American Unilateralism

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now.” — Thomas Paine, Common Sense.

As President George W. Bush crosses the Atlantic to consult with European allies, he brings with him a unilateralist view that is likely to rankle Europeans. Then again, it is hard to remember when Europeans were happy with Americans. Inherent in this tension is the self-interpretative view Americans have of themselves.

Americans have always identified themselves as special and exceptional, a chosen people, a symbol of freedom unto the world. America did not represent just another country or a piece of land, but a new opportunity to create a world unencumbered by the evil tyrannies shackling Europe. When Puritans landed in the New World they believed they were establishing a new order. John Winthrop, evoked Biblical symbolism (Matthew, 5:14) when he forecast that, “We shall be a as a City on a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us…” Perhaps none said it better than Thomas Paine who argued in favor of American independence by proclaiming that “We have it in our power to begin the world again.”

This American exceptionalism was expressed in the idea that the United States had a “manifest destiny” to occupy North America. In 1845, John L. O’Sullivan staked out America’s divine right of “…manifest destiny to over spread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given for us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federaltive development of self government entrusted to us.” Though pursuit of this destiny often proved an excuse for cruelty to and devastation of indigenous peoples, in its most noble embodiment if meant confident fidelity to American aspirations for freedom and individuality.

For the first years of American history, American exceptionalism meant from a practical standpoint the separation of the United States from the rest of the world while it engaged in internal development. Americans traded with the world, but did not engage it politically. We were too good to be sullied by European intrigue. This attitude changed with the World Wars and the Cold War when American uniqueness proved the difference between post-war prosperity and a long descent into darkness.

After only 90 years of existence, it was not clear whether the United States would survive at it strove to expunge the stain of slavery. At times this confidence in American exceptionalism wavered. During the economic catastrophe of the Great Depression or even during the doldrums of the 1970s, America seemed in decline.

This American confidence and self-identity as a chosen people elicits admiration and anger, particularly from Europeans out of which much of the American tradition has emerged. Much of the world admires American prosperity while at the same time tries to console itself with the notion of moral superiority over the United States. Europeans disapprove of us because they cannot stand the fact that they love us so much.

Europeans love to ridicule the United States for its crassness, but hunger for American music and movies. Europeans fancy themselves as the stewards of western culture and a caring society, but lack the creativity of American culture and suffer under the burdens of their welfare states. Europeans lecture Americans on economics, while capital continues to flow from Europe to the United States. It must be infuriating for Europeans to proclaim concern for workers, while they labor with double-digit unemployment rates, while freer markets in the US produce low unemployment rates. Europeans neglect to support a US place on the United Nations Human Rights Commission, while the commission finds a place for China, Libya, and the Sudan.

In a recent essay, Charles Krauthammer argues that George W. Bush is tacking back to American unilateralism in part based on an American understanding of its own uniqueness and importance. Consult, be polite, but act in American interests. For example, while the Europeans have failed to ratify the Kyoto accords on carbon dioxide emissions, they are angry when President Bush states the obvious that the accords are dead. One might have thought that a 95-0 defeat in the Senate for the treaty would have been sufficient warning to Europeans, but it wasn’t. American explicit rejection of the Kyoto accords actually creates political cover for European governments reluctant to embrace the accords. European leaders get to criticize American at little political expense.

George Bush is pushing for missile defense, while Europeans, perhaps more vulnerable to missile strikes from rogue nations, fight what they see as renewed American militarism. Half the time they confidently assert that such a system cannot work and the other half of the time they fret that a protected America would disengage from European defenses.

America, under George W. Bush, refuses to have its interests forgotten in a faux multilateralism that ignores real issues and undermines American and in the long run European interests. What is generally good for the United States will benefit free nations everywhere. When you occupy the City on the Hill, many will be envious. Perhaps more will be inspired.

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