Postwar consensus about U.S. role under fire from all directions

He believed in it, and so do I.

He believed in it, and so do I.

On a previous thread, we were having yet another discussion of “American exceptionalism.” Never mind where it started. At some point I said this and Doug said this and I said this and then Phillip weighed in.

And I answered Phillip at sufficient length that I thought it should be a separate post, so here goes:

Seeing as it’s Phillip and I have the greatest respect for him, I’m not going to send my seconds to confer with his seconds over his having called me a liar. Which is the only way I know to take “a feat of semantic gymnastics designed to make yourself feel more virtuous about your viewpoint.”

I’ll just say: Actually, no. There are no gymnastics involved when you’re saying exactly what you mean, and I’m saying exactly what I mean. As I suggested, there are people who DO think that way — the “superiority over” way. As I also said, people who dislike the phrase “American exceptionalism” — generally post-Vietnam liberals (as opposed to pre-Vietnam liberals, who saw things as I do) — like to paint the rest of us with that same brush, as a way of dismissing our views. As though we were a bunch of Steve Bannons or something.

But that’s not the main point I wish to argue. The larger point is that this assertion is completely wrong: “‘Responsibility’ in this case is self-assigned, that is, the United States arrogates for itself this ‘responsibility’ globally.”

Not at all. Through various security and other diplomatic arrangements, other liberal democracies have looked to the United States for leadership and support in many ways since 1945. This is most obvious through NATO, but through other arrangements as well.

Again, I refer y’all to the start of that Foreign Affairs piece:

In the 1940s, after two world wars and a depression, Western policymakers decided enough was enough. Unless international politics changed in some fundamental way, humanity itself might not survive much longer.

A strain of liberal idealism had been integral to U.S. identity from the American founding onward, but now power could be put behind principle. Woodrow Wilson had fought “to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power and to set up amongst the really free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth ensure the observance of those principles.” Keeping his goals while noting his failures, the next generation tried again with a revised strategy, and this time they succeeded. The result became known as the postwar liberal international order.

The founders of the order embraced cooperation with like-minded powers, rejecting isolationism and casting themselves as player-managers of an ever-expanding team. They bailed out the United Kingdom, liberated France, rehabilitated Germany and Japan, bound themselves to Canada and Mexico, and more. And for seven decades, the allies were fruitful, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty.

Then arose up a new king who knew not Joseph….

And we know who that king is.

But it’s not just about him. If you go back to that thread where this discussion initiated, you’ll see that Doug enthusiastically applauded the comment from Phillip with which I argued. You may not think of those guys as being two peas in a pod, politically. And you certainly wouldn’t identify Phillip with Trump. Well, that brings me to my next point.

A startling array of people coming from many places on the political spectrum simply don’t believe in the postwar consensus that formed under FDR and Truman.

For a generation, that consensus stayed strong and almost unchallenged, with Democrats and Republicans differing mainly over how best to fulfill that role. Then things started breaking up over Vietnam, but the basic assumption that this country had obligations in the world continued, with variations in emphasis, through the Obama administration.

Now, it’s really under siege.

I mentioned Steve Bannon earlier. He, of course, doesn’t believe in our international obligations in part because he believes the U.S. is inherently superior. He’s sort of like those Chinese emperors who, with China positioned at least as well as Portugal and Spain to become a global trading and naval power, suddenly closed their country off to the world, under the theory that China was the center of the universe and superior to all other nations, so why have dealings with them?

Then there are the post-Vietnam liberals to whom I referred, and I hope Phillip doesn’t mind if I put him roughly in that category — I stand ready to be corrected if I’m being presumptuous. I hate to be labeled, so I hesitate to do it to my friends.

Then there are the libertarians like Doug and the Pauls, Ron and Rand. They hate the idea of the United States having a military for anything much beyond patrolling the border with Mexico. (No, wait — that last part took me back to Bannon.)

Then there are the socialists, the Bernie Sanders types, who in opposition to the libertarians WANT a big state, but they only want it to exist to shower blessings on the populace domestically. They get impatient at the very idea of talking foreign affairs. This is in some ways like the post-Vietnam liberals, only much more so.

Then there are the ideological extremists who have taken over the Republican Party, sharing some characteristics with the Bannon types and some with the libertarians. They can’t see over the edges of the narrow boxes they build around themselves, much less see beyond our borders.

The all have their motivations. One group just wants the U.S. to strut, out of the world’s reach. Another wants America to be humble. Another wants it to be small. Another wants it to be inward-looking, solipsistic. Another can’t see anything past the next GOP primary.

There’s no room in any of their views for a United States that would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Anyway, that thing that JFK said there? That’s American exceptionalism.

11 thoughts on “Postwar consensus about U.S. role under fire from all directions

  1. Doug Ross

    “Then there are the libertarians like Doug and the Pauls, Ron and Rand. They hate the idea of the United States having a military for anything much beyond patrolling the border with Mexico. ”

    Talk about mischaracterization. That doesn’t even come close to approaching my view on the military. I believe (and I think the Paul’s would agree) that the purpose of the U.S. military should be to defend the United States and its allies from from foreign aggression on a large scale. That means DEFENSE, not OFFENSE, not nation building, not occupying countries for more than a decade.

    Could it not just be as simple as whatever exceptionalism you believe existed pre-Vietnam hasn’t been demonstrated since that “war” started? It’s not anything recent — the missions have been misguided and the execution has been way, way, way below exceptional. It’s been a defense contractor-led marketing campaign for at least fifty years to keep that image of American exceptionalism in people’s minds in order to keep funding the trillions of dollars spent on failed wars.

    I’ll stick to my original premise – in order to be exceptional, you have to demonstrate it and have others recognize it without question. Michael Jordan doesn’t have to keep showing clips of his championship seasons from 25 years ago to remind people he was exceptional then. At some point, the whole Greatest Generation/We Won The Big One mentality has to recognize it’s not 1950 any more.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “That means DEFENSE, not OFFENSE…”

      Yeah, that’s what I was saying. Sorry if it wasn’t clear.

      As for “not occupying countries for more than a decade.” So… you’re saying we should have been out of Germany by 1955? Six years before the Wall was built?

      I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want us to have the 34,000 troops we have there nowseven decades later — but out within a decade?

  2. bud

    I feel a little hurt that you didn’t include my name in one of the groups to mischaricterize. Oh well with a little therapy I’ll get over it. Seriously though I find it interest that this “American Imperialism” philosophy continues to be utterly discredited yet it still has it loyal adherents. It’s more than a little offputing that the neocons continue to blame others for their disasterous mistakes.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, Bud, I didn’t know whether to put you in the post-Vietnam liberals or the Bernie group. It was a tough call, and I chickened out… 🙂

  3. Phillip

    What with the insanity of the start of the USC semester, I don’t have much time to respond at length to your reply, Brad, on the other thread. But a quick thought:

    1) Not calling you a liar by any means— merely pointing out what I believe to be the ultimate implications if you follow this thinking about “unique responsibility”—and to acknowledge that we all probably have beliefs that we couch in the most positive phraseology, a natural tendency.

    2) Yes, the United States, in the years immediately following WWII and early years of the Cold War, was looked to as the natural leader of that “postwar consensus.” And to protect a rebuilding Western Europe against any encroachment by a powerful Soviet Union who dominated Eastern Europe, these arrangements made sense. But we expanded that concept of our so-called responsibility far beyond the point of being “looked to for leadership.” We went beyond the postwar consensus with Mossadegh in Iran in the 50s, certainly with Vietnam (where things started “breaking up” as you acknowledge), with supporting right-wing dictatorships in Central and South America, in the invasion of Grenada, definitely the second Iraq War under W (except for Britain’s support), in our support of the Saudi-led attacks in Yemen, and so on. If we unwisely decide that a first-strike unilateral attack on North Korea is the way forward, it certainly will not be at anybody’s “invitation,” or supported by any “postwar consensus.” But you can bet the Lindsey Grahams of the world will still be prattling on about our “unique global responsibilities.”

    Quoting JFK does not buttress your case. Those famous words ring incredibly hollow in light of what followed over the next decade. Vietnam and US actions in 70s and 80s put the lie to the idea that it was “liberty” we were supporting, or certainly not self-determination. So, yes, “other liberal democracies have looked to the United States for leadership and support in many ways since 1945” but we’ve ranged far afield of those original responsibilities, with or without the support of those liberal democracies, and have used that role we played at one specific and actually quite narrow time in history to justify a whole host of misguided and tragic policies since.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Thanks for answering during such a busy week, Phillip!

      As for “Quoting JFK does not buttress your case.” But see, for me, it does. For those of us who still believe in the mission, it does. And that’s the difference between us. I don’t believe “Vietnam and US actions in 70s and 80s put the lie to the idea.”

      I see everything, good and bad, successes and failures, in the overall light of strategic aims. Vietnam, to me, was a theater in the overall struggle to contain the Soviets, and to an extent the Maoists as well. A lot of things went wrong there, but I find it hard to blame the guys who fought and won WWII for failing to see how that would turn out.

      Here’s where it gets into the weeds…

      Remember a month or so ago when I said something on social media about Rome, and you sort of said, “Aha! I’m glad to see you admit that we’re imperialists, too?” Something along those lines, anyway.

      Well, I DO see a lot of parallels between us and the Romans. Being an American in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been a bit like being a Roman during the Empire — the cultural hegemony, the fact that everywhere you go people speak English (then it was Greek, since the Romans got their culture from Greece the way we did from Britain), the dominant role played in the affairs of the known world.

      Even the far-flung “Empire.” Except, of course, there’s no empire. There’s no plunder economy based on invading nations and taking their resources and enslaving their people. But we do find ourselves having to make tough choices about whom to ally ourselves with or oppose — diplomatically or otherwise — and the choices are seldom simple and morally clear. But we don’t plunder. (Of course, Trump WOULD take their resources, which is one of many reasons he’s beyond the pale.) And we don’t bring people home in chains — our aim IS to free them, and sometimes that leads to problems. (We freed Iraq from Saddam and it led to chaos. We won the Cold War and once freed, the Balkans had a meltdown.)

      Sure, you can point to contrary instances, such as when we set up the Shah in Iran. Too many times, we were more desperate for stability in a country or a region than we were to promote liberty. But there are other instances that DO support the JFK formula, and the fact remains that if you can point to ANY, you still have a unique event in human history. When, before recent living history, did a nation (and I’m including our allies in this formula, especially the Brits) spend blood and treasure to afford OTHER nations a shot at liberty?

      Certainly not the Romans. And yet the parallels are indeed there, as they will be when there is a hegemon — and there always is, except when there’s total chaos…

      1. bud

        A shot at liberty? Really? Our imperialist invasion of Iraq can hardly be couched in terms of giving people “a shot at liberty”. That was all about oil and revenge. No amount of weasel words can change that.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Bud, you can be opposed to the invasion of Iraq without saying a bunch of stuff that’s untrue. There was NOTHING about it that in any way looked like empire building. Nothing. You’ll REALLY have to go some to prove it was about oil, since it wasn’t — at all. (The Gulf War in 1991 — THAT was at least to some extent about oil, in that it was about keeping it flowing.) Or do you actually think we did what Trump is roundly criticized for saying we SHOULD have done?

          Revenge? I’m not even sure how to answer that, since I’m not sure what you mean…

  4. bud

    The oil connection was certainly a consideration. W wanted a friendlier government who would be willing to sell oil outside the auspices of OPEC. W and Cheney both were well connected to energy companies and wanted a cheaper more reliable source. There really isn’t much doubt that oil motivated their thinking. W was avenging his daddy’s honor. That also seems pretty obvious.

    Clearly the more ridiculous assertion is this nonsense that W wanted to give people a chance for liberty.

    The reason we have to understand this now is because our leaders can and do just make up crap to sell their wars while wrapping it in some nonsensical platitudes about freedom or liberty or security. Trump is no different. His motivation is pretty much about self aggrandizement. A win in Afghanistan would allow him to eclipse his rival Obama, a man whom he is fiercely jealous of.

    The bottom line is this – NEVER accept a presedent’s stated motivation for one of these optional wars. Whether it is oil or jealousy presidents will always cover their real motivation with platitudes and benevolent sounding weasel words.

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