American Ignorance Keeps American Power in Check
The history of the American relationship with the other major powers of the world during the United States’ first century of existence was that of deliberate isolation. The colonies’ revolt against Britain was an episode in a Franco-British rivalry that in some respects has never really ended. As early as 1823, President James Monroe told European governments that the American continent was now closed to empire-building, and the British navy enforced this assertion, since Britain already had its overseas possessions in North America, so the Monroe Doctrine suited London very well.
Certainly the U.S. refrained from meddling in European affairs for the rest of the century, and then put an abrupt end to the Spanish empire by stealing the empire’s possessions, leaving only European Spain. Washington’s relations with Britain were fairly consistently hostile until Woodrow Wilson decided that God had commissioned him to intervene in the First World War — and British-American relations soured again shortly after the Versailles treaty and the American refusal to join the League of Nations.
The U.S. Navy had contingency plans for war with Britain until shortly before it found itself at war with Japan. Franklin Roosevelt then decided that it was time for the U.S. to dismantle the British Empire and found in Winston Churchill someone willing to trade winning the war against Hitler in exchange for surrendering that empire to the Americans — an empire which was coming apart anyway. Harold Macmillan’s observation that Britain could play Greeks to the uncouth (American) Romans implied that the British were smart enough to go on running it anyway — but of course it didn’t really work out that way, ending in Tony Blair’s fetching George Bush’s car for him at international conferences (“Yo, Blair! …” ).
All this is preliminary to saying that the U.S., without really realizing, is now back to where it was, an isolated nation. That is the conclusion imposed by recent events in the Middle East. While the U.S. government, the most powerful government on Earth, etc., as we say, was a hapless bystander, revolutions swept from one end of the Muslim world to the other: Shiites defying the police of beleaguered Sunni monarchs, Israel helping itself to still more of Palestine while no one in Washington was looking, and America’s supposed friends in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus innocent bystanders, regularly being blown up. America’s closest surviving Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, sends paramilitary troops to conduct an armed and violent intervention in Bahrain despite desperate American efforts to dissuade the Saudis.
As the Lebanese editor Rani G. Khouri acidly wrote, “Washington has become a marginal player in much of the Middle East, largely as a consequence of its own incompetence, inconsistency, bias and weakness in allowing its Middle East policy to be shaped by neo-conservative fanatics, pro-Israeli zealots, anti-Islamic demagogues, Christian fundamentalist extremists, and assorted other strange folks who trample American principles and generate foreign policies that harm and marginalize the United States abroad.”
That all of this should be so is a demonstration that American foreign policy no longer is developed and conducted by people who actually are seriously acquainted with foreign matters and foreign countries and are aware of the history of the areas in which America is trying to function. Such people, who exist, are by no means always right — Vietnam and Cambodia are the supreme examples of that — but, when they are wrong, it can usually be put down to bad judgment, ideological bias and bad political choices, not to rank ignorance.
At the present time, Congress and the most vocal part of the American political class are mostly composed of people who have spent their lives in all but total isolation from what goes on outside the U.S., other than that as caricatured by talk radio, Fox News and a certain portion of Web bloggery.
A part of what these people falsely think true is a matter of simple ignorance. A considerable part is the result of deliberate political manipulation by special interests active in Democratic administrations as well as in Republican circles. The Americans of whom I speak, and most of those from whom they gather their beliefs, have spent their lives inside the U.S., preoccupied with American affairs and society and popular culture, possessing little or no interest in what goes on elsewhere, and too often never having been exposed to any serious reflection on foreign political society by American schools or the press.
They are not isolationists, as the vast majority of Americans were between the two world wars. They are isolated, not isolationists. Since the end of military conscription, they lack even that rudimentary acquaintance with the world abroad that most young Americans in the postwar years acquired by being stationed for a few months’ military service in Germany or Japan or South Korea or other foreign parts, not to speak of those young men who, during nearly a decade in the 1960s and early 1970s, acquired a searing lesson in international relations by fighting a terrible and useless Asian war.
The vast majority of young Americans today know nothing of war other than what they see in the movies and computer games, which is corrupt knowledge. Foreigners, candidates for American passports and mercenaries do much of America’s fighting, which may be considered a dishonoring aspect of our chosen national career as the global superpower. It is, anyway, a career now nearing its end, to the benefit of all.
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy,” at www.williampfaff.com.
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