign that defeated American affiliation with the league concentrated as heavily upon what might be done to this country by and through the organization as upon what the United States might be required to do on behalf of the league. Similarly, misgivings about the United Nations and the specialized agencies have often expressed the belief that the United States has been, or the fear that it might be, improperly penetrated by foreign influences flowing through those institutional channels.
This concern for sovereignty, translated as domestic jurisdiction, is shared by all states. It has received peculiar emphasis in American policy for reasons that go beyond the attitudes that were initially associated with an isolated position and an isolationist doctrine. It seems probable that, perhaps until very recently, the United States never shared the keen need for international organization to serve its particular interests—as distinguished from its broader interest in a stable and peaceful world—that most other states have felt. As a big country, a continental state, the United States appeared not to require the relief of difficulties posed by cramped territorial area that many other states have been compelled to seek through international organizations. It did not fully share the need of European states, now matched by states on other continents with numerous national divisions, for mechanisms of coordination to facilitate interchange across state boundaries. In this respect the American situation was analogous to that of a great rural landowner, in contrast with that of residents in congested urban areas.
Throughout the twentieth century the United States perceived itself as a powerful, wealthy, and highly developed state, not dependent upon others for protection or for economic and technical assistance. This feeling of independence and omnipotence even increased at the end of the Cold War. Given these characteristics it is perhaps understandable that the United States tended to conceive of participation in international agencies as a matter more of giving than of receiving, and that it insisted upon limiting both what it gave and what it received. The United States could afford to resist having undesired things done to it by international organizations because it had little stake in having essential things done for it by those bodies. With regard to the impact of multilateral programs and activities upon and within national societies, the United States accepted the biblical proposition that it was more blessed to give than to receive. America, more than most other states, could plausibly consider its engagement in organized international activities as predominantly a means of contributing to the general welfare of the global body politic rather than as a means of acquiring particular benefits for itself. Perhaps for this reason Americans appeared especially prone to believe that international organizations were, or should be, expressions of collective idealism and altruism. The sudden awareness of the exposure of the hitherto invulnerable American continent to international terrorism, however, changed this attitude dramatically at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Another set of difficulties and inhibitions that affected American participation in international organization in the twentieth century might be said to derive from the reverse of the attitude toward national sovereignty discussed above. International organizations inevitably cut into the sovereignty of participating states in the sense that they require them to accept commitments—thereby restricting in some measure their freedom to decide what they will and will not do—and in the sense that states' domestic exposure to external impacts is enhanced, thereby diminishing their sense of national privacy. Yet the development of so-called international rogue states like Iraq and North Korea in the 1990s, and in particular the increasing vulnerability of the United States to international terrorism, led to a much greater sense of the inevitability of American involvement with the rest of the world. A wide spectrum of U.S. policymakers began to embrace the idea that even the territory of such a vast and powerful and geographically protected country like the United States could not do without the support of the international community to safeguard its physical security.