Europeans from Venus, Americans from Beyond the Stars?
Neoconservative thinker Robert Kagan, originator of the popular slogan and rather naïve caricature “Americans from Mars, Europeans from Venus”, has suggested in his book Of Paradise and Power that the United States throughout its history has tended to view itself as an “exception” of sorts to international law; that at times it has been willing to “set aside legal and institutional constraints” as it pursues its national interests. Now however, Kagan detects a “crisis of legitimacy,” something that only the Europeans can provide but is being withheld by their stubborn insistence on multilateralism. As per Kagan, this is tantamount to endangering the West’s ability to defend liberal democracy.
Now, this in-your-face admission of America’s “exceptionalism” coming from an elitist neoconservative, while not very surprising, could at first sight be viewed as a breath of fresh air for its sheer candor; but the reader is advised not to hold his/her breath for too long. Kagan does not see the crisis as originating in America’s view of itself vis-à-vis the rest of the world, as it could be logically be expected, given Kagan’s premises, but from the fact that Europeans in general are proving to be recalcitrant and obstructionists in the furthering of America’s rightful hegemony in the world.
This kind of schizophrenia could aptly dubbed “wanting the cake and eating it too.” For, while on one hand Kagan admits that some of America’s actions have violated liberal Western principles (those very principles that have traditionally been the cultural identity and the cement unifying the Western world), on the other hand he criticizes those who fail to approve the illiberal actions he describes. In other words, the NATO allies ought simply to trust that America’s goals are wise and honorable and just come along in the defense of liberal democracy and freedom around the world. This is to say, Kagan, not unlike President Bush, wants it both ways, damn logic and common sense. And indeed, it is this belligerent schizophrenic posture that is winning us new enemies and losing us old friends. It can safely be predicted that, if it persists, it will ultimately endanger, rather than strengthen America. The former UN President Kofi Annan intimated as much when he declared that “those who seek to bestow legitimacy must themselves embody it, and those who invoke international law must themselves submit to it.”
On the European side of the Atlantic, American unilateralism is perceived as sheer hubris and lack of political sophistication. This is imputed to the failure in reading correctly the political tea leaves of today’s global world on the part of a lone “Texas cowboy” who, as an inept commander in chief, confuses straggling with plain walking on the world stage. This view is also flawed. It is the view of a secular “enlightened” Europe which either makes history begin in 1950 with the advent of the EU or, with Fukuyama, declares history as ended. I further suggest that to even begin to understand the import of the above rather silly slogan, one needs to desist from obsessing on George Bush’s chauvinism and trace its roots to its Puritan origins. For the chauvinism is a symptom, not a cause, of the cultural hubris discernible in it.
It is the Puritan roots that render a George Bush very attractive to the legions of fundamentalist Christians with a Manichean view of reality, those who see the world as black and while, as good on one side (us) and evil on the other (them) and nothing in between. Those people take their beliefs, as misguided as they may be, very seriously, just as seriously in fact as football games and market stocks. Moreover, those roots—still alive and well in America, despite the deceiving appearances—allow even secular Americans to consider American national interests as the very embodiment of transcendent universal human values, and equate the cause of America with the cause of all mankind.
Unless Puritanism is brought into the equation, even a sophisticated European may fail to discern what makes America tick, as was the case with Tocqueville at first. For this exceptionalism is exceptional indeed; it is an unprecedented phenomenon in history, even by aristocratic European standards. For while it is true that the French invented the word “chauvinism,” that De Gaulle used to go around proclaiming that “France cannot be France without greatness and glory,” and that imperialism and colonialism originated in Europe, it is also true that even with all that Napoleonic hubris, no European nation has ever proclaimed itself as “chosen by God from beyond the stars,” as a model for the rest of the world as Bush proclaimed at the 2004 RNC. Although, if truth be told, Napoleonic complexes may well be the subconscious cause for those psycho-historical perplexities, dealing with Jung’s shadows and projections, that have been afflicting the Transatlantic Alliance lately
But, let us focus on Puritanism. How is it responsible for this exceptional view that Americans have of themselves vis-à-vis the rest of the world, a view that seems to provoke so much resentment across the Atlantic pond? In the first place we must remember that the Puritans were people escaping a religious persecution in aristocratic England, via the Netherlands. Their Calvinist theology instructed them that God richly rewards those who respect his laws and work hard to bring about his kingdom. This theology was the foundation for what Max Weber later calls the spirit of capitalism: wealth as a byproduct of hard work and a sign of God’s favor; a sort of predestination to salvation via money. Eventually in its more secularized version it comes across as: my money in the bank, and abundant production and consumption, demonstrates that I am superior to that lazy homeless bum in the street. The perfect icon for this sort of pragmatic man is Benjamin Franklyn, while Thomas Edison and Henry Ford (who used to vacation together in Fort Myers, Florida) may be considered the icons for the “man of progress.”
Coupled with social Darwinism this social philosophy comes across as: progress is inevitable, so move over and let progress and market forces through, never mind your cultural traditions. Those traditions need to be melted in the big melting pot of progress; “history is bunk,” as proclaimed by Henry Ford. To understand that mind-set is to understand the anti-global movement that baffles so many secularists with binoculars and no rear-view mirrors. In any case, at the outset, the secular and the religious are one and the same. It is a sort of Protestant’s turning upside down of the Humanistic Franciscan Catholic concept of the intrinsic dignity of each and every human being (and even every animal) as a child of God, independent of the wealth he/she is able to accumulate.
Moreover, when the Puritans arrive at Plymouth Rock on the Mayflower, they find a continent that fits perfectly with their theology—they consider the continent set aside by a favoring Providence for a great politico-religious experiment. Never mind that there were already millions of people living here for thousands of years. Their presence and their own unique experiment of harmony with nature counted very little for the Puritans. For the continent, in its sheer expansiveness, appeared nearly empty; it was indeed ready made to become a “city on a hill.” The Native American was a mere nuisance that needed to move over or, for their own good, of course, be forced to join the experiment. Their non-compliance usually meant extermination or relegation to reservations.
The above, admittedly schematic, analysis of Puritanism partly explains President Bush’s insistence that “freedom is not America’s gift to the world. Freedom is God’s gift to every person in the world.” So, as this rather convoluted and misguided theological reasoning goes, if freedom is God’s gift and we are freeing people all over the world, then logically, we are doing God’s work and have a providential right to dictate to others. Indeed, it is as logical and rational as an Aristotelian syllogism. Trouble is, it is based on false premises as extreme rationalism devoid of imagination usually is. It assumes that, just as it was done to the Native Americans, for their own good, we may now legitimately impose democracy on others. They may not thank us now, but they will later when the goods follow, never mind Plato’s abstract, transcendent Good, True, Beautiful.
If the above sounds rather Orwellian, it is. In fact, one can go a bit further with this line of reasoning and proclaim to the world that “we are God’s gift to the world!” Kagan to some extent says something similar when he writes that “it is reasonable to assume that we have only just entered a long era of American hegemony.” Really? A new thousand years of Pax Americana comparable to Pax Romana? Actually if one looks at the thousand year history of Rome there wasn’t that much peace around at any one time. And when there was, it was out of fear of retaliation on the part of its enemies, not actually an authentic peace and one that did not last very long. Their motto was not the Christian one “if you want peace, work for justice” but the real politik Machiavellian one: “if you want peace, prepare for war.” And indeed they were always at war, if truth be told. This is not to take anything away from their achievements in the field of law and jurisprudence.
Considering the above reflections, is it any wonder that our European allies have not been very happy campers? On the other hand, those allies need to be aware that the rest of the world will not come to their side if it perceives that their motives are not so pure and derive from the wannabe syndrome, mere resentment of present American hegemony. They need to offer real alternatives, not just resentment. In conclusion, the above analysis begs two crucial questions: 1) may it also be reasonable to assume that the rest of the world, when confronted with this taken for granted Providential plan called “American world hegemony”—based on the false premise that, as the best nation that ever existed on the face of the earth (a nation that Lincoln called “the last best hope of the world”), we have a right to dictate to others—will fiercely resist it? And, 2) which is the real issue: the mantra that George Bush keeps repeating, that American values are universal and “right and true for every person,” (which one can even assume as true as our European allies also do), or rather, whether or not every individual in every society on this earth will have a say in constructing his/her society free from any coercion and intimidation. For indeed, an imposed democracy an oxymoron makes.