This writer has recently published a book which examines the cultural origins of a certain American outlook that, since the Second
World War, has inspired generally unsuccessful military interventions into non-western countries, the most dramatic of them being the
This may make the book sound like just one more American recitation of how the Bush and Obama administrations have gone wrong,
accompanied by some new argument about how the U.S. might "surge" its way out of its problems, or renew its efforts to turn
I am in fact more inclined to recommend that the U.S. simply walk away from these disasters, but the principal concern of the book
is to explain why all this happened, so as to prevent it from going on happening. Thus the book's title is
"The Irony of Manifest Destiny."
The subtitle is "The Tragedy of American Foreign Policy." (It's published by
Let me start with the 18th century Enlightenment. As
The isolated American colonies largely escaped the European Enlightenment experience, and therefore escaped the lessons it taught the Europeans during the 19th and 20th centuries. The Modern Paganism inspired the effort to create secular utopias. It taught that since there was no God, no heaven and presumably no end to history, men would have to change human society and destiny, if there was to be any change at all. A better world would have to come from human effort -- if there was ever to be a better world.
Therefore in the 19th century a series of theories about human destiny were proclaimed, nearly always accompanied by a plan showing how people must behave to make a heaven on earth, or something close to it. There was Marxism, intended to lead to the triumph of the working class and the perfection of society. There were doctrines of racial superiority and triumph over lesser races, or other human groups or classes. Nazism was the obvious case, but there were plenty of others, few of them peaceful, most involving conquest by war, the destruction of rival groups, and the arrival of a New Man. Usually it was assumed -- as in the 20th century totalitarianisms -- that ruthless action was essential to make this happen. Any degree of bloodshed was permissible if the outcome was to be a utopian society.
The alternative of peaceful utopian evolution was proclaimed by
It has not turned out that way. Even after the well-intentioned wars waged by
The conclusion of my argument is that no secular Utopia is going to be created. The lesson of modern European history -- the world wars and the great totalitarian convulsions -- is that trying to create one invites disaster.
My other conclusion is a very old one. No single power is going to "conquer" the world -- even if its motivation is benevolent. The effort is nearly always destructive to all. This is a lesson, to which few listen. It was formulated in the great period of classical Greek philosophy and drama, and summed up in classical tragedy. The pattern is simple: the achievement of great power, the growth of unchecked ambition, power's misuse through the flaws of human character, produce crimes against what the commonality of society understands as moral order. This constitutes hubris -- arrogant overreaching. It invariably ends in defeat and retribution. It undoubtedly will happen to us too. Read the book.
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(c) 2010 William Pfaff