The American Mission?

Zbigniew Brzezinski’s The Choice is superficially an election-year foreign policy tour d’horizon, more sophisticated in analysis and recommendations, and certainly more statesmanlike in temper, than current writings by the Bush administration’s supporters. It is a nuanced expression of the conventional wisdom among American foreign policy experts, and a condemnation of the self-defeating arrogance of the Bush administration’s conduct during the past two and a half years.

‘Globalization’ in its essence means global interdependence,” Brzezinski writes. Therefore the American choice today is between attempting to create “a new global system based on shared interests,” or attempting to “use its sovereign global power primarily to entrench its own security.” The latter risks ending in “self-isolation, growing national paranoia, and increasing vulnerability to a globally spreading anti-American virus.” There would even be a risk of the United States becoming a garrison state.

One might think there are other, wider possibilities for a United States uneasily enjoying its “unilateral moment” (as the neoconservatives put it), while seeing itself as “the indispensable nation…standing taller because it sees further” (as the last Democratic secretary of state said). However, Brzezinski implicitly rejects the notion that the United States might be better off if it modified its notion of national mission and concomitant aggrandizement of national power in acknowledgment of the good sense in George Kennan’s counsel (in this journal over four years ago) that for Americans “to see ourselves as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world [is] unthought-through, vainglorious, and undesirable.” Kennan added that “this planet is never going to be ruled from any single political center, whatever its military power.”

Brzezinski’s book therefore needs to be considered at two levels. The first is within the political assumptions in which it has been written, undoubtedly shared by most American foreign policy analysts and political figures today. The second would take account of the skeptical perspective articulated by Kennan and question the assumptions widely held among American officials and experts concerning the desirability or happy inevitability, and benevolent consequences, of American global hegemony.

Following the cold war, Americans went through a period of some uncertainty about what our foreign policy should be. A cause around which the country could be mobilized was lacking. A certain consensus of concern formed around the related issues of nuclear proliferation, the existence of the so-called rogue nations such as Iraq and North Korea, and the problem presented by “failed” nations such as Somalia. This developed against a background of anxiety about the growing hostility of the Islamic states toward the US, coincident with Samuel Huntington’s argument that a war between civilizations was on its way. The attacks of September 2001 brought uncertainty to an end. The Bush administration launched its “War on Terror,” which despite President Bush’s explicit denial that Islam was at fault, was widely and emotionally seen as resembling a war between civilizations, with Islamic militants taken as …

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