“Sneering and snobbery,” the philosopher Mary Midgeley has written, won dominance for linguistic analysis and existentialism in 20th-century philosophy. Although an overstatement, her comment hits the mark about philosophical fashions. It points to a desperate ploy in the war of ideas. When reason alone does not suffice, then strike a superior attitude and deride your adversary. It is a tactic we have seen repeatedly practiced in the last months in the debate surrounding the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Even respected commentators salt their argument with invective, sneering at the Europeans for their lack of spunk.
An egregious offender has been Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. His now-notorious dismissal of France and Germany as “old Europe” for their opposition to the U.S.-led campaign against Iraq crystallized Europe’s sense of injury at U.S. arrogance. When aides in the German and Canadian governments gave offense in the past to President Bush, they were forced, for their lese majesty, to resign from office. Not so Mr. Rumsfeld.
The administration is unrepentant. Rumsfeld’s dismissal of “old” allies France and Germany was high politics backed by the administration’s National Security Strategy. That document declared the U.S. intention of brooking no military rivals. It proposed rebuffing efforts from any quarter trying to influence U.S. policy so as to lessen American hegemony. The N.S.S. is unilateralism at its most brazen. It is not surprising the Europeans took offense. Time is past due for the administration to show some shame for such studied arrogance.
The late historian Richard Hofstadter described the mood of contemporary American politics. “Since what is at stake,” he wrote, “is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to the finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated. The demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration.”
Hofstadter’s sketch of “the paranoid style in American politics,” written in 1964 against the background of McCarthyism and John Birch-type conservatism, describes the temper of George W. Bush’s America. At the pinnacle of power and wealth, the United States appears so riven with fear, it makes enemies of its friends. It is not enough to rout the Taliban, drive Osama bin Laden to ground and threaten war against Iraq. The Bush team goes forth seeking dragons to slay, even if they are France, our oldest ally, and Germany, the powerhouse of Europe.
The administration’s strident militancy has its intellectual defenders. In an article that appeared in June 2002 in the Hoover Institution’s Policy Review, the international affairs specialist Robert Kagan wrote, “On the all important questions of power—the efficacy of power, the morality of power, the desirability of power—American and European perspectives are diverging....” Kagan summarizes, “[O]n major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans from Venus.”
Another unabashed advocate of the power ethic is Robert D. Kaplan. His Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos (Random House) recycles the realist politics of Machiavelli and Hobbes for the 21st century. In a disorderly world with unconventional threats magnified by technological prowess, Kaplan argues, leaders must stiffen themselves for the exercise of power in all its subtlety. His is an ethic for the American imperium. He cites Livy: “It is better that a wise enemy fear you than that foolish friends praise you.”
In the 18 months since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the president and his team have squandered the world’s sympathy for the United States. Feelings of identification with America have soured. Suspicion and antipathy are now the rule. In Egypt, Said Naggar, a liberal who worked for many years to promote U.S. ideals, told The Washington Post, “I still believe in these values, but I don’t call them American ideals anymore.” In a small village in rural Ghana, a young boy voiced his candid opinion to a Jesuit missionary, “Your President Bush, he likes to fight too much.”
It is time for Americans to oppose imperial politics and, like a civilized nation, call to account those who delight in giving offense. It is time to declare that a policy based on power alone is sheer folly. If permitted to advance, realpolitik will strangle this republic of free people, just as the pagan ethos of empire strangled republican Rome.