Whither the USA?
I have remarked many times here during the last two and a half years on how few actual challenges to the overall direction of American foreign policy can now be heard. Yes, everyone outside the Administration and its band of think-tank acolytes realizes that the Iraq war has been a disaster and that Afghanistan is falling as well, but how many are willing to acknowledge that the Middle East is going to be largely lost to American influence for a long time to come? How many challenge the assumption that the U.S. has a destiny to impose its will upon the world and cannot countenance any more setbacks? It turns out that one such person has newly spoken up: William Pfaff, a 78-year old columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris, who has an excellent article on America's manifest destiny in the current New York Review of Books. (The link is http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19879). Pfaff initially traces our Messianic spirit back to the Puritans and notes that Woodrow Wilson revived it (although Wilson, as I discovered while teaching about him last fall, was actually somewhat more ambivalent about imposing American will upon other countries than is usually supposed.) Now it has been revived again, in a new form, by the Bush Administration.
Pfaff pointed out something that I had completely missed: a speech by Condoleeza Rice in London in June 2003, in which she rejected the idea of "multipolarity" in international affairs. Pfaff actually overstates the case in the article: Rice did not specifically disown the idea of sovereign states embodied in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, although the Bush Administration's National Security Strategy certainly does so by endorsing, indeed requiring, preventive wars. But she did indeed make some striking proposals and claims, as follows.
In recent months some have questioned whether this is possible -- or even desirable. Some argue that Europe and America are more divided by differing worldviews than we are united by common values. More troubling, some have spoken admiringly -- almost nostalgically -- of "multipolarity," as if it were a good thing, to be desired for its own sake.
The reality is that "multi-polarity" was never a unifying idea, or a vision. It was a necessary evil that sustained the absence of war but it did not promote the triumph of peace. Multi-polarity is a theory of rivalry; of competing interests -- and at its worst -- competing values.
We have tried this before. It led to the Great War -- which cascaded into the Good War, which gave way to the Cold War. Today this theory of rivalry threatens to divert us from meeting the great tasks before us.
Why would anyone who shares the values of freedom seek to put a check on those values? Democratic institutions themselves are a check on the excesses of power. Why should we seek to divide our capacities for good, when they can be so much more effective united? Only the enemies of freedom would cheer this division.
Benevolent hegemony, it seems, will cure the world's ills and establish a lasting reign of freedom and peace. The idea that different states might make different decisions about questions of war and peace must be rejected, because in the past it has led to (among other things) great wars. We need fear nothing because the hegemon is a democracy. Unfortunately, it is more than scoring debating points today to note how Rice's argument that democracy checks excesses has been decisively undermined by the Administration of which she is a part. Our democracy, as Pfaff notes, has re-introduced torture and indefinite detention without trial into the civilized world, now with the concurrence of the Congress. The American people democratically voted against the Administration's foreign policy last November and the Vice President immediately made clear the Administration's intention to ignore their views. The President's subsequent conduct has confirmed this. Moreover, in perhaps the most troubling development, he has ordered surge not only in opposition to both American and Iraqi public opinion and the opinions of the Baker-Hamilton Commission, but against the advice of the entire permanent government, including both the State Department and the Pentagon. Only neoconservatives outside the government vocally pushed for the policy. As I have shown in an earlier post on the Bill of Rights, our founders were too smart to believe that simply establishing a democratic republic would put an end to the abuse of power. In Federalist no. 6, moreover, Alexander Hamilton disposed cogently and brilliantly of the argument that democracies tended towards peace.
Is it not (we may ask these projectors in politics) the true interest of all nations to cultivate the same benevolent and philosophic spirit? If this be their true interest, have they in fact pursued it? Has it not, on the contrary, invariably been found that momentary passions, and immediate interest, have a more active and imperious control over human conduct than general or remote considerations of policy, utility or justice? Have republics in practice been less addicted to war than monarchies? Are not the former administered by men as well as the latter? Are there not aversions, predilections, rivalships [sic], and desires of unjust acquisitions, that affect nations as well as kings? Are not popular assemblies frequently subject to the impulses of rage, resentment, jealousy, avarice, and of other irregular and violent propensities? Is it not well known that their determinations are often governed by a few individuals in whom they place confidence, and are, of course, liable to be tinctured by the passions and views of those individuals? Has commerce hitherto done anything more than change the objects of war? Is not the love of wealth as domineering and enterprising a passion as that of power or glory? Have there not been as many wars founded upon commercial motives since that has become the prevailing system of nations, as were before occasioned by the cupidity of territory or dominion? Has not the spirit of commerce, in many instances, administered new incentives to the appetite, both for the one and for the other? Let experience, the least fallible guide of human opinions, be appealed to for an answer to these inquiries.
Sparta, Athens, Rome, and Carthage were all republics; two of them, Athens and Carthage, of the commercial kind. Yet were they as often engaged in wars, offensive and defensive, as the neighboring monarchies of the same times. Sparta was little better than a well-regulated camp; and Rome was never sated of carnage and conquest.
Pfaff hopes that the United States might actually begin contemplating a non-interventionist policy that leaves other nations free to deal with their domestic affairs, withdraws absolute American support for Israel (which obviously can defend itself), and stop trying to overturn foreign regimes. He is very worried, as I am, that we might even break the taboo against the use of nuclear weapons in a war against Iran. (The other day, starting a new class on Vietnam, I shared with my students some Eisenhower Administration documents stating that nuclear weapons "should be treated as conventional weapons from a military point of view." They were shocked, but they don't seem to have much idea of how near our leadership is to adopting that view again.) But Pfaff has to note the total absence on the political scene of any major figure openly calling for such a shift in outlook.
Pfaff quotes extensively from George F. Kennan, for whom he obviously has as much respect as I do. But he does not cite what remains for me Kennan's most trenchant observations on how the United States had to conduct itself in the emerging Cold War. Taken from the X Article of 1947, these words make clear how much more faith Kennan put in political than military factors--and they state as well as anyone ever could the nature of the problem confronting any great power, and the test which the United States has so disastrously failed for the last six years.
But in actuality the possibilities for American policy are by no means limited to holding the line and hoping for the best. It is entirely possible for the United States to influence by its actions the internal developments, both within Russia and throughout the international communist movement, by which Russian policy is largely determined. This is not only a question of the modest measure of informational activity which this government can conduct in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, although that, too, is important. It is rather a question of the degree to which the United States can create among the peoples of the world generally the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problems of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a world power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time.
The world today knows that the United States wants to crush those who oppose its Middle Eastern policies and decide which countries should and should not have nuclear weapons, and it rejects those goals. While our internal life is relatively steady, we are hardly regarded any more as a model, and we could enter an internal crisis at almost any moment. We have behaved with unbelievable irresponsibility on the world scene, and we have repudiated our legal and spiritual traditions. If Kennan was right all of this will have serious consequences--and I believe that he was.
P.S. (Sunday, February 11): Vladimir Putin's speech in Munich yesterday, which he was giving as I was writing this post, certainly tends to confirm it. Nor can the United States effectively criticize Putin's increasingly authoritarian rule while we are holding hundreds of captives in indefinite detention ourselves.