Longtime subscribers to this magazine—extremely longtime subscribers—may remember an article in the January 1942 issue titled "Foundations of the Peace," in which Vice President Henry A. Wallace laid out several ideas for improving nutrition in the postwar world. The article was written when the United States was girding itself for what everyone knew would be a long and grim conflict. And yet here was the Vice President, already detailing post-victory programs! Nor was this considered odd; the press then was full of post-victory visions. The next issue of The Atlantic contained an essay by Thomas Mann titled "How to Win the Peace," and one by Alfred North Whitehead titled "The Problem of Reconstruction."
Wallace and the others seemed to salivate at the prospect of building a better world. They understood that the war would create a tremendous opportunity to reshape ravaged areas. And they were confident that the United States and its allies could accomplish great and beneficent tasks. "It is the hour for elation," a writer for The Nation declared just after Pearl Harbor, in an effusion characteristic of the era. "Here is the time when a man can be what an American means, can fight for what America has always meant—an audacious, adventurous seeking for a decent earth."
As it turned out, this confidence was entirely justified. After the war the United States fostered democracy in Japan—among a people who in 1942 would have been considered as unready for democracy as any in the world. The Allies rebuilt Europe in such a way that after millennia of conflict, war between Western European states is unthinkable today. American elites moved with a bold spirit to confront the Soviet Union, creating what Secretary of State Dean Acheson called the "situations of strength" that laid the groundwork for eventual victory in the Cold War.
This sort of confidence in America's ability to fundamentally improve the world is as foreign to us today as a Betty Grable poster. We no longer go into wars enthusiastic about opportunities to spread democracy and freedom afterward. We may go in with resolve, but we also go in obsessively aware of the limits of what we can achieve. We have to define the mission narrowly, we tell ourselves. We perpetually overestimate our enemies, underestimate our own power, and exaggerate the casualties we expect to incur. The Iraqi Republican Guard? Ferocious fighters, we were warned before Desert Storm—Americans will be coming home in body bags by the thousands. The Balkans? A hopeless cesspool. Afghanistan? A quagmire—look at what happened to the Soviets. The Taliban would rather die than surrender. Air power? It never works. America now enters every conflict with the might of a muscleman and the mentality of a wimp.
The modesty of our aims in entering wars is surpassed only by the timidity with which we conclude them. Can anyone imagine that Harry Truman would have crushed Saddam Hussein's army but then decided to leave the Iraqi dictator in power? Or that Douglas MacArthur or Dwight Eisenhower would have exulted, as General Tommy Franks did in early November, "[We've got] the easiest exit strategy we've had in years"?
The excuses we give for our fearfulness are many and varied: Our allies will abandon us. The Arab streets will explode. Those people in (name your country) aren't ready for democracy anyway. But the result remains the same: we achieve just as much victory as is needed to allow us to return home.
The failure of nerve starts at the top. When confronted with a range of opinions, our foreign-policy elites tend to cling to the darkest and most misanthropic one, often against all available evidence. For example, polling data and historical precedent suggest that the American people will tolerate casualties in pursuit of sensible political ends (they did so even through the campaign in Somalia). But it is an absolute article of faith in foreign-policy circles that the American people will not endure casualties and do not have the patience and fortitude to support any sustained foreign initiative—so it would be unwise to launch one. Similarly, when tyrannical governments have fallen during the past two decades, their defeats have usually brought good news: more than two dozen democracies have come into being as a result. But the foreign-policy establishment still operates on the assumption that whenever a dictator is toppled, the ensuing instability will be even worse than his totalitarianism. As U.S. forces were crushing the Taliban, surely the worst regime on earth, I was struck by how many foreign-policy experts and colleagues of mine in the Washington media I heard telling one another how naive it was to think that the Northern Alliance would be any better.
Flashbacks: "No Hard Feelings?" (July 11, 1995)
Atlantic articles explore Americans' ambivalence toward establishing full diplomatic relations with Vietnam.
What happened to America's confidence? The first answer, of course, is Vietnam. Second, American policy is now conducted largely by a meritocratic elite, which was not bred, as the best members of the old WASP elite were, to seize the responsibilities of leadership. Third, our triumph in the Cold War has had a perversely gloomy effect. That was a great moral and ideological victory, the argument goes, but now we live in a messier and grimmer world, one better suited to the sort of coldhearted caution espoused by so-called realists than to the warmhearted idealism of those who would champion democracy. We should try to stay out of as many messy situations as possible, the new conventional wisdom goes. If we allow ourselves to be driven by "moral enthusiasms," we'll only end up sapping our own strength.
Our foreign-policy elites derive considerable pleasure from their gimlet-eyed pose. It feels good to be a snob—to see the harsh realities that common people don't see, to rise above the idealistic sentiments of those tender souls and to deal instead in the realm of power politics and economic interest, where inside players (such as these experts themselves) seem to wield such influence. Members of the foreign-policy establishment have long suffered from what has been called "pronoia"—more or less the opposite of paranoia. They believe that a small conspiracy secretly runs the world—but they think this is a good thing, because they are in on it.
Regardless of the causes, today's pessimistic posture leads to the sort of vulgarized realism that George W. Bush adopted when he ran for President. Bush made it eminently clear that he would not sally forth into the ugly kingdom of Abroad. He wasn't into nation building, he declared. He resisted "international social work" (as one critic deridingly called our efforts to end genocide in the Balkans). Instead he stood for realistic restraint, with the emphasis on restraint. When talking about foreign-policy issues Bush used value-free language designed to stifle any thought of our country's ideals or moral responsibilities. He repeated the phrase "vital national interests" a lot.
And yet America plays at being a realistic nation the same way teenagers play at smoking. We adopt the pose we think makes us look grown up and cynical, but we never quite pull it off. When a crisis comes, we revert to our true nature as an idealistic, morally driven, optimistic nation.
Within minutes of the attacks on September 11 President Bush was hustled onto Air Force One, where he seems to have had an on-the-plane-to-Nebraska conversion experience. Since then he has talked about foreign policy in explicitly moral terms. Far from exercising restraint, he has set his goals as high as possible: this is our "historical opportunity to rid the world of terrorism," he told Newsweek recently. He has talked about America's moral mission in the world, using the exact phrases that cause foreign-policy realists to choke on their Courvoisier.
I don't know whether his Christian faith or his genetic links to the old Protestant establishment are responsible, but Bush now speaks in the epic terms that our leaders used during and after World War II. These terms call forth the same lofty visions that Americans have embraced during the best moments in our history. After all, our country rests on the idea that people are born with certain inalienable rights—all people, not just the ones who happen to live within U.S. borders. The Founders firmly believed that the American experiment was to be conducted in behalf of the whole human race. Reading the letters of Civil War soldiers, as the historian James M. McPherson did for his book For Cause and Comrades (1997), one finds that even privates realized that if they failed to defend the Constitution, authoritarians around the world would rejoice. Americans instinctively understood, with Abraham Lincoln, that America was the "last best hope of earth." They also grasped Teddy Roosevelt's perception that as an inherently missionary nation, America would lose its vigor at home if it ceased to champion democracy abroad. "If we are to be a really great people," Roosevelt said, "we must strive in good faith to play a great part in the world."
This moral impulse has always colored our foreign policy, has always driven us to act more aggressively than we would if we interpreted our national interest purely in economic and political terms. Yet rarely has it had as few champions as it has now, the President's conversion notwithstanding. Hardly anyone in Congress—exceptions include Senators John McCain, Joseph Lieberman, Chuck Hagel, John Kerry, and Jon Kyl—talks comfortably about foreign affairs as a contest of values and ideals. Among foreign-policy experts a smaller group still, led by Robert Kagan, of the Carnegie Endowment, asserts that America's primary mission is to preserve its global supremacy so that it can continue to exercise its benevolent influence around the world.
America is engaged in a debate about how far to proceed in the war on terrorism—whether to press on to Baghdad, whether to root out terrorist organizations in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. It is the salient debate of the war, and it is filled with contradictory evidence. But it's not really a debate about conditions in the Middle East. It's a debate about what kind of country America should be.
If the recent past is any guide, we will resist our global responsibilities for as long as possible, until events finally force us into a missionary role. Some further monstrous act will make it clear that this isn't just a war to kill Osama bin Laden and crush al Qaeda; it's an ideological fight between democratic pluralism and a new form of fascism. We'll come to see that only the United States has the power to defeat the fascists so thoroughly that they will be discredited among their former followers. Once we have established the necessary conditions, some brave reformer—counterpart to Lech Walesa and Vojislav Kostunica—will rise up in the Muslim world. The local citizens, who we assumed were anti-American and content with their rulers, will turn out to be pro-American and liberty-loving. Some rough system of democracy will come into being, commensurate with the regional culture. This scenario has played out so often, and in so many venues, that only the realists consider it unrealistic.