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America's Strategy of Openness

Professor Bacevich, to whom I referred in a recent entry, is the author of a fine volume detailing the continuities of American foreign policy over the course of the past century. That strategy of openness has been structured around the imperatives of economic growth and expansion, on the assumption that the construction of an integrated global order will ensure not only the economic preeminence of the United States, but her geopolitical preeminence. Thoughtful minds will grasp the element of presumption, even hubris, in this; but the strategy has assumed greater importance in recent decades as American culture has been attenuated by the aftershocks of the cultural revolutions of the Sixties, mass immigration, and what Daniel Bell once termed the cultural contradictions of capitalism. Professor Bacevich explains:

America's strategy of openness, in place for more than a century, derives from twin convictions widely held by members of the political elite and the foreign policy establishment. The first conviction is that robust and continuing economic growth is an imperative, absolute and unconditional. (snip)

But the imperative of economic growth is not simply a matter of electoral politics. It also grows out of far-reaching changes in the nation's culture.

During the half-century following World War II, the bonds of American civic identity noticeably frayed. In his detailed and persuasive assessment of American community, Robert Putnam described the broad trend toward civic disengagement and the mounting sense of social isolation, both accelerating as the "long civic generation" that fought World War II began passing from the scene. As one consequence of the resulting "democratic malaise" - the term is Christopher Lasch's - the once robust plant of American citizenship withered. Apart from the requirement to pay taxes, personal responsibilities demanded of the larger community during the 1990s were nil. Even in national elections, the majority of eligible voters could not motivate themselves to go to the polls.

As for the ancient republican tradition that citizenship entailed a duty to contribute to the nation's defense,, it got left behind on the near side of President Clinton's famous bridge to the twenty-first century. To the extent that some vestige of patriotism survived into the post-Cold War era, it did so as nostalgia, sentimentality, martial exhibitionism, and a readily exploitable source of entertainment. (Snip) The core values of the "bourgeois bohemians," constituting according to David Brooks the new establishment and defining the sensibility of the age, were individualism and freedom - chiefly their own personal freedom. Their missions were consumption and self-actualization. They exhibited little interest in enlisting in great crusades - especially if doing so threatened to crimp their lifestyle.

In a society in which citizens were joined to one another by little except a fetish for shopping, professional sports, and celebrities along with a ravenous appetite for pop culture, prosperity became a precondition for preserving domestic harmony. Arguing on behalf of a populist vision of an engaged, independent, self-reliant citizenry, an acerbic critic like Lasch might rail against luxury as morally repugnant, insisting that "a democratic society cannot allow unlimited accumulation." But in reality the prospect of unlimited accumulation had long since become the lubricant that kept the system functioning. A booming economy alleviated, or at least kept at bay, social and political dysfunction. Any interruption in economic growth could induce friction, stoke discontent, and bring to the surface old resentments, confronting elected officials with problems for which they possessed no readily available solutions. Lasch may well have been correct in charging that "the reduction of the citizen to the consumer" produces a hollowed-out American democracy. But by the 1990s no one knew now to undo the damage without risking a massive conflagration.

A second aspect of cultural change complicated the problem even further, namely, the growing confusion over whether and to what extent the United States qualified any longer as a "nation." Even before the Cold War had ended, in progressive quarters especially, a faint odor of disrepute had enveloped the very concept of nationhood. To the extent that nationalism implied a homogeneous outlook, values shared by the members of one group and distinguishing that group from all others, it was suspect. (snip)

From its outset, the Cold War that began at midcentury was was a conflict fought on two fronts at once: a political and military struggle abroad and a political and cultural struggle at home. By the end of the twentieth century it was apparent that the side that had won abroad had lost at home - and vice versa. In the external conflict, the forces of democratic capitalism, led by the United States, had vanquished the forces of Marxist-Leninism, embodied by the Soviet Union. But in the internal conflict, the cultural left prevailed, not b destroying the right but by compromising it irredeemably. The counterculture of the 1960s had by the 1990s effectively become the dominant culture. As Eugene Genovese has explained, the debacle of 1989 may have "exposed the false premises on which the Left has proceeded, but it has done so at a time in which the Right is embracing many of those premises, notably, personal liberation and radical egalitarianism." (snip)

That cultural revolution invalidated the old notion of the American melting pot and replaced it with the creed of America as multicultural mosaic. As Michael Lind rightly noted, multiculturalism became the not simply a proposal or a possibility but "the de facto orthodoxy of the present American regime." According to the terms of that orthodoxy, the United States was called upon to become a country embracing no particular culture but one in which all cultures, values, and beliefs might enjoy equal standing.

And in such a society, the socially centrifugal forces of globalization became the systemically centripetal forces without which the establishment could not endure.

Comments (1)

I do agree that the strategy of openness has been structured around the imperatives of economic growth and expansion, on the assumption that the construction of an integrated global order but also on geopolitical preeminence.

Anna Marie

Blog: porte manteau mural 

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