If the world is falling apart as so many people fear, how did this begin? That’s the subject of Steven Kinzer’s excellent article this Sunday, August 7, 2016: “Don’t Blame the Masses if the World Isn’t Unified.” He lays the blame primarily on our misinterpretation of the Soviet collapse. “It was a Soviet failure, but we interpreted it as an epochal American victory.”
According to Kinzer, this led to further misinterpretations and poor judgment. We believed that we were the sole international super power and built a foreign policy based on this idea and the need to sustain it. The belief then pitted us against China, Russia, Iran, and anyone else who defied us. We believed that we could build a world economic order—“Globalization” and free market economies—that would give sustained structure and credence to our triumph. And to preserve that world order, we attacked Iraq, taking down a cruel dictator and protecting our oil interests, putting an exclamation point on our new position astride the world.
One of the reasons that this narrative of American ascendance took hold was because it isn’t new, and from here on in, I will be extending and reshaping Kinzer’s argument. From the time of the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny in the early nineteenth century, the American narrative has marked us as special, the standard bearer of democratic and Christian values. Our special place then entitled, and sometimes mandated, us to spread the word. It undergirded, for example, our push across the American continent. So powerful was this narrative, that it managed to hide or exclude conflicting evidence, such as the enslavement of millions of Africans, the destruction of Native American nations, and the undermining of many Latin American governments that did not align with our ideas—and our economic interests.
The narrative of American exceptionalism continued into the twentieth century, with the nationalistic Spanish American War and the colonization of other nations, among others, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Even the most progressive of our politicians, Teddy Roosevelt, joined in with gusto. The narrative then began to reach its current power with the experience of the World Wars, particularly the second war in which our American army and the American way defeated European fascism and the decadence that we always had seen in the “old world.” We were the new world. We interpreted our strength not just as strength but as proof that our values and culture were superior. We no longer had to just trumpet our values. We could insist on them. What followed was economic and cultural dominance, symbolized by the spread of the English language and U.S. movies and music.
The one sticking point was the Soviet Union, whose armies also laid equal claim to defeating Hitler and, along with us, developed nuclear arms. Ever since the Russian Revolution in 1917, we have been anxious that Communism could undermine what Alexis de Toqueville termed “the great American experiment.” This has led to repressive, sometimes violent reactions, like the “Great Red Scare” of 1919, and the McCarthy period of the 1950’s. To combat the Soviet threat, we built the NATO pact, which created a European barrier to the American shores.
So it is no surprise that we reacted with joy to the American triumph in the Cold War and against the Communist threat, but, as Kinzer suggests, the American narrative of exceptionalism was so powerful that it led to a failure in logic. Since we had been fighting Communism, we must have caused its demise. That is the conclusion that enshrined Ronald Regan as a national hero.
Let me lay out the logic of this theme. By building and sustaining a democratic government, we are the anointed ones. That is our origin story, our Garden of Eden. It combines the religious rebellion of the Puritans and the democratic rebellion of the colonies. That, then, gives us the right to establish our hegemony over other peoples.
Power then becomes addictive, an end in itself. This has been the fate of virtually all empires. They all say that they expand for two reasons: to spread their culture and values and to defend the homeland. Think of Rome and England. Russia, too, for that matter, no matter how much we disagree with what they were selling. For all empires, those outside the inner circle, are heathens, sometimes primitives. The narrative paints them that way and builds the picture of lawless tribes trying to tear down the shining empire. Thus the hordes attacked Rome, the Indian natives rose up against Britain, and, according to Donald Trump, among others, the Mexicans and Muslims threaten to bring down the great American civilization.
With the strength of the narrative of American exceptionalism married to the overweaning power of the United States armed forces and the need to tame the heathens, Bush’s assault on Saddam Hussein is understandable. The attack on Iraq, according to Kinzer then led to a cascading series of events that have, in turn, led to the feeling that the world is falling apart. The argument goes this way: the Iraq war led to war, starvation, desperation, and the growth of terrorism. These events led to the migrations of millions of people and refugee crises. The refugees, in turn, destabilized Europe and hinted at the dissolution of the European Union.
There seems to be no end to the vicious cycle created, as Kinzer says, by our misinterpretation of the Soviet collapse and by what I think is better framed as the out-of-control narrative of American exceptionalism—not the misinterpretation of a single event.
We badly need a new narrative, one that does not emphasize one way of life over another, one nation over all others. But the universalistic narratives of the modern world—those of the League of Nations, the United Nations or the European Union have not seemed up to the task. The American notion of the Melting Pot, implying that all Americans should eventually be transformed – in essence — into White, Anglo Saxon Protestants, has similarly fallen by the wayside. Thank God. In all cases, tribalism (sometimes expressed as Identity politics) seems stronger. This is what makes the current world so dangerous.
I have personally struggled with this question for my entire adult life. I feel inspired when listening to songs that bring all of us together, songs like “We are the World” and “Ballad for Americans.” I am a universalist at heart. But I certainly don’t know how to make that happen while accounting sufficiently for the need for belonging and protection that the tribal impulse seems to fill. We desperately need a widespread and deep dialogue on how to blend the two. We need a new, more collaborative, communal narrative to absorb and reconfigure all of the discordant and messy facts of our lives together…one that also leaves out all forms of exceptionalism – religious, nationalistic, racial, and cultural.