May the Fourth Be With You

by James E. McWilliams


By Gary Hart

Americans like to toot their own horn. Even before the smoke cleared from the American Revolution, men rushed to judgment and declared the United States “a new Athens,” a place where a world gone awry could begin anew, a blank sheet to write upon, “a rankless society” where the average Joe could flourish, a place that was “governed by its own will,” a land of endless opportunity.

And not only do Americans like to toot their own horn but they prefer to do so while drowning out everyone else’s. Since our inception, national greatness in the American mindset has been considered a zero-sum game whereby global “greatness” thrives as other nations wither under our conspicuous displays of power. This muscle-flexing impulse also dates to our founding, when our muscles were small. When early Americans patted themselves on the back they did so while condemning European culture as “highly pernicious” or, as Ben Franklin put it, “tattered, dirty, and abject in Spirit.” Europe, and the rest of the world for that matter, could expect to decline into irrelevance until it admitted, as Tom Paine did, that “the cause of America is the cause of mankind.”

The vast American frontier provided Americans with a fertile century to cultivate this myopic version of American exceptionalism. Even after the frontier closed, in fact, the patriotic bloviation continued almost unabated. Not long ago I endured a commencement address by Texas Rep. John Carter, who announced to the assembled graduates that we should support the war in Iraq because “America is the greatest nation in the history of the world.” Tom Paine would have been proud.

To an extent largely ignored by the popular press and academic observers, the war in Iraq—due in large part to the United States’ unilateralism—has revived and intensified the crass rhetoric of American exceptionalism. The Bush administration’s stubbornly single-minded approach to the war accounts in large part for the bloody mess that the war has become and, even as over 1,000 Americans have lost their lives for a dubious cause, the administration instinctively responds with louder and more antagonistic expressions of America’s chosen place in the newly globalized order.

With his initial justifications for the war turning out to be a deadly pack of lies, Bush has been forced to legitimate his military action on the claim that a “free” Iraq will make the world safer from terrorism, a point usually punctuated with an obligatory reference to 9/11. The fact that no other nation in the world has asked us to undertake this misguided mission matters none to the frothing neo-cons who bend Bush’s ear every morning to remind him that America is God’s chosen land, so bombs away, buddy boy.

One wishes the whole thing were the scenario of a violent cult film (perhaps titled Dumbo and the Machiavellians) and not the sad reality of daily life. One wishes that someone with some clout would stand up and say what needs to be said, perhaps something along these lines:

We Americans are often blissfully unaware of how hypocritical we appear to other peoples when we act in contradiction to our stated values or when we refuse to acknowledge the obvious reasons for our behavior.

Maybe it took living in England and getting a D.Phil. in Politics at Oxford but, in writing these words, Gary Hart—the former Colorado Senator of 1980s “Monkey Business” infamy—makes the critical point that, should America hope to retain its geo-political standing in the 21st century it must abandon the current version of American exceptionalism that insidiously fosters a “strategy of empire.” Thoroughly wedded to the idea of the nation-state, and nowhere near radical enough to question the very premise of American exceptionalism per se, Hart believes America has “a unique role in the world.” But whereas the Bush administration sees that unique role in terms of establishing what Niall Ferguson has been begging us to admit is an American empire, Hart advocates that we express our supposedly unique nature by integrating our “fourth power”—the “power of principle”—into our conventional economic, military, and political arsenal. Hart calls this integration a “grand strategy” and insists that it should assume these qualities:

It will be multidimensional; it will transcend impulse, reaction, and ideology; it will rely on appropriate means to achieve justifiable ends; it will recognize its own constraint; and it will be transparent.

Additionally, our grand strategy must be “consistent,” “coherent,” and “adaptable.” These are wonderful ideas. At times they’re even inspiring. I’m sure they were exceptionally satisfying to ponder and pen under the tutelage of Oxford dons. But come on, given the gutter tripe known as American politics, are they really to have any use beyond stump speech rhetoric delivered to fellowship hall potlucks? Only the most bloodthirsty hawks could possibly disagree with Hart’s tactfully abstracted theories, which essentially amount to an intellectual backrub. Election years, it’s worth noting, have a funny way of bringing these “grand strategies” out of the woodwork. I spent much of the summer reading the likes of Walter Russell Mead, Michael Ignatieff, and Jonathan Schell—”grand strategy” writers with sweeping (and quite different) visions of what an ideal geo-political world would look like. Hart’s work falls squarely into this genre but, in so doing, it also inevitably comes under suspicion for making it look as if the author is trying to insinuate his way into a presidential advisory position should November see a regime change. In its scope and suspected motive, The Fourth Power is, in the end, a string of misfires.

Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t occasionally hit a few prime targets. Hart’s analysis is most compelling when he stresses the connection between sound domestic policies and a responsible foreign policy. His discussion of oil, for example, both exemplifies this strength while further suggesting how his book might have been more effective had it developed a single, emblematic issue rather than compiling a catalogue of quixotic proposals. Working from the enlightened premise that “[p]rosperity and justice at home are directly connected to America’s ability to achieve its international purposes,” he chides our consumer-based economy for its “dependence on foreign energy.” An obvious point, of course, but what Hart then does that’s interesting is place this dependence in the context of national security, claiming that “[w]e are using our military, that is to say young Americans, as the guarantor of our wasteful lifestyle… this is our energy policy, and it’s immoral.”

It’d be nice to hear more. But, while this connection certainly bears fleshing out (especially a proposed solution for “using less energy more efficiently”), Hart resorts to his own pat version of American exceptionalism to bring the conversation to an abrupt halt:

Properly informed… the American people will adopt this project with the same patriotic vigor and national unity they have exhibited with every national challenge in our history.

Two problems with this last comment—and they’re problems that typify Hart’s featherweight analysis. First, never before have Americans been as informed as we’ve been—or at least never have we had the opportunity to be so. With 24-hour news, the sprawling blog-o-sphere, and news clips and stories archived and easily available on-line, we have few excuses not to be on top of the news. Nevertheless, as Louis Menand reminds us in a recent New Yorker article, voters are more swayed by designer political images (as in that obnoxious “W” plastered across your local Range Rover), color choices (blue vs. red), and even the weather on election day (rain =dreary=Kerry) than they are by “the issues.” A more pressing concern, however, has to do with Hart’s casual resort to our supposed “patriotic vigor and national unity.” His ultimate faith that Americans will be great and adopt his warm suggestions rests on a naïve acceptance of a myth that even the Founding Fathers, for all their rhetorical indulgence, were wise enough to reject: virtue. Hart reduces each and every one of America’s political problems to quirks that can be ironed out with the resumption of the “the classical republican qualities of civic virtue and citizen duty.” He does so, however, without understanding that the Constitution of the United States, for one, assumed that citizens would instinctively behave according to virtue’s less romantic opposite: self-interest.

But, of course, there’s nothing terribly exceptional about self-interest, Hart will have plenty of time on his hands to revisit the dons, pick up another degree, and take another look at the myths he’d be much better off avoiding.

James E. McWilliams lives in Austin.