Harries is a Senior Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.
He founded the American foreign policy journal, The National
Interest, and, prior to that, was head of policy planning
at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Senior Advisor to the
then Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, as well as Australian
Ambassador to UNESCO.
views expressed are those of the author's and do not necessarily
reflect the views of the Centre's staff, Advisers, Directors
All material is copyright of The Centre for Independent Studies
or the stated author, 2002.
Centre for Independent Studies : Public policy ideas for Australasia
Understanding America by Owen Harries
all know America, don't we? While we may confess to ignorance
about Japan or Russia, or even France all those impossibly
difficult languages apart from anything else we are confident
that we know America. It is, as they say, everyone's second
have seen perhaps a thousand American movies, from Clark Gable
to Gwyneth Paltrow. We have seen hundreds of American sitcoms.
We know the words of dozens of American popular songs, most
of the better ones written, incidentally, by first or second
generation immigrants from Eastern Europe. We have read Hemmingway
and Fitzgerald and Steinbeck and Bellow and Updike. We have
a common language, more or less, and by now we are even familiar
with American idiom and regional accents.
know the American landscape about as well as we know our own:
the prairies, the Manhattan skyline, the white spires and
fall colours of New England, those dangerous small towns of
the Deep South to some degree they are all part of our inner
landscape. So are episodes from America's recent history:
the assassination of John Kennedy, the protest marches and
Martin Luther King's I have a dream' speech, Clinton solemnly
lying to the camera, and now the terrible images of those
aircraft flying into the World Trade Center on September 11.
we all know America. The trouble is that many of the things
we know are not true, or are only partly true, or are true
only in a very particular sense.
of the things we know is that, by Australian standards, and
by British and European as well, Americans are brashly and
complacently self-confident, over addicted to self- promotion
and boasting, full of themselves' as we would say. Yes, up
to a point. Yet it is also true that Americans are the most
self-critical people on earth. Everything bad we know about
America its crime and its excessive punishment, its corruption,
its graft, its racial tensions, its inane political correctness,
its vulgar excesses we know because Americans have told us
washing its dirty linen in public is an American specialty
though, unlike much Australian self-denigration, it does not
usually take the form of simply knocking, nor of a wallowing
in guilt, as in the I am ashamed to be an Australian' litany
that we have been subjected to so much in recent months. It
is, in my experience, more discriminating, more measured and
better informed. Americans are seriously and pragmatically
dedicated to self-correction.
their optimistic self-confidence is often seriously qualified.
In 1988, for example, when the United States was on the verge
of winning the Cold War, two books that were at the top of
the bestseller list were Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall
of the Great Powers, which predicted American overextension
and decline, and Alan Bloom's The Closing of the American
Mind, a withering critique of the American cultural scene.
Four years later, when the United States had actually won
the Cold War, and when it was already being widely accused
of arrogance and triumphalism', the leading New York magazine,
Commentary, was running a lengthy two-part symposium under
the title, Is America On The Way Down?'. Many of the contributors,
in the main conservative intellectuals not the alienated Left,
thought it was. Not much complacency or arrogance there.
another thing that we know' about America: that it is a young
country', usually with the connotation that it is immature
and naove in its ways, especially in comparison with an old,
more mature and more sophisticated Europe (not to speak of
China). To take a typical example, James Callaghan, a one-time
British prime minister and not normally a silly man, once
loftily declared that Europeans have a better understanding
of the complexities of the present world difficulties than
the United States'. This air of patronising superiority towards
America's alleged naovety and innocence is by no means confined
to the political Left; there is a well-established tradition
of right-wing anti-Americanism in Europe.
fact is, though, that the United States is an older country
than Germany, Italy, and a dozen other European states, not
to speak of Latin America, Africa, and most of Asia. It is
the oldest extant democracy on earth, the oldest republic,
and the oldest federal system as well as the largest, most
complex, most open and most tested (something that one might
not readily have grasped from the facile attempt to ridicule
and patronise America during the last disputed presidential
election). Consider that during the time that this supposedly
young country has existed, France, that epitome of European
sophistication, has gone through five different republics,
two emperors, two monarchies, and a puppet regime. How sophisticated
can you get.
too, the rest of the world is in no position to patronise
the United States though, of course, much of it does. The
best American universities Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Chicago,
Princeton are easily the best in the world. And there is a
social club on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington the Cosmos
Club whose members, over the years, have won many more Nobel
prizes than has the whole of Asia (28 the last time I counted
the names on its wall).
third thing that we or some of us know' about America is that
while it is great at handling success and triumph, it is an
uncertain quantity at best untried, at worst very suspect
when it comes to adversity and setbacks. The American temperament
as a nation is considered suspect: they have had it easy,
have been blessed with so many advantages, that they are not
really conditioned, not tempered, to handle bad times well.
Their stamina and resilience are questionable. True or false?
it might be worth beginning by observing that American prosperity
is comparatively recent. Whatever its merits and demerits,
the frontier experience was not a soft one. At the beginning
of the last century, Australia's per capita income was higher
than America's. As late as 1930, 50 million Americans 44%
of the total population still lived rural lives. Almost none
of them had electricity and 45 million had no indoor plumbing.
the same time tens of millions of recent immigrants lived
in overcrowded, unsanitary Jewish ghettoes, Little Italys,
and Little Polands, couldn't speak English, and worked 12
or more hours a day in sweatshops and on assembly lines. Things
were so hard for the migrants that a large proportion of them
nearly a third of the Poles, about half the Italians, more
than half the Greeks returned home. America's affluence, as
a general condition, is quite a recent, post World War II,
for coping with adversity, one could say of America what was
said of the 19th century English statesman, William Ewart
Gladstone: that, after a setback, he was tremendously formidable
on the rebound. The United States has faced three great crises
in the last 150 years: the Civil War, the Great Depression,
and the upheaval and turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. In each
case it came back from adversity rapidly and with tremendous
the Civil War, America suffered over 600,000 deaths more than
it has suffered in all the other wars before and since combined.
A large part of the country particularly the South was utterly
devastated. Yet in less than a decade after the end of the
war, America had entered into an age of tremendous growth
the so-called Gilded Age and in the course of a generation
had transformed itself from an overwhelmingly agrarian country
into a great industrial state, first challenging and then,
around about 1890, surging past Britain and Germany.
the 1930s the United States, along with the rest of the industrial
world, suffered the Great Depression a depression of such
severity that the prevailing wisdom among Western intellectuals
was that capitalism and liberal democracy were finished and
destined to be replaced soon, either peacefully or violently,
by some form of socialism. Yet by the middle of the next decade,
the United States had fought and won a great war, had emerged
as the leading power on earth, and had entered into a long
period of unprecedented prosperity.
the 1960s and 1970s, the United States experienced huge turmoil:
the Civil Rights movement, the student protest movement, a
social and moral revolution, defeat in Vietnam, and a political
crisis that unseated a president. Predictions of inevitable
decline were widespread. Yet again, within 15 years the United
States had emerged victorious from the Cold War, was the sole
remaining superpower, and enjoyed a political, economic, and
military dominance that in the opinion of most judges is unprecedented
in recorded history. Not a bad record for a country whose
toughness and ability to handle adversity are regularly questioned.
last item in this list of things we confidently know about
America, and the most important for my purpose in this lecture,
is the belief that it is the most materialistic of countries.
The United States virtually invented modern consumerism, and
the American people are notorious for their insatiable appetite
for the acquisition of material goods and for conspicuous
consumption. Again, this is all true as far as it goes. And
don't we and other Western people enjoy ridiculing and scolding
these American excesses though it has to be said that, once
given the chance, we ourselves have not exactly proved backward
the real point to make here and in terms of what I shall go
on to argue, it is very important is that as well as being
the most materialistic of modern Western countries, the United
States is certainly the most idealistic. In the first place,
it is the most religious, not only in the sense of believing
in God but of actually going to church regularly. While in
much of the West religion is dying and churches are neglected
and being turned into bingo halls or keep-fit centres, in
the United States they thrive.
religion apart, in the secular sense too, this most materialistic
of countries is also the most idealistic. This to the extent
that over the last 200 years it has regularly been asserted
that America and Americans are to be defined by an idea.
at Gettysburg spoke of a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated
to a proposition'. He spoke of reverence for the laws as the
political religion of the nation'. As the writer Robert Penn
Warren put it, To be an American is not . . . a matter of
blood; it is a matter of an idea and [its] history is the
image of that idea'.
writer, Theodore White: Americans are not a people like the
French, Germans or Japanese, whose genes have been mixing
with kindred genes for thousands of years. Americans are held
together only by ideas'.
non-Americans have agreed. G. K. Chesterton maintained that
America is the only nation in the world that is founded on
a creed'. And Margaret Thatcher has contrasted European nations,
as the products of history, with the United States, as the
product of a philosophy. The idea of America
it would be very easy to dismiss all this as hyperbole, or
hypocrisy. It is certainly true that America is many things
as well as an idea a history; a set of customs and traditions;
various institutions, political and otherwise; and, as we
have become increasingly aware, a complex of power and interests.
But ideas are a very important an exceptionally important
part of the whole, and to the extent that Americans believe
that these ideas are central to its identity and acts accordingly,
it has important consequences.
want to say something about two of those consequences, one
internal and one external.
as Americans rejected the belief in a nationalism of blood
and soil the sense in which nationalism was mainly understood
in its European heyday, and still is in places like Croatia
and Serbia and instead put ideas centre stage, it made the
country very receptive to immigrants. The Economist magazine
once put it this way:
is an immigrant's land, open to anyone of any race or culture
who accepts the ideas of the European Enlightenment on which
it was founded. Provided the ideas remained intact, an America
populated with Martians would still be America.
has been, in other words, a minimal and accessible qualification
to becoming an American: adopt the creed and you are in. This
has made it possible for the United States not only to absorb
huge numbers of people, but also to alter the composition
of its population radically, without major disruption.
have been three stages. From the Declaration of Independence
in 1776 until just before the Civil War in the 1860s, the
United States was a country of Anglo-Saxon stock and Protestant
religion. The population was overwhelmingly of British origin.
By the very end of this period, increasing numbers of Irish
and Germans started to come, driven by famine and political
upheaval at home, but the Anglo-Protestant character still
before the Civil War there began a period of massive immigration,
reaching its peak in the period 1890 to 1914, when as its
industrial economy was making gigantic leaps the United States
was absorbing people at the rate of a million a year. Only
a small proportion of these was Anglo-Saxon. They were overwhelmingly
Irish, Italian, Slav and Jewish. Their religions were Catholic,
Greek Orthodox and Jewish. In the course of a few decades
America was transformed from an Anglo-American Protestant
society into a multidenominational Euro-American society.
By 1920 the percentage of Americans of British origin was
down to 40% and still falling rapidly.
were the years of the famous melting pot' and of the symbolism
of the Statue of Liberty, with its eloquent lines, Give me
your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be
free'. A policy of assimilation was energetically applied,
and it was belief in the creed and institutions of liberal
democracy that provided the glue to make a nation of these
there were still very distinct limits to American receptivity
at that stage. The invitation on the Statue of Liberty, while
now extending beyond Anglo-Saxon Protestants, was still restricted
to white Europeans. Others were not welcome. For example,
the rapidly modernising and intensely nationalistic Japan
was deeply offended when, in 1908, a so-called Gentlemen's
Agreement was forced on it by Washington, to cut off completely
what little immigration there had been from Japan.
was in the 1960s that the next great adaptations were made
and a third major phase began. An extension of genuine political
rights access to the political creed took place to include
America's black population, and immigration was opened up
to include people of all races and ethnic composition: Hispanics,
Asians, Africans, people from the Caribbean and Arabs. There
are now over 32 million Hispanics and over 12 million Asians
in the United States.
else of great importance happened as this third phase proceeded.
The accepted metaphor for American society changed from a
melting pot' to a mosaic'. The old melting pot ideal was now
increasingly condemned as authoritarian and conformist, and
the theory and practice of multiculturalism began to prevail.
Instead of assimilation, diversity and variety represented
this change occurred, the belief in America as representing
an Idea was turned around. Previously it had been used to
justify assimilation; now it became the basis of the argument
that assimilation was unnecessary, and was used to justify
cultural pluralism. If American nationalism consisted essentially
of a common acceptance of a political creed or faith, the
argument went, then it did not require the surrendering of
original language, culture, tradition, folkways. Different
peoples could retain all these and still be American as long
as they accepted the political creed.
I may make a diversion here, I'm sure that it has occurred
to you that there is an obvious and striking similarity between
the United States and Australia in all this. Australia, too,
is a country of immigrants. Australia, too, in the first instance,
had a white only' policy for immigration, and in the first
instance drew its population from the British Isles. It then
extended the policy to Europeans while insisting on assimilation.
And later still, Australia, too, finally modified that policy
and began to accept people from Asia and the Middle East and
elsewhere. And when it did so, Australia, like the United
States, opted for multiculturalism, for the conclusion was
that as long as everyone accepted the civil/political order
they should be free to keep their own cultures. In other words,
a common Australian culture, in the full sense of the term,
was unnecessary as long as the civic order was agreed on.
this similarity, it is worth considering a critique of this
multicultural conclusion that has been made in the United
States. It has been well stated by Michael Lind: By making
political idealism and only political idealism the thing that
connects diverse Americans, cultural pluralists and democratic
universalists put a burden on the American political tradition
it cannot bear. A constitution is not a country; an idea is
not a nation'.
if it is true that the American political tradition an extraordinarily
rich one, with very powerful symbolic underpinnings, and given
substance and resonance by such eloquent utterances as the
Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address cannot
bear the burden of sustaining national identity, the question
arises: can the much thinner and more modest Australian political
creed possibly do so? After all, very, very few of us have
the faintest idea of who our Founding Fathers were or what
is in our constitution, and there is no resonating rhetoric
and few compelling symbols available that embody and ennoble
argues that the notion of an American nation based solely
on an idea or political creed is a gross exaggeration, if
not false. It has, he maintains, obscured the truth that the
cement has been provided largely by a vernacular culture that
is both transracial and defined by a common language, folkways,
sports, memories and more a culture which successive waves
of immigrants have adapted to and adopted rather readily.
To the extent that this is true, it casts doubt on some of
the key arguments of multiculturalists both in America and
here. That is the end of my diversion, and it's back to America.]
the remainder of this talk I am going to focus on America's
relationship with the rest of the world. In this respect,
too, the belief that the United States represents an idea
has been and is very important. But before coming to that,
let's start by recognising how successful America has been
in its dealings with the outside world.
the 19th century, its success consisted essentially in minimising
those dealings, in successfully avoiding entanglements and
conflicts with outside powers and keeping its hands free to
get on with its major preoccupation: establishing and consolidating
its hold over the vast stretch of territory from the Atlantic
to the Pacific, which, of course, it did successfully. In
the 20th century, the United States was the only power to
emerge from all three of the great conflicts World Wars I
and II and the Cold War both victorious and with its power
greatly enhanced. When one hears people going on about how
naove and simplistic the American approach to foreign policy
is, it is worth bearing that record of success in mind.
the United States has been fortunate in some important respects:
in having wide oceans on either side of it; in having pretty
harmless neighbours to its north and south; in having, for
a long period when it was potentially vulnerable, a non-threatening
British navy between it and Europe. It was probably this combination
of advantages that Bismarck had in mind when he once remarked
that God seemed to have a special place in his heart for drunkards,
idiots and Americans. History is replete with examples of
countries that were well endowed with advantages but who blew
their luck (think of Brazil and Argentina). There should be
a strong presumption that Americans did not compile their
record of success merely due to a remarkable run of good fortune,
that they have been getting some important things right.
things right in foreign policy usually involves, as a necessary
if not sufficient condition, being realistic, in the sense
of seeing the world as it is. One of the odd and interesting
aspects of American intellectual life is that many of its
serious and influential thinkers Norman Podhoretz, longtime
editor of the influential journal, Commentary, comes to mind
insist that foreign policy realism is alien to Americans,
that they don't think, in the traditional European way, in
terms of national interests, power, and balance.
maintain this in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary,
for in fact the United States has a long and healthy realist
tradition. It was George Washington, no less, who said that
no nation is to be trusted farther than it is bound by its
interest'; and that there can be no greater error than to
expect or calculate on real favours from nation to nation';
and that, permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular
nations, and passionate attachments to others, should be excluded'.
These are all classical realist precepts and Washington was
not a man who used words idly.
again the case of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration
of Independence and the most high falutin' idealist among
the Founding Fathers. As President in 1803, Jefferson found
himself faced with a dilemma: he could buy a vast tract of
territory from Napoleon, one that would double the area of
the United States, for a mere $15 million; but doing so would
involve violating the constitution, which gave him no right
to perform such an act. The historian Bradford Perkins laconically
describes what followed: Jefferson wrestled with his conscience,
a bout he easily won, before deciding to accept the glorious
gift'. The Louisiana Purchase went ahead. As he finalised
it, Jefferson advised his Secretary of State, Madison, the
less we say about constitutional principle . . . the better'.
then, is bred in the American bone for further evidence, ask
the American Indians, ask the Mexicans who lost Texas and
California to the United States, ask Spain who lost the Philippines.
And yet this truth is often indignantly resisted in America
by serious people. Why is this?
answer that question, I believe we have to go back to the
deep-set, central belief in America as the embodiment of an
idea the idea of liberty and the embodiment of God's will
and consider what this translates into when it comes to defining
the relationship between the United States and the rest of
it translates into is the doctrine of American Exceptionalism:
the belief that America is exceptional, in the double sense
that it is superior and that it is different, not only in
degree but in kind. This has been and is a powerful force
in the country.
origins go back to the Protestant beginnings of the colonies.
As early as 1630, when the Americans-to-be numbered only a
few thousand, Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop, borrowing
from the Gospel according to Matthew, famously said, Consider
that we shall be as a Citty [sic] upon a Hill, the eies [sic]
of all people are upon us'. This image was to have great durability.
Three and a half centuries later it was an essential part
of Ronald Reagan's rhetoric, used repeatedly by him to denote
the special, the unique, nature of his country and people,
and to restore their beliefs in themselves after the setbacks
of the 1970s.
the belief in American exceptionalism, it followed psychologically,
if not logically that the United States had a mission, a manifest
destiny, to change the world in its image. This conviction
echoes down through American history. We have it in our power
to begin the world over again', wrote Tom Paine in his pro-independence
pamphlet, Common Sense. The author of Moby Dick, Herman Melville,
put it in more extravagant terms: God has predestined, mankind
expects, great things from our race . . . We are pioneers
of the world; the advance-guard, sent on through the wilderness
of untried things, to break a new path'. Again, Woodrow Wilson
going into World War I: I believe that God planted in us the
vision of liberty . . . I cannot be deprived of the hope that
we are chosen, and prominently chosen, to show the nations
of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty'.
could multiply such examples over and over. Now it is true,
of course, that other countries France, Britain, Russia have
from time to time in their history felt a sense of mission,
of carrying their civilisation to other peoples and territories.
But in their cases it has been episodic and not deeply rooted
usually limited to when their power was at its zenith and
usually clearly recognisable as a rationalisation for what
they were doing for other reasons. In the case of the United
States, it has been constant and central.
far as American foreign policy is concerned, then, there have
been, and still are, two very different traditions co-existing
alongside each other: realism and American exceptionalism.
I would maintain that the foreign policy of the United States
can only be understood in terms of a complicated and fluctuating
interaction between these two traditions.
striking example of the clash between the two traditions occurred
as soon as the United States emerged as a fully fledged great
power at the end of World War I. Woodrow Wilson, initially
reluctant to intervene in the war, had, once in, come to see
it as a crusade to make the world safe for democracy. The
League of Nations was to be the instrument for realising the
universal ideas of liberty, democracy and peace. To make it
work, Wilson was prepared to sign a blank cheque committing
the United States to the use of collective force to resist
any violation of the borders or sovereignty of any country
at any time. His readiness to do so was based largely on the
conviction that the actual use of collective force would be
unnecessary, because something called world public opinion'
would preserve the peace.
was opposed by a powerful group of senators led by Henry Cabot
Lodge. Liberal historians have been largely successful in
representing them as ignorant, backwoods isolationists. In
reality they were prudent realists and traditional nationalists
who did not share Wilson's faith in world public opinion,
were unprepared to sign a blank cheque for collective security,
and believed that the United States should not undertake commitments
that it might not be prepared to honour when push came to
shove. They believed that the United States should promote
democracy by its example, not by its power. The position of
the senators had been articulated almost a century earlier
by John Quincy Adams when he famously proclaimed:
does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is
the well-wisher of the freedom and independence of all. She
is the champion and vindicator only of her own.
after World War I, American idealism and American realism
had been in head-on confrontation, after World War II they
complemented and reinforced each other extremely well. Insofar
as the coming Cold War struggle was a conflict between two
great powers the United States and the Soviet Union realism
came into its own. In office as Secretary of State was that
urbane realist, Dean Acheson, and this was the age of influential
realists like Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, and Walter Lippmann.
But insofar as the Cold War was a struggle between two ideologies,
and insofar as it was necessary to remotivate an America that
had rapidly demobilised after victory in World War II, American
idealism was an essential counterweight to communism.
in March 1947, President Truman outlined what was to become
known as the Truman Doctrine, he was responding to a specific
crisis in Greece. But he chose to speak in the sweeping, universalist
terms of American idealism:
the present moment in world history nearly every nation must
choose between alternative ways of life . . . I believe it
must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples
who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities
or by outside pressures . . . The free peoples of the world
look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms. If we
falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the
was Wilsonian language. But while Wilson had called for American
commitment at a time when there was no enemy in sight, and
had thus alienated realists, Truman did so when there was
a very real and powerful adversary. So while realists had
opposed Wilson they supported Truman, even if some of them
complained that his rhetoric was too extravagant.
the Cold War, realism and idealism essentially continued to
complement each other, with the weight shifting from one leg
to the other as circumstances varied. American leaders might
have used the rhetoric of liberation' and roll-back', but
the reality of Soviet power kept their feet firmly on the
ground. When a crisis like the Hungarian Rising of 1956 occurred,
prudence prevailed and America refrained from intervening.
the relationship between American idealism and realism after
World War I and World War II differed greatly. What, then,
about the aftermath of the third great struggle of the 20th
century, the Cold War? The sudden and unexpected collapse
of its rival, the Soviet Union, left the United States as
the sole remaining superpower in a unipolar world. What, in
this entirely changed circumstance, should the United States
answer to that question was given by Jeanne Kirkpatrick as
early as 1990. A tough-minded realist, a heroine of conservatives
and anything but an isolationist, Kirkpatrick wrote in the
magazine I edited:
time when Americans should bear such unusual burdens is past.
With a return to normal' times, we can again become a normal
nation and take care of pressing problems of education, family,
industry, and technology. We can be an independent nation
in a world of independent nations.
we now know, that view did not prevail. Indeed, it was soon
being denounced as neo-isolationist. It did not prevail, for
one thing, because during the long decades of the Cold War
the United States had developed deep-set habits of activism
on a global scale. Habits are powerful things in politics,
and while Americans liked to complain about the burdens of
leadership, they grew to expect and enjoy leadership more
than they realised or acknowledged.
second powerful reason why being a normal' nation did not
appeal was that in the preceding four and a half decades a
huge foreign policy and security establishment had come into
being which had a vested interest in an activist policy and
whose continuing existence could only be justified by it.
That establishment was not to shrink but to grow in the post-Cold
third, having, in the highly charged ideological atmosphere
of the Cold War, put so much stress on the defence and promotion
of liberty and democracy, it seemed to many to be only proper
and consistent to advance these causes to the utmost to conduct
what some referred to as a democratic crusade', now that the
anti-democratic forces had been defeated.
World War I, American idealism and realism clashed head on;
after World War II, they were in balance; after the third
conflict, the Cold War, they have to every considerable extent
merged to produce a kind of oxymoron: a crusading realism,
Wilsonianism with muscle.
began with George Bush senior who, even before the Cold War
was properly finished, was proclaiming a New World Order'.
Described in utopian terms as one in which the rule of law
supplants the rule of the jungle . . . in which nations recognise
the shared responsibility for freedom and justice . . . where
the strong respect the rights of the weak'.
other words, the end of power politics. This vision, remember,
was advanced not by a liberal but by a conservative president,
and was ardently supported by many American conservatives.
American power hard and soft was to make it a reality.
the eight years of Clinton's presidency, this vision largely
receded. As far as foreign policy was concerned, these were
years of ineptitude and opportunism and what Michael Mandelbaum
derisively dismissed as global social work'. Clinton's foreign
policy team was, in my opinion, the weakest since the 1930s.
the Clinton years the emphasis was not on changing the world
by the exertion of political will, but on the alleged capacity
of the forces of globalisation to do the job more or less
came George Bush junior, and quickly afterwards the events
of September 11. In terms of the conceptual framework I am
offering, how do these events fit in?
Well, first they have re-energised America's sense of mission
very, very powerfully. It is expressed in universal, unlimited
terms, not just as destroying the perpetrators of the acts
of September 11, but as destroying all terrorist groups: It
will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has
been found, stopped and defeated'. The world is conceptualised
in Manichean terms as a global conflict between good and evil,
in which there is no room for neutrality or prevarication:
Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make.
Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists'.
Second, they have changed the emphasis of that mission from
a positive one to a negative one: from promoting good to crushing
evil. Pace John Quincy Adams, America is now precisely going
abroad in search of monsters to destroy'.
Third, and following from this, the emphasis has shifted from
changing the world by example and influence to changing it
by force. The key governmental institution in America's dealings
with the rest of the world is now not the State Department
but the Department of Defense. And there have been statements
at the presidential level indirectly hinting at the possibility
of intervention in countries considered timid in the face
of terror': and the possibility of first use of nuclear weapons,
even against countries that do not possess those weapons.
Fourth, for a nation that considered itself a city on a hill',
the sense of violation and outrage now prevailing in Washington
should not be underestimated. Many other countries Britain,
France, Germany, Russia, Japan, Italy have suffered much,
much greater damage in living memory, but the sense of violation
of an upsetting of the natural order of things in the United
States is almost certainly greater than it was in any of those.
Fifth, bearing that in mind, one should also bear in mind
the American capacity for ruthless action against those it
regards as its violators. (In the last five months of World
War II alone, the United States bombing raids killed over
900,000 Japanese civilians and that was before the dropping
of the two atom bombs).
Sixth, the monsters that the United States is committed to
destroy the monsters of terrorism are particularly elusive
and amorphous ones who hide behind facades either manufactured
by themselves or provided by others. This makes things more
complicated and increases greatly the likelihood that the
United States will make mistakes, probably serious mistakes,
in its war against terrorism, particularly if it becomes frustrated
by lack of success.
And last, the tendency for the United States to set aside
the restraints of multilateralism and to act unilaterally
a tendency already present has been increased significantly.
Asked by the television interviewer, Larry King, Is it important
that the coalition hold?' (that is, the coalition to fight
Al Qaeda) Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld serenely replied
No', going on to say the worst thing you can do is allow a
coalition to determine what your mission is'.
me draw this talk to a close on a personal note. During the
1990s I spent a lot of time arguing with a lot of conservative
American friends that the United States should use its position
of dominance, its vast power, with restraint, discrimination
and prudence. I argued that anything resembling a democratic
crusade' or the imposition of a New World Order' was a bad
idea first because democracy is not an export commodity but
a do-it-yourself enterprise that requires very special conditions;
and secondly because an assertive, interventionist policy
was bound to generate widespread hostility, suspicion, and
if historical precedence meant anything, concerted opposition
to the United States. On one occasion I was even moved to
suggest that Clintonian ineptitude might, inadvertently, be
a good thing because it served to dampen American enthusiasm
for activism and to encourage a sense of limits.
I regularly quoted the warning that Edmund Burke had once
given his fellow countrymen when Britain had been the world's
precautions against ambition, it may not be amiss to take
precaution against our own. I must fairly say, I dread our
own power and our own ambition: I dread our being too much
dreaded . . . We may say that we shall not abuse this astonishing
and hitherto unheard of power. But every other nation will
think we shall abuse it. It is impossible but that, sooner
or later, this state of things must produce a combination
against us which may end in our ruin.
and others who argued along these lines, did not have much
success. We were met with assertions either conscious or unconscious
of American exceptionalism. If other dominant powers that
had thrown their weight around the Spain of Philip II; the
France of Louis XIV and of Napoleon; the Germany of Kaiser
Wilhelm II and of Hitler had been met by hostile coalitions,
the United States would not, because its nature and motives
were different because the American people were different
and others would realise that they were.
American exceptionalism was evident in other respects too
in, for example, its tendency to excuse itself from standards
of behaviour that it expected others to observe. As, for example,
when there was tremendous indignation and anger when it was
discovered that the Chinese had spied on American scientific
secrets and had an interest in the American electoral process
activities which the US has regularly indulged in with respect
to other governments. Incidentally, no-one accused me of being
anti-American for making these points.
my warnings had any force five or ten years ago, it seems
to me that they have much more force today. The great sympathy
felt for America immediately after September 11 has quickly
evaporated and been replaced by suspicion and hostility. Rosemary
Righter, chief leader writer of the London Times, has observed
recently that America-bashing is in fashion as it has not
been since Vietnam' and she is talking, not of Asia and the
Middle East, but of London and Paris and Berlin. Moreover,
she asserts that it is not just a case of the usual suspects
on the Left, but that a resurgent anti-Americanism' exists
across the political spectrum. As she says, America is never
less loved in Europe than when . . . it is angry, determined,
and certain that it is in the right'.
danger in all this is not of a hostile military response.
The United States is much too strong for that. It is rather
of a gathering political hostility which leaves America both
dominant and increasingly disliked and isolated which would
be an extremely unhealthy state of affairs, not just for the
United States but for the world.
me be clear: After the outrage of September 11, I do not believe
that the United States could have reacted in any way other
than as she did. But doing so will carry a cost. The long-term
significance of what happened some months ago may be that
it forced America decisively along a course of action that
by emphasising her military dominance, by requiring her to
use her vast power conspicuously, by making restraint and
moderation virtually impossible, and by making unilateralism
an increasing feature of American behaviour is bound to generate
widespread and increased criticism and hostility towards her.
That may turn out to be the real tragedy of September 11.
"One can acquire everything in solitude, except character."
in by Nigel J Watson - St Petersburg Florida - 727 822 9290
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