The Corner

U.S.

Rumors of America’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

A pedestrian walks though Times Square in New York City, March 27, 2019. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

This piece has been getting a fair bit of traction in both the United States and the U.K. It is, nevertheless, nonsense on stilts. The stilts themselves are hewn from some well-made points and perceptive observations, but the general argument they are charged with supporting, that a monomaniacal obsession with evangelical liberalism has sent the United States into a geopolitical death spiral, is historically illiterate. According to an approvingly cited article linked to in the piece, the rot began with the United States’ commitment to a grand strategy of ‘primacy’ in the wake of the Second World War, which consists of “military preponderance, dominance in key regions, the containment and reassurance of allies, nuclear counter-proliferation, and the economic ‘Open Door.’” This strategy, we are informed, is maintained by the immovable ‘blob’ in Washington who have policed the Overton window on American foreign policy since 1945. There is an assumption throughout the piece that this ‘grand strategy’ sprang from the head of Zeus, or perhaps Harry Truman, after the defeat of the Axis powers, but this betrays a short memory. Except for nuclear policy, this strange, newfangled strategy is more or less an assumption of the geopolitical responsibilities previously shouldered by the British Empire.

The author piously informs his British readers that “we at least, like our neighbors in Europe, have older traditions on which to draw.” But the traditions that form the United States’s commitment to primacy are those of the British Imperial liberalism that bequeathed to the world (among many other things) Australia, Canada, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, India, and the United States itself in their current political, cultural, and legal settings. Does the author really consider life in the countries listed above to be, sicklier, poorer, more dangerous or dehumanizing than in others? If not, then who are the free peoples of the earth to turn to safeguard this order now in light of Britain’s global decline? And why shouldn’t Americans want more and more people around the globe to partake of it? The evangelical impulse in classical liberalism has, by any reasonable rhetoric, an astonishing track record of success. 

The reply will surely be that the target of criticism in the article is not the British Empire or the exportation of constitutional liberty in the abstract but the concrete particularities of American foreign policy since 1945. Very well, but “American attempts to overturn regimes which offend its liberal values” must include both victory in the war against Hitler, which set the stage for this dominance, and the final defeat of the Soviet Empire in 1991. These are more than considerable exceptions to the “negative results for the global system” which are the alleged fruits of post-war American foreign policy. The crux of Roussinos’s argument is the failure of American foreign policy in the Middle East, but it must be conceded that crafting an effective Middle Eastern foreign policy has proved to be a mystery wrapped in an enigma for every global actor, not just the United States. There has never been a global hegemon that has not emerged from its dealings in the Middle East either confounded, humiliated, or morally compromised. That the United States has joined the ranks of these superpowers is regrettable but not, I think, a falsification of her governing principles. By far the most interesting and salient points that Roussinos makes are those concerning the soul-destroying consequences of economic globalization. There is not space here to do justice to his observation, but readers can find my own treatment of the topic here, and will find, I think, much common ground between the two of us on the issue. 

The final point to make is that it is not at all clear to me that Mr. Roussinos knows what the United States is for.  His definition of what good American statecraft looks like is somewhat baffling. He links to an article in The Atlantic entitled “America Is Acting Like a Failed State,” the subtitle of which reads “Many businesses, local governments, and individuals are doing what is necessary to beat back the coronavirus — with little help from the White House.” From a conservative perspective, that sounds fairly ideal.  He further argues that:

America indeed represents a strange inversion of the Soviet collapse: the economy dwarfs that of any other nation, save China; its empire is still intact, and its military spans the globe more powerfully than any single challenger.

This “strange inversion of collapse” sounds remarkably like extraordinary geopolitical success. 

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