American Empire: facing reality truthfully  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , ,

How we see America, and how the world sees us
            I am told that not too many years ago far less information filtered in each day from the farther reaches of the globe, and the news that did arrive took longer to get here. Speed is no longer an issue, waiting is no longer necessary, though now the sheer volume of news quickly numbs us, especially since so much of reeks of violence, conflict, suffering and disagreement.
            Some of the news that arrives is unpleasant not because it tells of death or disease or devastation but because it tells us that people around the world do not see America in the same benevolent terms with which we see our nation. It’s easy to filter that part of the news out: there is too much to absorb anyway, and since we simply want freedom and democracy for everyone much of the problem must be ingratitude on their part. If we pause for a moment, and we should pause to reflect on this, most of us will suspect that something is amiss.
            In A Free People’s Suicide, Os Guinness asks Americans to do just that: to pause a moment, to reflect deeply on who we are as a people and to consider whether the democratic freedom we have inherited will be sustained. Guinness’ prose is always clear, persuasive, and accessible, and the danger will be to rush through the book instead of using it as a chance to think and discuss whether we are now the sort of people that can maintain the Founder’s grand experiment into the future.
            “Can the United States,” Os asks at one point, “be a superpower that is worthy of a free people?” This question immediately brings us to our view of ourselves, the reasons behind US foreign policy initiatives, and how the rest of the world sees us.

            Americans can claim that their military, economic and cultural power still stands at an unprecedented and unrivalled level. But only just. Presidential speeches notwithstanding, America’s relationship to freedom and global diversity has grown far less clear in the last decade. Attempts to assert America’s sole superpower strength unilaterally have caused disquiet and anger around the world and called into question what America means by freedom and more simply, what America means to the world. To much of the world today, the United States is increasingly unwanted or irrelevant.
            Strikingly, America once spoke for the world, over against European colonialism; but today Europe often speaks for the world, over against American imperialism. Or the more modest America was about her uniqueness, the more appealing America was; whereas the more America presses her universality, the less universal is her appeal. Once an extraordinary nation, the United States has behaved like an all too ordinary empire.
           It will not do to equate America and freedom and then to assume that any and all American policies are automatically justified in the name of freedom.
            It will not do for Americans to rehearse their good intentions, for in the age of side effects, unintended consequences and unknown aftermaths, the best intentions may produce the worst of results and pave the road to another manmade hell.
            It will not do for Americans to keep reciting their traditional anti-imperialism, for empires are the closest historical parallel to America’s present dominance.
          It will not do for Americans to resort to euphemisms and speak of themselves as a “reluctant empire,” an “undeclared empire,” a “de facto empire,” an “empire by any other name,” “an empire that dare not name its name” or “an empire in denial.” An empire by any name at all is still an empire.
            It will not do for Americans to compare apples with oranges and make false comparisons with other kinds of empire. Americans often say with pride or in self-justification—most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq—that they are not conquerors or occupiers, as if all empires were conquered on the pattern of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar…
            Empires have never been all of one kind. Their only common element is the spread of their dominance…
            In 1916, President Wilson drafted the speech in which he declared, “It shall not lie with the American people to dictate to another what their government shall be.” His Secretary of State Robert Lansing wrote in the margin: “Haiti, S Domingo, Nicaragua, Panama.” That list could be greatly extended today. The slave’s voice in the victor’s ear and the truth teller’s note in the president’s margin are more needed than ever to remind Americans of their imperial reach and its consequences in the eyes of others. [p. 174-176]

           As Americans becomes increasingly pluralized in terms of our deepest commitments, and American society becomes increasingly polarized in the scramble to impose particular ideological policies on unwilling neighbors, we will need to go back to the proverbial square one if we are to make progress in political justice without jettisoning freedom in the process. American’s posture in the world and the policies our nation stands for in its relationships with the rest of the world are necessarily part of our stewardship as faithful citizens.
            Neither conservatives (or their libertarian compatriots) nor liberals are eager to admit to an American empire. Our ideals, we insist, are far more democratic and beneficent than that. The trouble is that insisting on this fantasy will not only breed further antagonism around the world, it will, perversely, mean that America is ceasing to be a superpower worthy of free people helping to undercut the foundation on which that freedom depends.
            We need to take another look at ourselves. We need to listen more patiently to the angry voices around the world. And we need to reflect on what it all means.

For further reading: Why the Rest Hate the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage by Meic Pearse (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press; 2004).

Source: A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future by Os Guinness (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press; 2012).

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