Featured Post

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Morally superior?

The United States, in my opinion, is likely during the next few years to lose its world leadership, albeit peacefully. Two items in Thursday's New York Times suggested to me that one reason is the infuriating attitude of moral superiority which has become second nature among American elites. The rest of the world has already largely rejected it, and our hypocrisy is now becoming too obvious to miss. It has also become a terrible obstacle to dealing with the world as it is, which remains the main task of leading power like ourselves.

The first of these two items, sadly, was President Obama's speech to the United Nations on the Middle East. 44 years after the Six Day War, the Palestinians are doing more or less exactly what the Israelis did 20 years before that: asking the United Nations to recognize their state. (I have not been able to discover, by the way, why that issue in 1947-8 was handled by the General Assembly instead of the Security Council.) This is the kind of problem the UN was created to solve, obviously, and since Israel has disclaimed any intention of making all the inhabitants of the West Bank citizens of Israel and Jordan has renounced that territory as well, it seems logical enough to acknowledge the principle of Palestinian sovereignty. In addition, the current Israeli government clearly is not interested in creating a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, or any state that enjoys true sovereignty, including the control of its borders. President Obama began his term by asking Israel to freeze settlement construction, a prerequisite, clearly, to such a deal, and they refused to do so. Now he is reduced to arguing that the Palestinians have to wait for their state until the Israelis are willing to give it to them, and the Palestinians are quite right, it seems to me, to conclude that that day may never come. More importantly, nearly all the rest of the world agrees with them. The President is now enjoying the worst of both worlds, since he hasn't been able to move the peace process forward but has cemented a new alliance between the Republican Party and the Israeli government. In a new low in American politics, reports state that the Administration actually enlisted Benjamin Netanyahu to convince the Republicans not to cut off all aid to the Palestinian authority--at least not yet--in retaliation for their demand for statehood. What Netanyahu giveth, he can taketh away, and there is a good chance that he will if the Palestinians get what they want fro the General Assembly. Obama also disturbed me by reading the list of Arab leaders, some of them long-time American allies, who have been overthrown in the last year. One can welcome political change in the Arab world without pointing to scalps nailed to a nearby wall. It was the business of the Arab peoples, not ours, to deal with those leaders, and they have done so.

The second item was Nicholas Kristof's op-ed, describing a remarkable interview he had with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In a rational world, that interview, combined with other Iranian statements and recent acts--including the freeing of two American hikers--could be hailed as a sign of a possible diplomatic breakthrough. Ahmadinejad told Kristof that Iran would in fact abandon its uranium enrichment program if we would sell them uranium enriched to 20%. Kristof did welcome this statement and asked the government to pursue it, but in giving his account of the interview, he focused on the embarrassing questions he kept asking as if to show Ahmadinejad that he didn't meet American standards of statesmanship. He asked him to compare the revolts in Syria to those in Iran, had repeatedly suggested that Ahmadinejad didn't enjoy the support of the rest of the Iranian leadership, and he invited him to repeat the Iranian cover story about the famous picture of the murdered Iranian protester. Kristof routinely tries to impose his own morality on the world, and not only in commentary. Journalists like himself no longer have to respect the traditional reporters' prejudice against becoming part of the story and some years ago he treated us to several columns about his attempts to free a young Cambodian girl from a brothel. (He took her out, but, in a telling commentary on American altruism, she returned as soon as she could.) Now in fact neither he nor anyone else can turn Iran into a modern western society with our values. We have taken a stab at this once before, when Kristof and I were young, with disastrous results. The only serious question is whether, in fact, we can reach a deal regarding the Iranian nuclear program--a deal which would head off a very real possibility of a disastrous war between Iran and Israel in which other important Muslim states might now join. Iran's human rights record is not really very important compared to that, and Ahmedinejad's personality isn't either.

Under the influence of the Boom generation, both the American left and right have contributed to this tendency. The left, including Obama advisers like Samantha Power, have decided that morality trumps international law and proclaimed not only a right, but an obligation, to disregard the sovereignty of other nations. The right is now drunk on "American exceptionalism." This will leave us with fewer and fewer friends. Nicolas Sarkoczy, the most pro-American French leader in modern times, has now distanced himself from Washington over the Palestinian issue. In the 1940s we fought the Second World War for a world of impartial principles--but the include respect for national sovereignty and the rights of all peoples to choose their own forms of government. I can't see when we will return to that view.


Alfred said...

Watching the trajectory of the United States is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Most Americans know that things are horribly wrong and we even know how to correct the course of the nation but we seem not to have the will to do it. Domestically, we view our banking system as though it is a religious belief even when it is clear that it has failed. The banking and credit system is immolating the middle-class. Our government has chosen valueless banks over the people. In foreign matters we seem to believe that we can change belief systems to democratic principles at the end of a barrel of a gun yet we do not practice democracy at home unless it is politically expedient. We have largely replaced education with propaganda. The SAT and ACT standardized test scores and our race to the bottom for students prepared for international competitiveness continue to descend. Our political leaders bow to arcane religious beliefs when they should not be propounding religious beliefs at all. It seems that politicians pander to religion as though their beliefs are a merit badge and ticket to America's mainstream vote.

We are told by government to believe the unbelievable knowing what we asked to believe is a lie. Government holds the citizenry to higher standards than it holds itself. Government arrogance has permeated American business practices. It is the consumer who must beware of the companies we do business with as we have lost the right of redress.

We have lost faith in government and institutions. How do we regain faith once lost?

Perhaps government should do the right thing for a change or risk becoming irrelevant. Perhaps government acts ethically so that it is a behavior model we can emulate. Perhaps we educate our children so that they have the analytic and technical skills to compete on a world stage. Perhaps we teach how to think instead of meaningless wrote.

Anonymous said...

Greek tragedy. Hubris, pride before the fall. Given such natural advantages (breadbasket of world, massive navigable internal waterways, huge energy and mineral resources and many huge natural ports and security due to the isolations of the oceans) USA is unchallengeable superpower. Once it managed to take up this role (like Rome a natural place in middle of Meditteranean) it is playing its role to the max and enjoying a jingoistic moralistic superiority as other peoples in similar poitions before it.

In business you can read the stories of companies in such position who like IBM, GM, etc. lose out to nimble upstarts like Toyota, Apple, etc. We have all heard of rock or movie stars who think a lot of themselves and end up as has-beens, trying to maintain their reputation long beond its past due date. Some like Madonna are well aware of advantages of physical fitness and are very smart in their control of finances and image and manage to stretch it out a bit longer, while others wither in early twenties as alcoholics after being forced to forgo a childhood to get famous.

Post-WWII rising out of ashes Germany/Japan then NICS proved to USA that you can't rest on your laurels. USA did pretty well and most runners in the marathon are in same or worse shape now(Japan, Europe partly). China, India started later on Industrialization and China is still in some advantage as not exhausted or with muscle cramps to follow the marathon analogy. USA natural advantages of lower population density and natural breadbsket, geographic advantages(Mississippi basin, ocean transport, ports) still afford it reason for arrogance against China despite current growth differentials which will diminish to little in course of decade or so till China is another Japan.

The near 40 year presidency of the G.I. generation was the most positive example in USA hegemony, while the 16 year boomer presidency (including all the avg. ages of 535 house and senate members in this time) was more like the alcoholic rock star example above(Clinton as selfmade man, Bush more inherited presidency though) caution thrown to the wind, Nero- like name your horse to senator and hold endless plays you write yourself expecting everyone upon pain of death to listen(Think of preaching by American Journalist mentioned above).

It seems my generation, Xer, is no better, maybe worse than boomers in leadership in America. 1995 congress blockade was about same as this year however only under less fortunate economic circumstances. You would have thought they would have learned from the last time but they've just gotten more arrogant. One problem seems to be partially an inflexible electoral system which allows no entry of 3rd or more parties as possible in Western Europe(see Pirates won 9% in Berlin elections-essentially an inernet party of young male geeks)to allow a gradual political change (Greens are boomers, pirates are Xers, etc.), partially however due to isolation of America- Like China - Middle Kingdom or Russia, just shut down and close borders- "fog in channel Europe cut off" goes old British joke about own island arrogance. America, like China, Russia, maybe India is large enough to be completely self sufficinet in all things needed for survival if needed and USA maintains additionally an export surplus to keep others dependent. If push comes to shove plastic junk and VCRs from China and Bangladeshi T-shirts are unneccessary to Americans as well as Japanese cars and European luxury goods (even oil is enough if auto transport is eliminated in USA) but Chinese, Saudis, sometimes even Russians need USA wheat, barley, etc. to survive. So maybe American arrogance will last till Ogalla aquifer and midwestern topsoil is exhausted and population density is at East coast/California levels throughout whole of USA (people move back to land by the millions in Depression II in USA and have small farms like in China throughout midwest / South /West) similar to European and Chinese population levels, say double current population now in 50 years.

Anonymous said...

(sorry my comment was too long I ahd to cut it in two)

I frankly see a peaceful ending internally in America mid-term only as no one can reasonably invade an island continent. A civil war is hardly to be expected as inner city against burb and rural with some regionalism is too farfetched to be carried out (Pakistan type running battles with security forces against extremists in cities and village regions conceivable?).

A long cold war against China in the case of a complete trade breakdown (as the banking and unemployment situation In OECD and Chinese bubble economy deteriorates) leading to skirmishes over Taiwan, Spratly islands, Molucca trade routes and Mid East and African resources conceivable with Russians sitting it out using energy resources and playing one side against the other.

Frankly a population made dumb, misinformed by media manipulation in continetal isolation (monolingual also dangerous) can easily be made arrogant and proud of historical exceptionalism. Like in USSR, China under communism just feed propaganda and people will believe it lacking other sources. Even the press and leadership being raised on this starts to believe own propaganda of global missionizing. White man'S burden (democracy, capitalism) is USA's problem combined with massive military to acheive this and agenda of Christians that this is part of their mission saving world first from Commies atheists and now from Muslim fundies and later who knows what but always keep an enemy on hand to have purpose in life.

Bozon said...


Many thanks for saying some things I have been thinking too. I had referred to Ms Power as well, at one point.

Not a good scenario you paint, going forward, but a good likeness.

I tend more and more to favor a return, not realistic, to the status quo ante 1776 including an aristocracy,for a couple of different reasons, not the least of which is we are no longer, if we ever were, capable of a middle class meritocracy.

On another note in your essay, the NYT appears to tell working class Jews, lately it seems, how essential it is to favor Obama (Democrats),

while commiserating with the well to do pro Israeli Republican element re Israel's (and America's) isolation.

All the best,

Boib in NC said...

Dear Professor,
Have we ever had a similar situation in US history, where a major party has been captured and intimidated by upstart extremists who were not just a temorary dominance of a "rump caucus" within that party? The Tea Party is quite differant than the "Goldwater-Bircher Republicans" of recent right-wing history, and much more troubling. It is as if ersatz "conservative" right-wing talk radio heads have mounted a successful challenge to all that was decent and humane.
American exceptionalism is imbedded in our culture. From the wild west to today's crime dramas, "ordinary Joes" envision themselves as next week's instant millionaires.
In the pre-1975 economy, the Joes had good jobs, earning eoungh to own the modest home and put a couple of kids through college. And the rising middle class was secure in its upward career ladder at the large corporations. It was a perceived "meritocracy", as long as the elite was invisible.
Perhaps the corruption and collapse of the labor unions, and the perfidy of the "peoples party" laft the Joes with nowhere to turn -- and popular culture, with pervasive TV shows like "I Want to be a Millionaire", "American Idol", etc. has eroded a crucial morality and group cohesion among the (former) working class...??
Certainly today's liberal academcs (yesterday's anti-Vietnam elite) have abandoned the working class, i.e., abandoned DEMOCRACY, which is & was their only raison d'tre.
Liberal elitists definitely thought the election of Barack Obama was a noble and overdue accomplishment, and dare I say it? -- They have behaved like NYC blacks on the election of David Dinkins as Mayor -- i.e., that "their time has come", and all would be alright.
Let's face it: much of the GOP stonewalling of Obama's programs and nominees has been pure racism --a scurralism that has found an appreciable following outside of the Beltway and the two Coasts.
The Tea Party Xers are riding us into penury and defeatism; there is no corresponding for-the-people opposition. Progressives haven't stopped squabbling, splitting hairs and losing themselves in feel-good lost causes (Gay marriage, etc) and have NOT mounted any kind of credible challenge to the hare-brained Tea Partiers that "ordinary Joes" can relate to.
Let's not lament tthe dlow-motion train wreck or our country -- let's try to figure out how we can restore humane demoractic values and momentum,
Maybe the heinous thought is: what Democrat can beat the GOP fanatics in 2012 if Obama can't??

Anonymous said...


I am not quite as pessimistic as you are. Sure, we will probably lose the crown in the next couple years. Yep, we have fools in power who do not listen to the undercurrent that is out there and have two conflicting views on how things should run and it has balkanized Congress. The world is a dark place, and the Boomers in charge are not helping.

But there is one silver lining:

Their kids are not happy with them. In fact, they are #*()#$#$!! pissed.

I would have thought you would have understood that what needs to happen to get through that great gate of history is that things need to be extremely dark, where there is no way out it seems. Right now this nation is in the process of losing its faith in all it once held as sacrosanct. The people are getting angrier and angrier, especially the young. They are beginning to see the man behind the curtain, as in the Wizard of Oz. The public's patience is wearing thinner and thinner with the games the politicians play and the lack of actual action. It is like tinder for a bonfire just waiting for a match. If Obama loses the 2012 election personally I predict that the proverbial match will get lit faster as services are cut, taxes on the wealthy are not addressed, pressure is brought to bear on Mexican immigrants (who are going to become part of the electorate whether Republicans wish to admit it or not) and we may suffer the slings and arrows of a Bush Administration, take two. If Obama wins, the car crash will remain in slow motion...but Obama might not be prepared for the rage he will see build and then strike. He promised Americans hope and change. He doesn't deliver. There will be hell to pay, because in the end the young have to pay for all the mistakes of their parents and have borne the brunt of the crisis we are in now. I wonder how shocked the Boomers in Congress shall look when a large group stands on Capitol Hill outright refusing to pay their salaries and otherwise refusing to pay the extortionary costs of Boomer entitlements. I wonder if the crowds that were standing in front of Wall Street recently are going to only get bigger from here...We've got all decade to find out.

Anonymous said...

Hate to admit this, but it looks like we'll need to hit rock bottom before things get better...that's the nature of the beast. Yes, the Boomers and the X-ers have seriously damaged the country, and continue to do even more damage.

But, crazy people can have sane children.

Our hope is posterity.

David Patin said...

I too worry about the future of the country, albeit for slightly different reasons. However concerning your thoughts about the Middle East I think you have fallen in the trap, for lack of a better word, of expecting reason from Israel but not from the Palestinians. The same holds true, I think for our political parties. Republicans can adopt their destructive attitude because everyone expects when the positions are reversed and Democrats are the minority that they will act reasonably. We are frustrated with the peace process and we expect Israel to act reasonably.
When Arafat walked out of the Oslo process, regardless of what offer you think was made, 90%, 95% or 70% he didn’t walk out saying he wants 100%. He walked out saying he can’t give up the right of return. When Israel pulled out of Lebanon they got rockets in return. When Israel pulled out of Gaza they got rockets in return. When people ask me if there will be peace in the middle east (while professionally I’m a nobody, I have dual US Israel citizenship so I get asked this question) my stock simple answer is “the only think more obstructive to the peace process than Israel’s settlement policy is the Palestinian refusal to tell Israel that they can have peace.” There is just nothing to show Israel otherwise.
Right now the PA and Hamas are locked in a power struggle with Abbas desperately trying to show he can deliver more than Hamas. But as long as Hamas dangles this belief in front of Palestinians that they can have it all though armed struggle Abbas can’t adopt anything other than an equal position. Thomas Friedman say’s Israel should freeze settlements for 6 months for negotiations and challenge Abbas to sit down. Who knows, maybe it would produce something, but maybe it won’t. We can come up with several different “Israel should” scenarios but the best prognosis we can claim is “maybe”.
When Obama took office the settlement freeze was just one of three elements of his push for peace. The other two were to advance normalization between the Arab states, for example overflight rights or opening a trade office in Saudi Arabia. The other was a reduction in the incitement against Israel by the Palestinians, at a minimum by the PA. Despite trying to keep them low profile to avoid “embarrassing” Arab leaders or making Abbas appear as a stooge for Israel both fell as flat and were as unsuccessful and possible. Even something as inconsequential as overflights by El Al were rejected.
There has been no bigger grand gesture than Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. It got nothing. At some point we really have to scratch our heads and ask; do the Arabs really want peace? Nothing indicates they do.