By William Pfaff
Earlier this month, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Philip Gordon visited London to give Prime Minister David Cameron his instructions: Washington wants Britain inside the EU, so it can blunt Europe’s anti-American impulses and the idea of an independent European quasi-state.
Cameron is set to speak later this month on renegotiating the terms of U.K. membership in the EU. He is under heavy pressure to call a referendum on continued British membership, which he could lose. Whatever Washington thinks or wants, Cameron is wrestling with powerful popular resistance to Europe in Britain, which is capable of bringing down his Conservative-Liberal coalition government.
History is probably the most powerful force against him. It is extremely difficult for a people to pry open the grip that history has upon their nation—any nation. In Britain, the history of relations with continental Europe is one of threat. Putting aside its earliest history of occupation by migrant peoples from the north, and the Roman conquest, the most powerful influence on England culturally since 1066 has been that of continental Europe and the Normans, who made England their colony in the 11th century, pushing aside the native rulers and imposing a French-speaking aristocracy.
Today, the perceived threat is that of Franco-German European domination and rule by a “Frenchified” EU bureaucracy, which consults intellectualized Roman/Napoleonic law rather than Anglo-Saxon Common Law (which simply follows precedent), meddles in affairs the British prefer to settle at home and represents a continent that in the past harbored dynasties (Hapsburg, Bourbon, Carolingian, Hohenzollern) that always made trouble for Britain.
When the British Empire faltered at the end of World War II, Winston Churchill told his people they were part of a new dynasty of the English-Speaking Peoples, destined to dominate international society, with the British as wise counselors to the brash but powerful Americans.
Churchill’s belief recognized the rise of an American foreign policy that since the World Wars has sought an international capitalist and democratic system with Washington at its head. Why is the United States in Afghanistan? And Iraq? Or Vietnam? “It is America’s job to change the world, and in its own image,” as then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2008.
Since the NATO intervention in Kosovo, American policy has also tended to assimilate the European humanitarian interventionist movement so as to create a common policy (as the commentator David Rieff has written in The National Interest) that ignores the revolutionary character of this effort to remake societies across the world into liberal democracies. Western liberalism, Rieff says, is “the only major modern ideology that denies it is an ideology at all.”
By the time of the second Obama administration, it has become axiomatic that despite defeat in Vietnam, withdrawal from Iraq and an impending ignominious departure from Afghanistan, the U.S. intends to remain the “global security provider.” As this now includes destroying with drones individuals targeted by American intelligence, in disregard of the laws of war and national sovereignties, critics say the U.S. is the provider of global insecurity as well as hatred of the United States and the West.
The belief that the U.S. could and should assume such a global role and expect positive results derives from what may be called invincible political ignorance and a credulous (and empirically unverifiable) faith in an historical process leading ever upwards towards democracy. This continues to prevail in Washington despite the material evidence that history does not progress (nor come to a triumphant “end,” as recently proposed); history simply occurs.
The utopian and missionary qualities of American political belief began in the Puritans’ Calvinist theology of “the Elect,” the chosen people. The Pilgrims were followers of the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) who taught that Predestination was not absolute (as Calvin had held) but conditional, subject to test and proof in the new metaphysical as well as geographical territory the Puritans were entering. They were themselves among “the Elect,” and many Americans since have sought and found spiritual reassurance in material success and wealth, something impossible in a Catholic culture that ties sanctity to poverty and humility.
American dissident Protestantism first produced defensive isolation from continental Europe, in order to avoid cultural and political contamination (a fear that persists today, as was evident in the 2012 presidential campaign, when one of the telling charges against Barack Obama was that he was somehow “European”). This defensiveness reflected the Americans’ belief that they possessed a Biblical covenant to make new conquests for God, today meaning American-style democracy in the Middle East and Central Asia (now pivoting towards East Asia!).
The original Puritanical isolationist convictions held by Americans were abandoned in the 1898 Cuban intervention and Spanish-American War, during the William McKinley and subsequent Woodrow Wilson administrations, when national policy became to extend American values and institutions throughout the world, in the belief that to do so is not only America’s own destiny but that of international civilization itself.
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
U.S. Navy/MC1 Eileen Kelly Fors