Saturday, January 10, 2015

American triumphalism in the 1990s

James Carden and Jacob Heilbrunn give an account of the Washington Post's editorial policy in The Washington Post: The Most Reckless Editorial Page in America The National Interest 12/15/2014.

In the process, they give an interesting account of the development of post-Cold War triumphalism during the Clinton Administration:

During the 1990s, the belief in promoting democratization abroad was widespread. It was supposed to be America’s “unipolar moment,” a term coined by Krauthammer. It bestrode, or came to see itself as bestriding, the world as a colossus. Journalists such as Thomas Friedman enskied globalization: it would usher in nothing less than a new era of peace and prosperity for all. No two countries that each had a McDonald’s, we were told, would fight one another. Intent on burnishing his foreign-policy credentials, Governor Bill Clinton eagerly espoused the virtues of globalization and American power. In his “New Covenant for American Security” address at Georgetown University in 1991, for example, Clinton recalled that at the dawn of the Cold War, the United States had to

find ways to rebuild the economies of Europe and Asia, encourage a worldwide movement toward independence, and vindicate our nation’s principles in the world against yet another totalitarian challenge to liberal democracy. Thanks to the unstinting courage and sacrifice of the American people, we were able to win that Cold War.
Clinton was by no means alone in his conviction that American leadership would inexorably lead to an interdependent world. Though obviously the most prominent, he was but one of a number of liberal Democrats, such as Time magazine foreign-affairs columnist Strobe Talbott, who had viewed the Cold War—and above all, Ronald Reagan—with suspicion, if not hostility, but now retroactively professed that nothing other than American resolve had brought the decades-long drama to a peaceful denouement. [my emphasis]
And the following gives some good background perspective on how the liberal interventionists of the 1990s have no come to be hard to distinguish from warmongering neoconservatives:

In Clinton’s words, “In a world where freedom, not tyranny, is on the march, the cynical calculus of pure power politics simply does not compute. It is ill-suited to a new era.” Just how seductive this way of looking at the world was (and remains) to large swathes of the liberal political establishment became even clearer in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As the late Tony Judt wrote, “The ‘Clinton generation’ of American liberal intellectuals take special pride in their ‘tough-mindedness’ [and display] an exuberant enthusiasm for violent political transformations at other people’s expense. ... The use value of such persons to ambitious radical regimes is an old story.” [my emphasis]
That notion that "the cynical calculus of pure power politics" is something that invites recklessness in foreign policy. We've seen that in the last year in the debates over Ukraine policy the notion that realist calculations about Russia's intentions, abilities and judgments should somehow be dismissed in favor of purist posturing about democracy and national sovereignty without regard to the consequences of open-ended escalation.

What lies behind much of that attitude is what Carden and Heilbrunn describes of the 1990s liberal interventionists but which applies to the neocons, as well: "Washington, they assumed, could more or less do what it wanted, whenever and wherever it chose." That was the American "cynical calculus of pure power politics" that lay behind the attitude that we could ignore such considerations on the part of others.

We're now seeing the consequences of that arrogant assumption. The chances for for a more peaceful and just international order were largely squandered. Washington is not all-powerful on the downside, either, of course. Other countries and international actors make their own decisions, as well, which have their own influences on the world's chances.

And Ukraine is yet another place where the evangelism of American power and purity has recently encountered some rough going.

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