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Manifest Destiny: A New Direction for America

President George Bush has decided to disregard both the political message of the 2006 midterm election and congressional pressure for an early end to America’s Iraq involvement, as well as the Baker-Hamilton proposals. These decisions are meeting much opposition, which is likely to fail. Bush’s opponents have been unable to propose a course of withdrawal that is not a politically prohibited concession of American defeat and that does not risk still more destructive consequences in Iraq and probably the region—even though the result of delayed withdrawal could be worse in all respects. Most of Bush’s critics in Congress, in the press and television, and in the foreign policy community are hostage to past support of his policy and to their failure to question the political and ideological assumptions upon which it was built.

This followed from a larger intellectual failure. For years there has been little or no critical reexamination of how and why the limited, specific, and ultimately successful postwar American policy of “patient but firm and vigilant containment of Soviet expansionist tendencies…and pressure against the free institutions of the Western world” (as George Kennan formulated it at the time) has over six decades turned into a vast project for “ending tyranny in the world.”1

The Bush administration defends its pursuit of this unlikely goal by means of internationally illegal, unilateralist, and preemptive attacks on other countries, accompanied by arbitrary imprisonments and the practice of torture, and by making the claim that the United States possesses an exceptional status among nations that confers upon it special international responsibilities, and exceptional privileges in meeting those responsibilities.

This is where the problem lies. Other American leaders before George Bush have made the same claim in matters of less moment. It is something like a national heresy to suggest that the United States does not have a unique moral status and role to play in the history of nations, and therefore in the affairs of the contemporary world. In fact it does not.

This is a national conceit that is the comprehensible result of the religious beliefs of the early New England colonists (Calvinist religious dissenters, moved by millenarian expectations and theocratic ideas), which convinced them that their austere settlements in the wilderness represented a new start in humanity’s story. However, the earlier Virginia settlements were commercial, as were those of the Dutch, and the proprietary colonies in Pennsylvania and Maryland were Quaker and Catholic, and had no such ideas. Nor did the earliest colonies, the Spanish in Florida and the Southwest, and the French on the Great Lakes and the Mississippi.

The nobility of the colonies’ constitutional deliberations following the War of Independence, and the expression of the new thought of the Enlightenment in the institutions of government they created, contributed to this belief in national uniqueness. Thomas Paine wrote that

the case and circumstances of America present themselves as in the beginning of the world…. We have no occasion to roam for information into the obscure field of antiquity, nor hazard ourselves upon conjecture. We are…as if we had lived in the beginning of time.

Even Francis Fukuyama, a recovering neoconservative, acknowledges in a recent book that American economic and political policies today rest on an unearned claim to privilege, the American “belief in American exceptionalism that most non-Americans simply find not credible.” Nor, he adds, is the claim tenable, since “it presupposes an extremely high level of competence” which the country does not demonstrate.2

The belief nonetheless is old and very powerful. The critic Edmund Wilson, scarcely a chauvinist, wrote nostalgically, near the end of his long life, about “the old idea of an anointed nation doing God’s work in the world,” although he deplored its corruption in his time by “moralistic cant.”3 It is true that by establishing a republic, Americans made themselves successors to the dynastic monarchies of Europe (although the Dutch Republic and Swiss Federation preceded us). But that God had taken a hand in this, nominating us as his Chosen and confiding to us an earthly mission, has yet to be demonstrated, and a moral theologian might see in the claim the grave sin of Presumption.

A claim to preeminent political virtue is a claim to power, a demand that other countries yield to what Washington asserts as universal interests. Since 1989, when the end of the cold war left the United States the “sole superpower,” much has been made of this, with discussion of a benevolent (or even inevitable) American world hegemony or empire—a Pax Americana in succession to the Pax Britannica. While such ideas have not been explicit in official discourse, they seem all but universally assumed, in one or another form, in policy and political circles.

The most coherent and plausible official articulation of such reasoning was offered in the summer of 2003 by Condoleezza Rice, then President Bush’s national security adviser, speaking in London at the annual meeting of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. She said that the time had come to discard the system of balance of power among sovereign states established by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The Westphalian settlement ended the wars of religion by establishing the principles of religious tolerance and absolute state sovereignty. The UN is a faulty embodiment of international authority because it is an indiscriminate assembly of all the governments of the world, and should, she argued, be replaced as the ultimate world authority by an alliance or coalition of the democracies. This is a theme frequently promoted in conservative circles in Washington.

Rice also told the institute’s members that the time had come to reject ideas of multipolarity and balance of power in international relations. This was a reference to French and other arguments in favor of an international system in which a number of states or groups of states (like the EU) act autonomously, serving as counterweights to American power. It followed the controversy earlier that year over the UN Security Council’s failure to authorize the US invasion of Iraq. In the past, she said, balance of power may have “sustained the absence of war” but did not promote an enduring peace. “Multipolarity,” she continued, “is a theory of rivalry; of competing interests—and at its worst, competing values. We have tried this before. It led to the Great War….”

Foreign policies of power balance were, of course, a response to the rise of nation-states of varying weight and ambition, which, in order to preserve their independence and protect their national interests, had no alternative to policies that “balanced” their relations and alliances with others in order to contain rival interests and conflicting ambitions. The only apparent alternative to such a policy is submission of all to a dominant power. Rice’s seeming confidence that such conflicts and rivalries would not create problems in some new international organization of the democracies would seem very optimistic. Nonetheless both the professional foreign policy community and American opinion generally seem to assume that the international system is “naturally” headed toward an eventual American-led consolidation of democratic authority over international affairs.

During the first century and a half of the United States’ history, the influence of the national myth of divine election and mission was generally harmless, a reassuring and inspiring untruth. During that period the country remained largely isolated from international affairs. The myth found expression in the idea of a “manifest destiny” of continental expansion—including annexation of Mexican land north of the Rio Grande—with no need to plead a divine commission.

With Woodrow Wilson, this changed. The national myth became a philosophy of international action, and has remained so. In the great crisis of World War I the United States and Wilson personally had thrust upon them seemingly providential international roles; Wilson said that he believed he had been chosen by God to lead America in showing “the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.” The war’s carnage and futility largely destroyed the existing European order and undermined confidence in European civilization. The European allies enthusiastically welcomed American intervention in 1917, which tipped the military balance, and Wilson’s Fourteen Point plan for peace appealed to the people of the Central Powers as well as to the allies and neutrals.

Wilson’s plan, however, did not prove a success. The principle of universal national self-determination did not solve Europe’s problems but further complicated them, creating new ethnic and territorial grievances subsequently exploited by the fascist powers. A witness to the Versailles negotiations, the British diplomat Harold Nicolson, considered Wilson a man “obsessed, possessed…by the conviction that the League [of Nations] covenant was his own revelation and the solution of all human difficulties.” The US Senate’s failure to ratify the League of Nations treaty (which Wilson had imagined as a proto-world government) left most Americans persuaded of the prudence of national isolation, support for which remained majority opinion in the United States until Pearl Harbor.

When World War II ended, the isolationist bias remained, and foreign policy was an issue in the 1946 and 1948 elections. As late as 1949, the leading figure in the Republican Party, Senator Robert A. Taft, objected to the NATO treaty, saying that it involved unforeseeable commitments. (We can only imagine what he would have made of NATO in Afghanistan today.) He was, on the other hand, in favor of “international law defining the duties and obligations of nations …international courts…and joint armed force to enforce the law and the decisions of that court.” He felt the UN did not yet fulfill this ideal “but it goes a long way in that direction.”

This seemingly contradictory position actually expressed the paradox of American sentiment concerning foreign relations: on the one hand apprehensive about involvement in international “power politics,” and on the other open to utopian reform, provided that it confirmed the special position the US had always claimed. Despite his reservations about US military commitments abroad and his isolationist instincts, Taft accepted the utopian global visions of Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt.

The Korean War and developing political confrontation with Soviet Russia in Europe provided a new reason for American international involvement, interpreted in quasi-theological terms by John Foster Dulles, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of state, a lawyer and Presbyterian elder (a Calvinist, as both Wilson and the Puritan Pilgrims had been). The notion of the United States as the providential nation became integrated into American foreign policy under Dulles, so that George W. Bush in 2001 automatically articulated his global war on terror in imitation of Dulles’s conception of cold war (even to the instant portrayal of the September 11 terrorists as agents of an organized global threat to freedom). The formulation was uncritically accepted in most political and press circles, and much of the professional policy community.

Bush administration policy continues to reflect the influence of cold war ideology, which in Dulles’s case revealed the influence of the world-historical thinking of the Marxist enemy as well as personal religious assumptions about the meaning of history. The neo-conservative, “neo-Wilsonian” ideological influence on Bush’s thinking, that history’s course is moving toward universal democracy, was reinforced by the President’s encounter in 2004 with Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident. Sharansky’s argument that international stability is possible only under the rule of democracy was reflected in the President’s second-term inaugural announcement that America’s foreign policy objective had become “ending tyranny in our world.”4 This amounted to a naive instance of what the British-Austrian political philosopher Karl Popper called “historicism,” meaning faith in large-scale “laws” of historical development.5 The Bush vision is of a vast struggle between democracy and an effort by “the terrorists” to establish an oppressive Muslim caliphate of global scope. (How they are to do this against the opposition of the industrial West and non-Muslim Asia has yet to be given a persuasive explanation.)

  1. 1

    The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs, July 1947.

  2. 2

    America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy (Yale University Press, 2006), pp. 111, 112. Fukuyama and others, such as Robert Kagan, now in retreat from the neoconservative project, nonetheless insist on their continued belief in an American national mission to bring democracy to the world, despite the disastrous practical consequences of that effort since 2002, which they ascribe to faulty execution.

  3. 3

    See Lewis M. Dabney, Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), p. 522.

  4. 4

    Natan Sharansky with Ron Dermer, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror(Public Affairs, 2004).

  5. 5

    Popper’s allusion is to “Hegel, Marx, Comte, Spengler, and Toynbee.” Writing at a time of totalitarian ascendancy in the middle of the twentieth century, he observed that all these systems of historical interpretation offered a foundation on which a totalitarian political ideology might be built.

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