We Are the World | The Nation


We Are the World

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There are also times when Borgwardt seems almost trapped by adherence to her organizing schema of the post-World War II settlement as the internationalization of the New Deal. Since her account of the New Deal itself is almost entirely devoid of criticism or even of much nuance (there is virtually no mention of capitalism in the book), it is hardly surprising that she so often falls into the trap of presenting the American debate as one between good, New Deal, human rights-loving multilateralist Democrats (plus Wendell Willkie and a few other enlightened Republicans) and bad, largely Republican isolationists and unilateralists whose malignant vision has supposedly prevailed under George W. Bush. The "war on terror," she writes, led the United States "to look almost exclusively to its own devices...in the process [America] pruned back its influence as a force promoting legitimacy, the rule of law, and, especially, international human rights."

About the Author

David Rieff
David Rieff, a New York–based journalist, is the author of eight books. He is working on a book about the global...

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Gardening metaphors aside, however true this may be of the Bush Administration's unilateralism, it is an unpromising place from which to analyze seriously the motives behind US foreign policy between 1942 and 1949. Above all, it leads Borgwardt consistently to downplay the relevance of what she recognizes as the US plan, consciously formulated by Roosevelt and his Cabinet to become the dominant power of the post-World War II world. More precisely, it leads her to insist that whatever FDR's intention, the effect of his policies was to "remake the world in the image of the United States." By this, of course, Borgwardt means the "New Deal" United States, America at its best. She concedes that American exceptionalism has always been a two-edged sword, "with a dark side reflecting a penchant for double standards." But in the end, Borgwardt is one more American Hegelian (these days, they come in both liberal and neoconservative flavors), convinced that history is more likely than not moving inexorably toward a better and more democratic future. In the last sentence of her book, Borgwardt concludes that Winston Churchill's "'sunlit uplands' of history may still await."

I am grateful for that "may," but in the end it's not enough. Perhaps if Borgwardt had grappled with the question not of whether what she called Roosevelt's idea to "remake the world in the image of the United States" was successful but whether it was a good idea in the first place, the arguments she advances in A New Deal for the World would be more persuasive. She might at least have tipped her rhetorical hat toward the possibility that, as Walter Benjamin once put it, "every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism." And yes, that even includes the Atlantic Charter. But in the end, for all her commitments to multilateralism, she is as committed an American exceptionalist as Madeleine Albright, who famously said that the United States was the "indispensable nation"; Richard Holbrooke; Bill Clinton; Tony Blair, that foreign amanuensis to America's democratizing mission; or, oh yes, George W. Bush.

For, to a very large extent, the current mainstream policy debate in the United States revolves almost exclusively around what the proper modalities need to be to make what Borgwardt unself-consciously calls America's "moral right to lead" most effective in practice. Again, this illustrates the chasm that separates this American self-perception of the United States' role from the way that role is perceived in most of the rest of the world and, more basically still, the fact that in most of the rest of the world the notion that any nation could have such a license, at least on the basis of right rather than might, is generally viewed as risible special pleading. Indeed, it is at least partly because of the self-interested quality of Americans making an argument for America's special role in the world that many of the arguments in both Borgwardt's and Mandelbaum's books seemed to me to have something of the same quality as the boast of that Macedonian border guard I met almost a decade ago. They, too, are not praising the United States only because they are Americans. Given such shameless narcissism, is it really surprising that many people outside the United States have, rightly or wrongly, come to regard human rights less as a global revolution of moral concern, to use Michael Ignatieff's phrase, than as a flag of convenience for the maintenance of a global order in which the United States is the ultimate arbiter both of the rule sets and the outcomes?

And yet in the American mainstream, discussions of foreign relations rarely move beyond the self-regarding template. And Borgwardt's book is, alas, as much an emblem of this stiflingly conformist consensus as it is a scholarly call to arms for a "rollback" of the current Administration's positions on human rights, international law and multilateralism, and for a return to FDR's expansive and inclusive vision of US national interests. Like most American analysts, Borgwardt takes as a fact not only that the post-World War II order was based on rule sets and institutional arrangements that in effect exported "American values" such as human rights, the rule of law and free trade in what she calls "an integrated vision of 'security,'" but that this American decision unleashed a global transformation whose (overwhelmingly positive) effects are now beyond US control. In her brief for the enduring moral legacy of the Atlantic Charter, Borgwardt acknowledges the gap between FDR's advocacy of a rights-based universalism and America's own failings to live up to these ideals. But she is persuaded by the argument that by committing itself to such values, the United States in effect undertook to be bound by them. Approvingly, she quotes Robert Sherwood, Roosevelt's speechwriter, who remarked that "when you state a moral principle, you are stuck with it, no matter how many fingers you have kept crossed at the moment."

A skeptic might add that when you posit the fundamental benevolence of the liberal universalist order and identify the United States as guarantor of that order, as Borgwardt does, you are stuck with the prospect of a virtually untrammeled use of American power accompanying the virtually untrammeled exporting of American values, no matter how tightly wrapped in septic sheets of multilateral consultation that power may be. Under the circumstances, there is something disingenuous about claiming that George Bush's version of American exceptionalism, his so-called "hard Wilsonianism," is not at all what you had in mind. Realistically, the only way to do this is to insist, as Borgwardt does, that the issue is not, fundamentally, American universalism but rather multilateralism versus unilateralism. But again, in doing so Borgwardt glosses over the inconvenient fact of America's virtual global monopoly on so-called hard power, above all military force. It is all very well to define multilateralism as "solving problems in tandem with allies" and claiming that there is a correlation between unilateralism and "a lack of respect for human rights," but what does consultation mean when one nation holds (or at least sees itself as holding) all the trump cards? Democratic policy analysts who criticize the Bush Administration's unilateralism nonetheless routinely utter such revealing phrases as Albright's "indispensable nation" remark, or Richard Holbrooke's oft-repeated phrase that "the United Nations works best when the US leads."

To emphasize the essential continuities in American perceptions of the United States' role in the world is not to deny that there are differences between the liberal and conservative versions of the creed. For the Bush Administration, American leadership is a self-evident moral right. In contrast, liberals have tended to be more concerned with the benefits of reciprocity between the United States and other nations. But again, when all is said and done, both sides share the conviction that America has a special mission based on the universality of its values. Thus, one gets George Bush's self-described "moral clarity" about America's indispensable role in the world as guarantor and propagator of democracy on one side and on the other the liberal view, implicit in Borgwardt's book and more explicitly elaborated in Samantha Power's "A Problem From Hell", that when all is said and done the United States could and should be the guarantor of an international order based on human rights. Talk about the narcissism of small differences!

Anyone wanting a sense of how pervasive this attitude is among Democratic Party policy analysts need only go to blogs like America Abroad or Democracy Arsenal, where the views of senior Clinton Administration officials like Ivo Daalder, James Steinberg and Morton Halperin, as well as figures touted for senior positions in a future Democratic administration--like Anne-Marie Slaughter, currently dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton--are open for inspection. The fact that a website purporting to represent a critique of the current Administration's foreign policy could be called Democracy Arsenal is itself illustrative. Obviously, those doing the naming were as enthralled by the memory of FDR as Borgwardt is, and meant to hark back to the days of World War II when America was just that. But the sheer parochialism of such a choice, not to mention the easy assumption about the intrinsic benignity of American power, takes one's breath away. Such a reference may seem anodyne in today's Washington. But did Halperin and his colleagues never stop to wonder how menacing that phrase might sound in New Delhi, or Johannesburg, or Jakarta, or Tehran... or London, Paris and Berlin for that matter? Surely, had they done so, they would have picked another name. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the power of American belief in American exceptionalism is now so deep-rooted in mainstream political thinking as to pass unnoticed and unexamined, like some geological fact.

And with Iraq illustrating the failure of the Bush Administration's go-it-alone approach, Democratic political analysts have been quick to point out that, with the exception of the post-9/11 Bush Administration, there is a fundamental continuity of approach in Washington on foreign policy issues. Posting on the America Abroad blog, Daalder, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who had previously agonized over whether the Bush Administration's missteps would imperil the otherwise laudable goal of pre-emption, wrote that there had been a "return to a foreign policy that is much more akin to the foreign policies pursued by the administration's predecessors," and that "the new strategy's twin pillars--of promoting human rights, freedom and democracy and of working together with our friends and allies--have been central pillars of American foreign policy for decades." This return to basics, Daalder insisted, "shifts the balance from emphasizing force to emphasizing diplomacy, from relying on America's unilateral power to relying on multilateral alliances and institutions, from stressing the need to ensure America's military preeminence to stressing the importance of enhancing our power by working with others." The significance of that word "enhancing" should not be lost on anyone.

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