• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Voice of Unconventional Wisdom

Alexandra Boulat/VII
US Marines pulling down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, Baghdad, April 9, 2003


Early in the last century, H.N. Brailsford was among the most influential English writers on international relations. One of his books, The War of Steel and Gold, ended with the ringing assertion that “there will be no more wars among the six Great Powers.” That was published in the late spring of 1914. A similar fate might have awaited someone publishing a book about the Soviet Union just before the Berlin Wall came down, but William Pfaff’s Barbarian Sentiments (1989) reads very well today, needing no amendment or apology. While he had no illusions about the Soviet system, that book displayed his rare gift for seeing through façade and rhetoric, not least when that rhetoric became an imaginary threat.

His knack for seeing behind received ideas, attitudes, and platitudes of the age means that, over the fifty years Pfaff has been writing about international politics in innumerable columns and essays and in a series of books that now culminates with The Irony of Manifest Destiny, he has been among the most prescient of observers. His latest book, whose germ was an essay in these pages,1 examines in historical perspective the “tragedy of America’s foreign policy” that events have, in effect, obliged him to take as his last great subject.

To take one example of his originality and insight, Pfaff wrote years ago an essay on “Finlandization.” This was a favorite fighting word of cold warriors, who thought that the Finns had needlessly and cravenly truckled to their Russian neighbor, surrendering their freedom in a kind of voluntary salami-slicing that relieved the Soviets of the usual need to impose puppet dictatorship by brute force, and that served as a terrible warning to the free world. As Pfaff pointed out, this was the reverse of what had actually happened. Finland was attacked by Stalin in 1939 but defended itself heroically during the Winter War until forced to concede territory, which the Finns understandably but unwisely fought to recover when Hitler invaded Russia. When the war ended they found themselves about as awkwardly placed as they could be as a former ally of Germany, and a prime candidate for absorption as a Russian satellite. Instead, in those highly unpropitious circumstances, Finland maintained careful neutrality and made sometimes disagreeable compromises but, far more important, it guarded its independence and its democracy to become what it is today: one of the most admirable countries in Europe, where an open society and high-tech capitalist prosperity are combined with advanced public health services and an excellent educational system.

In the end Finland not only survived but outlived the Soviet Union, thanks to restraint, forbearance, and patience—the very qualities Pfaff finds so conspicuously lacking in American foreign policy. In two early books that he cowrote with Edmund Stillman, The New Politics: America and the End of the Postwar World (1961) and The Politics of Hysteria (1964), he had looked skeptically behind the received ideas of the cold war with an open-mindedness that was the more striking because of his background. After serving with the US Army in the early 1950s, he worked for the Free Europe Committee in New York, channeling funds from the CIA to the radio stations that broadcast to Eastern Europe. He moved to Paris, where he still lives, in 1971.

Despite that experience (or perhaps because of it), Pfaff perceived half a century ago that his country’s obsession with communism was moving toward “an Americanized version of Marxist historicism and ideological messianism.” One of the consequences of this would prove to be the Vietnam War, and Pfaff can now quote himself writing from Saigon in 1962, dismayed at the way the unimaginative staff members of the American embassy were “obsessed with ‘Communist timetables for the takeover of Asia.’” Pfaff had no illusions whatever about Communist repression and dictatorship; but he was so far from sharing obsessions about falling dominoes that he early recognized what some zealous anti-Communists (as well as Communists) quite failed to see: the sheer backwardness—political, cultural, and economic—of Soviet Russia meant that it could not very long survive.

By 1989 he could further observe that after “more than seventy years and unlimited means to turn people into the pliant, morally amputated creatures totalitarianism was supposed to create,” communism had failed so completely that “forty years of virtually unchecked power over Eastern Europe” had only produced one rebellion after another, culminating in the final explosion that, even as Pfaff wrote, would bring down the whole decayed structure. It was tempting to see the Soviet collapse as a triumph for the free world and the free market. Amid the glib rhetoric of twenty years ago, the United States and what it stood for could seem all-conquering and irresistible, a view given weightier expression by Francis Fukuyama in The End of History (1992).

But Pfaff did not share the delusion that history had ended, although it has taken the disasters of the past decade to make that point with such dramatic emphasis. Blame can too easily be laid with the administration of Bush the Younger and the neoconservatives, but Pfaff traces a much longer lineage. He explains how the acquisition of great power by the United States has meant “a subordination of ethical values to an ideology of national triumphalism,” which he sees as part of the strange and indeed terrifying transformation of Western Enlightenment civilization into “our twentieth- and twenty-first-century experience of extreme ideological violence.”

In the shorter term, the great crisis within Europe in the first half of the last century, and then the breakdown of the European imperial order, left a fractured world that for more than sixty years the United States has tried to control, culminating in a historically unprecedented attempt to create American domination in what we misleadingly call the Middle East. That might have a familiar ring of imperial ambition, but as Pfaff says, “the mass of Americans would reject or even recoil from the notion of a formal empire.”

In Europe, the crisis in traditional religion brought about by the Enlightenment undermined confidence in the existing condition of society, especially after the French Revolution, but this, Pfaff points out, crucially did not happen in America, where something more than mere confidence survived. “The case and circumstances of America present themselves as in the beginning of the world,” Thomas Paine wrote in Rights of Man, “as if we had lived in the beginning of time.” The exalted sense of being immaculately newborn fed a national faith in “manifest destiny” (a phrase first used in 1839), an assumption that American success and American power must be a reflection of American virtue.

For more than 130 years, with some exceptions in the Caribbean and the Philippines, this took the form of political and military isolation—until Woodrow Wilson. With him, Pfaff writes, “the national myth was turned into a philosophy of international action.” Wilson’s interventionism, didactic and ignorant at once, failed to create a new order of world peace, and was followed by a hiatus when America once more withdrew into its shell, until rudely awoken in 1941.

A second great war left behind that chaotic world, and a forty-year rivalry between the United States and Soviet Russia followed. But after the war, in Pfaff’s account, manifest destiny mutated into the “rigid and moralistic foreign policy” of Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles (another Presbyterian like Wilson, imbued with the doctrine of predestined election). Pfaff not only admires George Kennan but, as so many did not, understands him and the complexity of his ideas. Kennan’s wise advocacy of “containment” and letting time do its work was perverted toward ever-increasing militarization and futile wars, from Vietnam to Iraq.

In The Wrath of Nations (1993) Pfaff turned aside to discuss nationalism, and in The Bullet’s Song (2004) he examined utopian violence and what he called the most influential myth since 1789, the political idea of “total and redemptive transformation.” But then, whether writing about Europe or nationalism, communism or Islam, Pfaff always had his own country at the back of his mind, and in 2004 he also published Fear, Anger and Failure, a collection of columns about the Bush administration’s wrongheaded and ill-fated prosecution of its “war on terror.” Here he pointed to what he referred to in The Bullet’s Song as an exceptionally “naïve American version” of redemptive transformation, now voiced by a president who believed that any enemy of America must “hate our freedoms” and that the proper response, as Bush memorably put it, was to “export death and violence to the four corners of the earth in defense of our great nation.” In this respect at least, the last president was as good as his word.


Death and violence duly ensued, but the result was not a success. As Pfaff likes to point out, the all-powerful United States has not (excepting such triumphs of arms as the invasions of Grenada and Panama) actually won a war in unequivocal fashion since 1945. That includes the latest wars in western Asia, the vast land between the Indus and the Mediterranean that is the most fractious region on earth, and for any outside power much the most dangerous in which to intervene.

In Iraq, Washington was always likely, under whatever administration, to follow Senator George Aiken’s prescription for Vietnam: declare victory and go home. Sure enough, in late August, President Obama said, “The bottom line is this: the war is ending,” and a GI in his armored vehicle driving out of the country shouted, “We won! It’s over! America, we brought democracy to Iraq!” More somber voices, including more than a few who once supported the war, have acknowledged the magnitude of failure—not least, some 2.5 million external refugees, many of them living miserably in Syria and Jordan. Fukuyama is one of the former hawks—“a recovering neoconservative,” as Pfaff calls him—and Peter Beinart is another.

As editor of The New Republic in 2003, Beinart supported the invasion of Iraq, and in 2006 he wrote The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again (phew). Four years ago he was one of the targets of the late Tony Judt in his polemical essay “Bush’s Useful Idiots,” in which he excoriated so many supposed liberals who had “acquiesced in President Bush’s catastrophic foreign policy.”2

Not that Judt was alone in seeing the element of willed illusion in The Good Fight. As Frank Rich put it in these pages:

Some of Beinart’s program is simply wishful thinking. If Truman and Marshall came back from the dead, they could not sell a Marshall Plan to the isolationist and xenophobic America that the Iraq war has left in its wake, not just among some Democrats (as Beinart bemoans) but, in an even more virulent form, among the Republican base.3

  1. 1

    Manifest Destiny: A New Direction for America,” The New York Review, February 15, 2007.

  2. 2

    London Review of Books, September 21, 2006; Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (Penguin, 2008).

  3. 3

    Ideas for Democrats?,” The New York Review, October 19, 2006.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print