In America the footprints of history have been overlaid by the creation of mythic narratives that convey the idea of America.
As Robert Kagan, foreign policy analyst and Washington Post columnist, has argued: "America did not change on September 11. It only became more itself." There was not just an outpouring of national solidarity in the face of tragedy; there was conscious and conspicuous resort to the icons and imagery that symbolise the story of the nation, from the unfurling of flags to law-makers gathering on the steps of Congress to sing God Bless America, to President Bush reprising the language of America’s western frontier.
It was the idea of America which was mobilised for war in response to 9/11. Three wars on — Afghanistan, Iraq and the global war on terror — if America has not changed, then understanding the making of America, how its idea of itself and its view of the rest of the world came into being, is essential to determining not only if America will or can change but what constitutes a real agenda for change.
For Kagan, America’s response to 9/11 is the persistence of a project that it has been engaged in not just "over the past decades but for the better part of the past six decades and one might even say the better part of the past four centuries. It is an objective fact that Americans have been expanding their power and influence in ever-widening arcs since even before they founded their own independent nation."
According to Richard Haass, a state department director of policy and planning, the projection of this power and influence seeks to integrate "other countries and organisations into arrangements that will sustain a world consistent with US interests and values and thereby promote peace, prosperity and justice". Pre-emptive war, retaliation, regime change and democracy-building are all expressions of this unifying project.
If this project is foundational to the very idea of America, the essence of its mission statement, it is hardly surprising that Americans are blind to the imperialist nature of their national undertaking. Indeed, in his book Rogue Nation, Clyde Prestowitz argues that this arises from the "implicit belief that every human being is a potential American, and that his or her present national or cultural affiliations are an unfortunate but reversible accident".
Enveloping the whole world in its self-interested and self-serving embrace is the very meaning of America. And it is the precise cause of the rest of the world’s difficulties with America, the content of the substantive change they hope America can make. If all other identities are mere "reversible accidents", what place does the idea of America allow for plurality, difference and autonomy — indeed, self-determination for anyone else?
America assumed the status of leader of the free world not by the happy accident of emerging from World War II as the richest nation, unscathed by the ravages of war on its own soil and with its productive capacity enhanced, its military might unquestioned and deployed around the globe, and its political and diplomatic position decisive in establishing the new order of the post-war world. America acquired this dominance by virtue of its accumulation of political, military, economic and cultural power and influence, as the realisation and full meaning of its history, the manifest destiny inherent in the idea of America.
As Kagan suggests, this vision preceded the foundation of the nation. To trace the origins of the idea of America and its relationship to the rest of the world we have to look beyond America to the worldview that defined the expansion of Europe, the process which brought the United States of America into being. In the cultural and strategic history of Europe’s expansionist worldview is to be found the bedrock of America’s mythic narrative.
American belief in its own national myth as a model for all nations is something other than simple altruism. This was the substance of what is now known as the Wolfowitz Indiscretion. In 1992, following the success of Operation Desert Storm, the annual review of the Defense Planning Guidance prepared by Paul Wolfowitz, then under-secretary of defence for policy, openly argued that calculations of power and self-interest rather than altruism and high ideals provided the proper basis for framing American strategy for the operation and maintenance of its unquestioned pre-eminence. When this leaked to the press there was fulmination from affronted and aghast critics. Senator Alan Cranston saw it as a proposal to make America "the one, the only main honcho on the world block, the global big Enchilada", as Andrew Bacevich documents in his book American Empire, and that was, most of all, un-American.
When the document was published, all traces of such candour had disappeared. As Bacevich notes, no other responsible official of that Bush administration or any subsequent one repeated the mistake: "The calculus of power that is inherent in the very nature of politics did not disappear, but it remained hidden from public view", he writes. Mythic narrative shrouds harsh realities, overlaying them with benign goodness, but the essence of the story of America is the construction of a new imperialism, different but not distinct from all other varieties that have gone before.
The pursuit of the American dream on a global basis subsumes the rest of the world as its own backyard, to be known and engaged with in purely American terms. This is an expression of patriotism which sees all other nations as either failed examples of what a nation should be, or inferior and incapable examples desperately in need of remedial education. The more uncritical this patriotism is in shaping popular imagination and public discourse, the more insulated, special and different Americans become. The more it holds a distorting mirror to itself and the rest of the world, the more incomprehensible the rest of the world becomes, full of inarticulate, hostile elements, true barbarians.
The term "barbarian" originated among the Ancient Greeks. To Greek ears, foreign languages sounded like "ba-ba". The word came to refer to anyone incapable of speaking Greek, and carried the implication that barbarism was a defect of reason. Not a bad analogy for how the rest of the world conceives — with justification — that America thinks of itself: as the type-site of all that is reasonable and good, while all others are incomprehensible barbarians who just will not see what’s best for them.
This is an edited extract from Will America Change? By Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies (Allen and Unwin).
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