The World Isn’t Ours to Americanize

By Benjamin Schwarz

28 August 1994 LOS ANGELES TIMES

2f5ab888-1405-11e3-9289-00144feabdc0The conviction that America should, in President Clinton’s words, help “create a just, peaceful and ever-more democratic world” is often embraced as a moral imperative; it may in fact lead us to moral disaster.

Across the political spectrum, many believe that, with the end of the Cold War, the United States has the opportunity and the responsibility to create a world order shaped by American power and values. In the words of national security adviser Anthony Lake, America’s foreign-policy imperative is nothing less than “the enlargement of the world’s community of market democracies.” This policy requires, in effect, that the United States regard as hostile those states that do not subscribe to American economic and political beliefs.

Democrats hardly have a monopoly on this Wilsonian enthusiasm. Sen. Richard Lugar, the Republican Party’s most distinguished foreign-policy spokesman, also betrays the dangerous belief that America can be safe and prosperous only when it has made the world very much like America. The United States, Lugar asserts, must remain the world’s dominant power so that it can “project market economies and democratic institutions abroad.” Embracing the logic that brought us the domino theory, Lugar argues that such an effort must be truly global in scope since “there can be no lasting security at the center without security at the periphery.”

Those who oppose this grandiose vision of America’s role in the world often argue that exporting American values is not a practical goal of foreign policy, which should instead concentrate on the defense of concrete national interests. This opposition must go further. There are, in fact, moral hazards in attempting to effect a new world order.

First, to argue, as Lugar does, that only American power and leadership can provide a stable and secure international marketplace smacks of economic imperialism. And to assert that this capitalist enlargement is, in Lake’s words, America’s “security mission” because “the expansion of market-based economics abroad helps expand our exports and create American jobs,” is to arrogantly conflate what is in America’s economic interest with a moral imperative to interfere with economies and politics throughout the world. This policy of capitalist enlargement can easily appear to its recipients as nothing more than a new world order version of old-style interventionism, a crude intrusion in their domestic affairs.

Furthermore, America’s missionary impulse–the conviction that it is our obligation to inflict our conscience upon the world because there are no enlightened alternatives to American ways–breeds within us an intolerance and a narrowness. To believe that Russia or Haiti or Cuba is ours to rescue, or to demonize those who do not hold our values is to indulge in a paternalism that reduces other peoples to wayward children to be cajoled until they conform to our image. This cannot help but engender within us a reckless and cruel pride.

Rescue fantasies are intrinsically insidious. Once we make others the objects of our generous wishes, we inevitably make them the objects of our pity, and ultimately of our coercion. A sense of righteous omniscience is not the mark of a balanced and enlightened state, but of the crusader from whose civilizing zeal brutality seems inevitably to flow.

President Clinton has said that America has an obligation “to give back to a contentious world some of the lessons we learned during our own democratic voyage.” But if we seek to teach the world by imposing our achievements on it, we have learned the wrong lesson from that journey. In viewing what promises to be a tumultuous post-Cold War world, it is important to remember that our nation, too, was forged in blood and iron, that our own struggle to build a more perfect union and effect democracy has been marked by tragedy, aggression and brutality. For better or worse, without these trials we would not be the nation we are today. And, despite much of which we may be proud, we have not reached our destination.

If we understood our transgressions as well as our achievements, we would perhaps be able to reach a more generous understanding of others. Then, rather than seeking to convert other peoples, we could accept them for what their history has made them. If this fatalism replaced idealism in our expectations of and conduct toward the world, a more respectful and measured outlook could supplant our present arrogant and feverish one.

By pursuing grand visions pleasing to our self-image, we may, like Kurtz in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” set out to civilize the world as “an emissary of pity and progress,” only to awaken the savage within ourselves.

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