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Saving the World from Ourselves?
April 28, 1999

Last week Americans were forced to confront both an ongoing air war in Yugoslavia and a brutal massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The strange and disturbing juxtaposition of these events raises a difficult and seldom asked set of questions: What is the relationship, if any, between America's domestic problems and its foreign policy? Between our own history and culture and our efforts to shape the history and culture of other nations?

Writing in the June, 1995, issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Ronald Steel took up the first of these questions. In "The Domestic Core of Foreign Policy," Steel points out that although America holds itself up as a beacon to the world, often justifiably, it is also plagued by social ills on a scale unseen in virtually any other developed country. Steel suggests that there is a simple yet profound lesson to be learned here: "Our domestic troubles are not in a realm separate from our foreign policy. They are an integral part, even a product, of it." He goes on,
A nation prey to drugs, guns, and violence, increasingly stratified by social class, torn by racial tension, and riven by insecurity, will be a weak player on the world stage. It may also be a threatened democracy.... For this reason a valid foreign policy must be geared to the needs of American society. It cannot indulge in flights of rhetoric, dedicating itself to the pursuit of vague objectives like 'democracy' and 'pluralism' in lands inhospitable to these values and posing no threat to the United States, without inviting the failure of our efforts and the alienation of a public asked to support such quixotic goals.
For Steel, American diplomacy in the post-Cold War world will have to answer a series of "practical questions": When to intervene with military force and at what cost? When to act unilaterally, and when to act in concert with others? And finally, and perhaps most resonantly for us now, "At what point does a humanitarian act -- such as feeding the hungry or separating victim from executioner -- become a political one, such as creating and policing a nation? What is the place of morality in foreign policy?" Steel offers some answers of his own -- drawing distinctions between situations in places like Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia -- and then concludes that the challenge facing us today is "to recognize our limitations, to reject the vanity of trying to remake the world in our image, and to restore the promise of our neglected society."

Just one month earlier, in "The Diversity Myth: America's Leading Export" (May 1995), Benjamin Schwarz offered Atlantic readers a bold explanation of why the effort "to remake the world in our image" is not only vain but most likely destined to fail. In essence, Schwarz writes, the problem is that America's foreign-policy experts, and thus the politicians they advise, cling to an idealized view of American history as a triumph of pluralism and ethnic diversity. And yet this is simply not the case, Schwarz tells us. "We get the world wrong," he argues, "because we get ourselves wrong. Taken without illusion, our history gives us no right to preach." He goes on to say,
We are all pluralists now; everyone favors 'tolerance' and 'diversity.' We regard these qualities as central to the American creed and central to the 'democratic values' the export of which has been the avowed aim of every U.S. President since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.... America, therefore, is regarded as a highly successful model of a multi-ethnic, multicultural, multireligious, and polyglot society. Out of many we are one. With this understanding of their country's cultural and political development, U.S. statesmen and foreign-policy observers ingenuously and smugly ask fragmented societies, Can't you all get along, just as we do over here?
Schwarz proceeds to survey American history, arguing that the cherished idea of the "melting pot," so sanctimoniously invoked by politicians, is a myth. The very image of the melting pot, in fact, had originally signified the exact opposite of what it has come to mean. "American society wasn't viewed as the product of a little Russia, a little Italy, and a little Poland all mixed together," Schwarz explains. "Instead the various nationalities were made into Americans as ore is refined into gold. Americanization purified them, eliminating the dross.... Americanization ... although it did not cleanse America of its ethnic minorities, cleansed its minorities of their ethnicity." From the "genocidal wars against Native Americans" to the North's suppression of the South's "separatist" rebellion, Schwarz reminds us that American history is one of domination and conflict, in which the will of the majority culture has been imposed by brute force.

Bringing us up to the present, Schwarz asks why it is that America's foreign-policy establishment has made ethnic and nationalist conflicts around the world such a focus of post-Cold War strategy. He suggests that the answer may lie in our own insecurities about the cohesion of American society.
These conflicts scare us because we see in them an image of ourselves. After four centuries we are nagged by the facts that we do not 'all get along' and that the apparent success of our own multi-ethnic and multicultural experiment might have been engendered not by tolerance but by hegemony.... A crusade in support of multinational, multicultural tolerance abroad really seeks to validate it at home. But attempting to validate a myth is futile. Before we export our myth, we had best recognize that we have not yet found a 'reasonable' solution here, and that perhaps such a solution cannot be found.
Whether or not Schwarz's conclusion should be taken as a valid argument against intervention in a place like Kosovo, it most certainly provides a bracing reality check -- one that should, at the very least, compel us to ask ourselves what we are really fighting for.


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