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The US has Found Itself Mired in Muck and Blood Only Because of Utopian Visions of Democracy


Twenty years after 9/11, Americans want to quietly retire from the job of global policeman. This impulse is understandable, but it’s doubtful whether it can be realized.

Henry Kissinger’s monumental book, Diplomacy, opens with a comparison of two presidents, the second of whom, Woodrow Wilson, left office a hundred years and a few months ago, in March 1921. Kissinger contrasts Wilson’s vision with that of his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, and it’s pretty clear which of the two he prefers.

Like Roosevelt, Kissinger is a proponent of realpolitik in the international arena, an advocate of checks and balances. Wilson is the preeminent exemplar of an idealistic America, one that strives to establish order, not only in the sense of “stability,” but also in the sense of a political and moral system. Roosevelt wanted America to stand strong in the global arena, and for its interests to be safeguarded. Wilson wanted America to make an impact in the global arena, and to spread its ideas.

Diplomacy was published in 1995, when the US was at the height of its power, following the collapse of the Soviet bloc and before the horrific terrorist attacks of September 2001. Kissinger spends much of the book bemoaning the degree to which Wilson’s approach has governed American foreign policy. He recognized elements of self-righteousness in it, an inability to recognize that the positions of other countries and other societies are not rooted in ignorance, stupidity, or wickedness, but rather in geographic and political circumstances.

Nearly all of Kissinger’s books, and this one is no different, look back longingly at the Peace of Westphalia in the 17th century, and the Congress of Vienna in the 18th century. Kissinger is a disciple of Metternich and Disraeli, of Castlereagh and Talleyrand. Cunning and heartless Europeans defending the European order from the fatal collapse to come.

The US will soon begin to lose influence, Kissinger predicts. Some of his prophecies have not come true. Among other things, he did not foresee even the barest hint of the “long war” on terror and its purveyors. But he certainly foresaw China’s rise, and asserted that Russia would not disappear, even once the Soviet Union had collapsed. He warned that a more secure, prosperous America would turn its attention to domestic affairs, thereby causing its power abroad to erode.

This weekend, on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, one can look at Kissinger’s prophecies and speculate on whether the dramatic events of that time delayed or accelerated their fulfillment. There is support for both views.

On one hand, those events dragged the US into a deep involvement in the rest of the world’s affairs. George W. Bush, who took office aiming to serve as America’s “chairman of the board,” a leader who would allow the country to run itself without undue governmental interference, found himself flexing muscles, enlarging the government, building up the military, sending forces overseas, and establishing a huge homeland security apparatus. If America wanted to withdraw from the world, the world was chasing after it.

On the other hand, all of these things intensified the aversion of Americans to whatever does not directly concern them. They weakened the Wilsonian America that was inclined to spread its values, thus awakening dangerous enemies from lair. They also strengthened Roosevelt’s America and, perhaps, that of the republic’s early days, of Adams and Jefferson, who sought to keep their great republican island of democracy out of the international geopolitical game.

Can the US escape that game? Not from everywhere, and not at any price. Even in its early years, America was made a pawn in distant conflicts. Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory to Jefferson – nearly tripling the size of the young nation – in part to strengthen it as a counterweight to the British.

Then came John Quincy Adams and President James Monroe, who established the “doctrine” that expanded the influence of the US – ostensibly a republic with no interest in being a power beyond its expanding borders – throughout the Americas, North, South, and Central. lack of interest, that what happens in Guatemala concerns it, that what happens in Argentina concerns it – it enabled its adversaries to test its nerves, to force it to flex its muscles.

The 9/11 terrorists struck at the heart of New York City to challenge the US government, but others had long before done so through less deadly and more sophisticated means. The US was involved in coups in Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela. It supported dictatorships in Paraguay and many other countries. The Nixon administration, guided by Kissinger, helped the murderous Augusto Pinochet seize power in Chile. Kissinger was also sued by the family of one of the coup’s victims, the commander-in-chief of the Chilean army, General Rene Schneider.

Most of these events took place during the relatively stable Cold War period, a time when there was tension but also a clear world order. There were two opposing sides, and there were sacrifices on both; these sacrifices mainly occurred in nations chosen, almost randomly, to serve as playing fields in the inter-power struggle. Why Cuba? So that there would be no direct war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Why Vietnam, why Nicaragua? For the same reason. Why was Israel halted after laying siege to Egypt’s Third Army in the Yom Kippur War? For the same reason. The two superpowers fought vigorously but were careful not to go overboard.

Al-Qaeda terrorists came and broke the rules. Or, more precisely: they demonstrated that in a world without a constant struggle between aspiration and restraint – of forces vying for hegemony and counterbalancing each other – there are no rules at all. Slate columnist Fred Kaplan wrote this week that 9/11 marked “a shift in our thinking about the world – about the likelihood, and randomness, of peril that it poses.” A former head of the UK’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre warned last week against “movements that have a similar goal, even if they’re not under the same command and control headquarters, from Nigeria and Burkina Faso to Mozambique and Afghanistan, the Maldives, Indonesia and the Philippines.”

What is the goal of those movements? To harm the West, to disrupt everyday life, to weaken the West’s ability to impose its values. Two weeks ago, the movements achieved a great victory with the expulsion of US forces from Afghanistan. That victory will inspire a new spirit of battle in them. In Washington it will still be possible to talk of focusing on domestic issues, but only until the moment when the outside trickles in. As happened 20 years ago. Or in a slightly different way.

Teddy Roosevelt, the first to explicitly place the great power burden on America’s shoulders, recognized it as a necessity. In a global world – and, strange as it may sound, in Roosevelt’s eyes the early 20th century marked a sharp transition to a more-global world – the US has no real way to both fortify itself behind walls and remain an empire. A few years before Roosevelt came to power, the American economy was already full swing, making it the world’s largest, but its army and navy still lagged behind those of Italy and Bulgaria.

Roosevelt realized that there was no way to maintain this imbalance. There was no way that a large, strong, wealthy, and pivotal nation could break loose from its responsibility for whatever is going on elsewhere. In any case, it was not in the name of superior values that Roosevelt strengthened his country, but rather in the name of American interests. Later, Wilson came along and confused the American people, who remain confused to this day.

Many of them believe that it is only because of utopian visions of democracy that the US has found itself mired in muck and blood. Many of them believe that because of this they would do well to abandon those values and go back to enjoying the tranquil beaches of California. They will shun dreamers, the promoters of values, the Bush-style neoconservatives, the Kennedy-style New Frontier-ists.

They think that 20 years after 9/11, the time has come to quietly slip out of the world arena and retire from its post as global policeman. It is an understandable impulse that almost elicits empathy. But it is doubtful whether it can be realized.