Thursday, April 29, 2010

Civis Americanus Sum

I’m not a citizen of the world, even if I like the idea in theory. Actually, I’m not sure I like the idea in theory either. True, I don’t like wars and jingoism and animosity between peoples—and nationalism above all has spawned these demons within us. I've greatly enjoyed the cross-cultural camaraderie I've felt, however brief, with people from other countries I've visited.  Must we await an attack of Martians before the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind come together as one? Neil Peart, the percussive bard of Canada, put it eloquently:

Better the pride that resides in a citizen of the world
Than the pride that divides when a colorful rag is unfurled.

So what's my problem?  As much as I agree with the sentiment here, I’m also suspicious of attempts to create a universal consensus, a one-world government. I like the differences between cultures and nation states. I eschew universalism as much as exclusivism. I opt for an inclusivist approach. Let’s respect other cultures and work with other nations but still take particular pride in our own. Perhaps it’s easier for an American to take this approach, however.

The United States is the Roman Empire of today. Our military prowess, far-flung territories, and economic interests abroad speak in unequivocal terms of a tremendous influence throughout the world. The Pax Americana that started after the Japanese surrender and continues today is akin to the Pax Romana. Our generals in Iraq and Afghanistan act as our proconsuls and the 82nd Airborne hold back the less sophisticated hordes that would threaten our civilization.

I’ll throw a bone to liberals: Yes, we’ve used our power and influence for our own selfish interests. Sometimes we’ve done terrible things to other peoples throughout the world. By we I mean mostly our representative government and various private companies. But the American people, that is to say, you and me, are complicit. We and our Western European friends live high on the hog compared to the rest of the world, conservatives and liberals alike, and such luxurious living depends on the exploitation of other regions. Those of you on the right will say I’m being too harsh here. Unfortunately, imperialism is still a sum-zero game: your gain comes at my loss. The best cinematic depiction of what I’m talking about is the great opening battle scene between Roman legions and the Germanic hordes in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000). The commanding general expresses a brief lament about the destruction of a people; yet, we witness the march of civilization against the peoples of Sylvania.

Liberal Democrats and left-of-center pundits have castigated the so-called Imperial Presidency of George Bush and his evil minion Dick Cheney. I’m not here to defend the Bush administration, but I find this partisan viewpoints ridiculous and myopic, as if our stance in the world has changed with President Obama. Yes, generally speaking, Western Europeans like Democratic U.S. Presidents and Eastern Europeans and peoples of the central Asia Soviet states like Republican U.S. Presidents. But a good chunk of the world sees us, the United States, as one monolithic entity regardless of political party. Some groups despise us, terrorist organizations in particular. Others benefit from our largesse and even—dare I say—are glad that America wields its influence in even some of the dark corners of the world. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Now, here’s the part that liberals won’t like. I’m also a patriot, not a patriot of the “my country right or wrong” school, but a patriot nonetheless. I still believe in the American experiment and the concomitant wisdom behind the Constitution. I joined the military out of this belief. People abroad still depend on the United States, its aid and its democratic institutions. No, I’m not delusional. Both Democratic and Republican administrations, for good or ill, have conducted foreign policy under the time-honored (and amoral) principle: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. We have supported dictators who have oppressed their people. Our national self-interests almost always accompany any humanitarian relief we engage in.

I often ask my students whether the United States is the Policeman of the World. Even those who would condemn their own country for sticking its nose in other peoples’ business end up conceding that we play an important role as the world’s superpower. Niall Ferguson's Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, admirably the only book on the topic that doesn't have an obvious axe to grind, argued that the world has always had empires and always will. It’s not a question of whether we want to have empires, but what kind do we want? Would you prefer a Soviet, Nazi or Japanese Empire to a British or American Empire?

And so here we are overseeing conflicts abroad. In a perfect world of course there would be no wars. In a semi-perfect world, nation states and empires would always formally declare war and wage them for universally-accepted reasons. They would also be surgical cuts finished quickly. Finally, if in the best of all possible words these wars, this violence, ultimately works out for the ultimate good in the mind of God, well I can’t know about that. But this is a rather messy world in which we toil. Like the Romans, the Chinese, the Ottomans, and the Brits before us, we as the bearers of both civilization and oppression have no shortage of admirers and….enemies.

Let’s focus on Afghanistan a minute, since Iraq is presumably getting better. Are we the Policeman of the World? Must we go it alone? Let’s look at these questions from our allies’ point of view. Why should presidents, prime ministers and legislative bodies of other Western nations send their own citizens into harm’s way and take the political repercussions thereof when the Yankee Empire has the biggest guns on the block and the meanest dog in the fight? Such is the thinking anyway. Alas! American commanders just might discover what Roman generals learned on the frontiers of their far-flung empire centuries ago: if you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself.

And so I say to you, in the words of the fictional General Maximus Decimus Meridius who exhorted his adjutant just before battle, “Strength and Honor!” I’m an American citizen and proud of it.