Freddie summons his inner Kennan:
This is going to necessarily depend a lot on perspective, of course, but I think a huge amount of our foreign policy vision is predicated on assumptions that are radical; our people, meanwhile, don’t understand their radicalism.
Kennan wrote something similar in Russia Leaves the War, quoted by Lukacs in his biography of Kennan, referring to “that curious law which so often makes Americans, inveterately conservative at home, the partisans of radical change everywhere else.” Given his domestic interests, this “law” must annoy Freddie even more than it annoys me, but Freddie is getting at the same truth in his remarks above. This is related to something else that Lukacs observed about Kennan:
Unlike many Americans, George Kennan did not believe that the United States was A Chosen Nation of God, that its people were a Chosen People, or even the Last Best Hope of Mankind; but he believed that there is something unique in the history of every nation, including his own; and that the Cold War, though it had not been started by the United States, revealed some of the unhappy traits of the American mind”: a willful ignorance beneath which there was something worse, a kind of national self-adulation.
The drive for radical change everywhere else–this is a broader, but more accurate, description of what I was trying to say when I referred to pro-invasion arguments that took for granted that “our government essentially has the right to shape and dominate the politics of other parts of the world and to use force to quash resistance to its efforts.” We seek this radical change partly because we do not really understand the world and want to make it more like ourselves, and partly because it gives us an occasion to celebrate ourselves. Both are ultimately a function of pride, but this is then formalized into an entire mythology, capped off by tales of the importance of Pax Americana. The war in Iraq has been a particularly blunt, cruel application of this pursuit of radical change, but it is the pursuit of such change that led Wilson to send our men into the slaughterhouse of WWI, inspired the creation of the Great Society on the Mekong and which has propelled the Second Inaugural’s ideas of American-led global democratic revolution. Obama referred to the “mindset that led to war” in his early primary speeches on Iraq. That mindset is that the world is ours to do with as we please, and anyone who says differently is aligned with malign forces that wish us ill. This radical change is necessarily violent and aimed at the destruction or dramatic reorganization of other polities. Boundaries will be redrawn as we wish (e.g., Kosovo), regimes will be overthrown, and foreign populations will be thrown into upheaval, and it will be an article of faith that everyone affected (except perhaps the dead) are better off. The striking thing is that this is considered to be well within the bounds of normal, respectable, sane discourse, and critiques of these views are considered to be ramblings of a wild and woolly-minded fringe.
Freddie’s remarks here are right on target:
What Americans consider moderation in foreign policy, in comparison with other countries and the history of our country and others, is wildly militaristic, expansionistic and aggressive.
If Bacevich’s thesis in The Limits of Power is correct, and I think it is, this is becoming more the case as time goes on (this is related to the problems of autonomy and consumption discussed in earlier posts today):
The collective capacity of our domestic political economy to satisfy those appetites has not kept pace with demand. As a result, sustaining our pursuit of life, liberty and happiness at home requires increasingly that Americans look beyond our borders. Whether the issue at hand is oil, credit, or the availability of cheap consumer goods, we expect the world to accommodate the American way of life.
The resulting sense of entitlement has great implications for foreign policy. Simply put, as the American appetite for freedom has grown, so too has our penchant for empire. The connection between these two tendencies is a causal one. In an earlier age, Americans saw empire as the antithesis of freedom. Today, as illustrated above all by the Bush administration’s efforts to dominate the energy-rich Persian Gulf, empire has seemingly become a prerequisite of freedom.
I would stress that this only seems to be the case, and that it is illusory, because it remains true that empire and liberty are and always will be incompatible. The former eats and annihilates the latter, substituting for it in our own time autonomy, comfort and indulgence. Another part of Bacevich’s thesis is that autonomy erodes our understanding of citizenship and makes the project of empire unsustainable in the long term, but it is in the nature of such projects that they can live long beyond the time when they should have faded away.