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We Are the World | The Nation

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We Are the World

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One of the few fond memories I have of the Kosovo War is of the enthusiastic greeting I received from the sergeant in charge after I arrived at a tiny Macedonian post on the Albanian border. "Welcome to Macedonia," he said, grasping my hand and pumping it. "Macedonia is best country." Then, after a pause, he added, "And I do not say that only because I am Macedonian."

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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At the time, it seemed easy both to enjoy and also to condescend to such self-regarding nonsense, and to view it as little more than the primitive expression of national feeling in a citizen of a small, weak, new nation whose very future was still open to doubt. Certainly, this wasn't the way we citizens of "grown-up" countries thought about ourselves. However, after reading The Case for Goliath, Michael Mandelbaum's astonishingly complacent and sentimental glorification of the role the United States plays in maintaining global security, and A New Deal for the World, Elizabeth Borgwardt's more scholarly but, if anything, even more sentimental and self-regarding account of the American decision to put human rights at the center of the post-World War II international order, I wonder if that Macedonian official wasn't offering a far more moderate version of national self-love than what apparently passes for intelligent, dignified reflection in the United States these days about America's role in the world.

This unabashed self-love may not often be expressed as crudely as it was by the Bush supporter who, at a rally for the President during the 2004 campaign, waved a sign that read, "If Jesus hadn't been a Jew, he would have been an American." But there are advantages to crudeness, and the message of both of these books, for all that separates their authors intellectually and ideologically, is not so far removed from that boosterish proclamation. America, both Borgwardt and Mandelbaum suggest, really is exceptional, and after World War II it crafted a foreign policy that was and continues to be as much if not more in the world's interests than in its own. Mandelbaum's version of this is the cruder of the two. For him the United States is not just a benign colossus, much less an empire, a description he dismisses as "inaccurate." Instead, he makes an even larger claim. America, he writes, "acts as the world's government." Just as national governments provide essential services and what he calls "public goods," above all safety for their citizens, so the United States provides these same benefits throughout the world.

Mandelbaum does not go so far as to claim that America does this out of altruism. But while he acknowledges that self-interest plays a role, just as it did for the great empires of the past to which, he insists, the United States is so often wrongly compared, Mandelbaum's fundamental thesis is that by acting as a world government, America "reverses the distribution of benefits commonly attributed to empire." In an empire, he writes, "the imperial power has been seen as a predator, drawing economic profit and political gain from its control of the imperial possession, while the members of the society it controls suffer." But today, he argues, "it is the United States that pays and the rest of the world that benefits without having to pay."

If Mandelbaum is an unapologetic triumphalist, Borgwardt is an elegist who worries that in the aftermath of 9/11 the Bush Administration has turned its back on its commitment to generously provide the world with the same "New Deal" Roosevelt provided the citizens of the United States. Indeed, she seems even more persuaded than Mandelbaum of what Harold Hongju Koh, President Clinton's Assistant Secretary of State for human rights, described as America's "good exceptionalism." The largely American designers of the Bretton Woods, United Nations and Nuremberg charters, she argues, "actively struggled to redefine the idea of 'security' in the international sphere to include economic and political security, much as New Deal programs had redefined security domestically for individual American citizens." In this international context, Borgwardt insists, America all but single-handedly brought into being a new legal regime of human rights (Britain plays its usual Sancho Panza role in her narrative). For her, it has been the organizing principle of the post-cold war international order--a conceptual shift that fundamentally transformed the world for the better and is now in danger of being undone by the Bush Administration's return to pre-Rooseveltian unilateralism.

Whatever else can be said about their books, Borgwardt and Mandelbaum certainly offer an attractive vision of the United States' role and mission in the world. What for other, less enthralled observers might seem like a contradiction in terms is presented as the essential glory of the thing: The United States acts out of interests but is disinterested, acting for the global good even though, to be sure, that global good redounds to its benefit as well. Though Borgwardt is much less of a realist than Mandelbaum, and at times seems to suggest that what has been most admirable about the international order the United States ushered in after World War II is the degree to which it has transcended and even challenged its original purpose of safeguarding and maintaining American power, she is adamant that what was brought into being was "not only...a new American foreign policy but...a new vision for the world." Mandelbaum, more of a cost-benefit man himself, admits that "the United States intends what it does in the world to further its own interests." Nonetheless, he is no less adamant that America's role as world government "qualifies as a good deed of sorts."

After prolonged exposure to such sentiments, it is hard not to marvel at what a florid romance Americans make of America. To be sure, neither book is pure panegyric. Borgwardt, in particular, has written a fairly comprehensive scholarly account of the negotiations that brought about this American-inspired, American-dominated post-World War II order, focusing above all on what she calls the internationalization of justice (or "New Deal justice," to use her phrase) and an expanded, rights-based, multilateral understanding of American national interest. Some of this material will be familiar to people who have read Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley or Stephen Schlesinger on the US role in the founding of the United Nations, or Mary Ann Glendon on the crafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But Borgwardt's synthesis is on the whole both learned and accessible, despite the romantic and too often credulous quality of many of her judgments about American motives and the personalities involved. On this last point, it is dismaying to see a serious historian present FDR and Justice Robert Jackson largely in their Sunrise at Campobello and Judgment at Nuremberg (a piece of unadulterated kitsch that Borgwardt fulsomely praises and, worse, cites to buttress her arguments) Hollywood idealizations.

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