The Land of Hope Again? An Old Dream for a New America

Dominique Moïsi. Foreign Affairs. Volume 87, Issue 5. September/October 2008.

I call you friends, but you are much more. You made my life possible when you freed my father from a German concentration camp on May 8, 1945. You gave me dreams when, as a lonely European child, I watched American movies, especially Westerns. And you gave me hope when Harvard University received me as a graduate student more warmly and deeply than any French elite school had ever done. I remain a grateful “old European,” aware of the “duty of memory,” aware of what you did for my continent and for my family in the last century. That is precisely why I have felt so disappointed and have not been able to recognize you for the last eight years.

The United States I used to love, respect, and defend has been imprisoned by a culture of fear. It underreacted in the lead-up to 9/11 and overreacted in its aftermath. It no longer practices the virtues and principles it preaches. After the scandals of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, I could not defend it because it deserved many of the criticisms it received. Fanatical terrorists could not defeat you, but you were on the verge of defeating yourself by violating your great democratic principles. Now, you are about to elect a new president. Since I cannot vote in your election, I feel compelled to write this letter, for your presidential choice is crucial not only for you but also for non-Americans like me.

The United States might no longer be a hyperpower (as Hubert Vedrine, the former French foreign minister, once described it), but it retains a centrality in the world that is both emotional and material. Globalization may have reduced the United States’ economic and strategic weight, but it has reinforced its cultural importance. Those countries that may have begun the process of overtaking the United States are largely Americanized-at least in terms of their consumption ambitions, if not their political models. Today’s biggest challenge may be that 1.3 billion Chinese want to spend like you but not be governed like you.

In the last two decades, the United States, the world, and the United States’ position in the world have changed profoundly. But the world is better off with a United States that retains its unique capability and willingness to intervene. Unfortunately, Washington’s recent obsession with the military dimension of security has done the United States much harm. One of the most striking consequences of this obsession is that the foreign policy issues dominating the presidential debates are all about limiting damage: how to leave Iraq in the most elegant and least costly manner, whether (and how) to enter into a dialogue with Iran to prevent it from going nuclear. The United States will have to recover or reinvent the culture of hope-with its unique blend of dynamism, flexibility, and openness-that characterizes the American dream and made the country successful in the past. The new America that both Americans and the rest of the world need today is nothing more than the old America that has been lost.

A New Old America

The United States looks at the outside world with the distance, if not the distrust, of a psychologically self-sufficient country. Since World War II, the United States has been aware that its security depends on its ability to interact with the world-a realization that was reinforced by the Cold War and more brutally by 9/11. But it has, nevertheless, always felt alone in its power.

The United States tilted World War I toward victory for the Allies and defended “good” from “evil” in World War II. The Soviet Union was no real match for the United States during the Cold War, and after its demise in 1991, America was on a glorious cloud. Without the United States, nothing serious could be achieved. The wars in the Balkans in the 19905 humiliated the Europeans, who could only exert an influence by waving the prospect of membership in the European Union. U.S. military power proved indispensable in saving Bosnia and Kosovo.

But the United States has also had to learn the hard way that it can achieve nothing alone. During the eight years of Bill Clinton’s presidency-just before Western power began to shrink and the East began to rise-the United States had a unique opportunity to shape the world by creating an international order based on right and might and on solid and respected multilateral institutions, foremost among them the United Nations. But through a mixture of nonchalance and negligence, Washington did not engage seriously with the UN, and it attended to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict much too late. And then, over the last eight years, under George W. Bush, Washington has done much worse. It went in the wrong direction; set overly ambitious and improbable goals, such as democracy for the Middle East; and used the wrong means. It seemed to have misleading models in mind: Germany and Japan after World War II could not serve as references for a postSaddam Iraq. After 9/11, you were obsessed with the question “Why do they hate us?” Today you ask, “Why have we become so unpopular in the world? What can we do to reconcile ourselves with the world?”

The United States’ strategic and tactical mistakes have accelerated the birth of a new era in which America is not alone in possessing power and influence. The world has irreversibly changed, partly because of the United States and partly independently of it. You need to reinvent America for a new world, for in your fear (of the other, of the future) you seem to have dropped the mande of hope that once made you unique. Asia-above all, China and India-is carrying it now. What is happening to you Americans is in some ways what happened to us Europeans more than 60 years ago. You must now adjust to the rise of Asia much the same way we had to adjust to the United States’ rise after World War II.

In 1945, the United States saved Western Europe (after more than 30 years, effectively, of a debilitating civil war) from falling prey to the Soviet Union and communism. The challenge that the United States faces today is much less dramatic than Europe’s was then; its survival is not at stake. But its status is changing-and it will have to draft its own Marshall Plan. The task facing the United States requires a sort of Copernican revolution of the American mind: it means accepting that although the world will look more and more similar to the United States and even familiar in cultural terms, it will no longer be defined by the United States alone or even by it principally. The first challenge of the next U.S. president will be to adjust Americans to this new world system, whose creation you have accelerated.

Can the United States adjust itself to the fact that it is no longer the center of the world? Americans may speak with a mixture of pride and diffidence about the emergence of a “nonpolar world,” as the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, recently did in these pages. But the reality is much simpler. The world is becoming “multipolar” again, in the classic sense of the term, and this new balance of power is becoming the equivalent for today of what the Concert of Europe was for the Westphalian European order in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (with the exception of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars)-but with a major difference. Back then, the nationstates competing among themselves were aware of the fact that they were united by a common interest in preserving the system. War was the pursuit of politics by other means, but it was never to become total, for that would destroy the Concert of Europe principle, which was that the major powers must act together on questions of common interest and preserve the peace through concerted diplomatic action. Today, war in the classic sense has probably disappeared, to be replaced by various forms of terrorism. And there is no general diplomatic system that nation-states (and nonstate actors, who are increasingly powerful) seek to preserve from this polymorphous challenge.

Primus Inter Pares

The real goal of the United States should not be to remain number one or to seek to dominate the post-American order; it should be to make the best use of the country’s primus inter pares status. That would mean exercising its power to create and maintain a coalition of equals, based not on a common democratic ideal but on a common sense of responsibility and a longing for the stability that underwrites economic growth. Establishing the rule of law in all the key states, for example, may be a far more decisive ingredient for the success of this new system based on mutual interests than the eventual existence of a “League of Democracies” (which is what the Republican presidential candidate John McCain has proposed).

Envisioning that such a league could lead the world is a noble illusion, with one major problem. It places two very different key emerging powers, China and Russia, in the same category. But whereas Russia under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev retains many traits of the Soviet system, China retains little of its Maoist past. China is taking small steps toward democracy, whereas Russia is taking major steps away from it. To bring them together is not only artificial but may prove counterproductive. The political scientist Robert Kagan can proclaim “the return of history and the end of dreams,” but his argument is largely a Western delusion, an anachronistic defense of values that I, too, share and cherish but that cannot constitute the cornerstone of the United States’ relations with the world today. It is an oversimplification to speak of a new competition between Western liberalism and the Eastern autocracies of China and Russia. China and Russia neither are natural allies nor wield the same type of power, if only because of obvious demographic differences. If in the years ahead a new quartet of nations leads the world, it will include the United States, China, and India but not necessarily Russia, whose influence is too dependent on its oil and gas wealth.

The role of the United States is not to preach democracy to the world but to practice it at home. In the mid-1980s, I accompanied John McCloy, the U.S. proconsul in Germany after World War II, to the opera in West Berlin. On learning of his presence, the entire audience rose to its feet and applauded him for a long time. In June 2008, when I was back at the opera in a unified Berlin to see Beethoven’s Fidelia, a universal celebration of love and freedom, I saw actors playing prisoners dressed in the kind of orange jumpsuits that the prisoners at the U.S. Guantánamo Bay detention center are made to wear. Within a generation, the United States has moved from being a symbol of freedom to being a symbol of oppression. How can it bring democracy to the world if it is not trusted?

The United States has to restore the trust and confidence the world no longer invests in it. A display of modesty abroad and a reinforced emphasis on education, infrastructure, and social welfare at home will help. The United States still has a unique advantage: many people want to be American. The Chinese and the Russians do not expect or welcome immigrants to join them in their journey. The United States alone has a universal appeal. The U.S. presidential elections are watched with passion in the world not mainly because of the United States’ power but because of its emotional centrality. And choosing Barack Obama as your next president would do more to restore the image of the United States abroad than anything else you can dream of. Obama has already evoked comparisons with President John F. Kennedy.

Indeed, the United States needs a new version of Kennedy’s famous phrase: “Ask not what the world can do for you. Ask what you can do for yourself and the world.” The attacks of 9/11 were a terrible tragedy, but that should not obscure the fact that the strongest current in the world today is the rise of Asia, not the destructive instinct of terrorists. To face this new world, the United States has to rediscover its roots and reinvigorate its capacity to unify others and symbolize hope. Moreover, hope is compatible with pragmatism. When Bush combined ideals with fear, he jeopardized the defense of U.S. interests, the preservation of American values, and the maintenance of the United States’ image in the world. Today, the fundamental question for you Americans is, Who between the candidate of hope, Obama, and the candidate of fear, McCain, can better help you face the new challenges of the twenty-first century, bring out the best in you, and incarnate the universalist message your country needs so badly to restore its position in the world? I hope you determine that the answer is hope.