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.”
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.”