America’s Necessary Myth for the World

The great paradox in the world today is that the “dumb simplicity” of America’s self-perception is both obviously bogus and fundamentally true.

An illustration of the globe wrapped in an American flag
Ben Hickey

For European officials and politicians, a great fear gnaws at the back of their minds when they look at the ongoing war in Ukraine: What happens if the United States loses interest?

Despite the war being in Europe, involving European powers, with largely European consequences, America remains the essential partner for Ukraine. For most of Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and Britain, in particular, the reality that Ukraine would likely already be lost were it not for American military support has only proved the intrinsic value of living in an American world order. For others, including the French, such dependence is now a source not only of shame, but of long-term vulnerability. America might care enough to supply Ukraine today, but with Donald Trump limbering up for another shot at the presidency, it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to picture a time when this is no longer the case.

And as French President Emmanuel Macron has warned, whichever American president is in office when this is finally all over, Russia will remain, its preoccupations, fears, interests, and myths the same as before.

Europe is thus trapped between an immediate calamity on its doorstep and the whims of an unhappy American electorate. The question is not whether the U.S. will still be capable of defending what was once called the “free world” under a future Trump presidency, but whether it will any longer have the commitment to do so.

To many American policy makers, it is axiomatic that the U.S. is a force for good in the world, an indispensable power. America, unlike the British empire that came before it, supposedly embodies universal values, and it follows that what is good for America is good for the world. Yes, the U.S. might fall short of its values from time to time, and yes, it might occasionally have to do the dirty work of a superpower but, at heart, it is better than other superpowers—both current and former—because it is driven by what is good for everyone, not just for itself. Ukraine helps confirm this belief.

This idea is circular, powerful, and useful. It infuses the American order with a moral purpose as well as a justification, and in doing so drives the country to both greatness and calamity. It is an idea that convinces U.S. leaders that they never oppress, only liberate, and that their interventions can never be a threat to nearby powers, because America is not imperialist.

This fallacy, however, lies at the core of its most costly foreign-policy miscalculations. Bill Clinton really did seem to believe that China would one day settle into the American rules-based order, because he did not see it as an American order, but a universal one. He concluded—and much of the Western establishment agreed at the time—that China would become more like America if the two countries traded more. Similarly, George W. Bush really did believe that he could liberate Afghanistan and Iraq, and that such liberation would be good for everyone, if only they could just see it. Even the intervention in Vietnam was partly driven by this idea. American power was necessary to protect the Vietnamese from communism, which in turn was necessary to protect the world from communism.

Yet, regardless of the totalitarian horror of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, the American centurions that toppled these regimes came to be seen as oppressors, just as they were in Vietnam. Equally, the arrival of American forces was not seen as benign by the powers bordering these countries, whether Pakistan or China or Iran.

No amount of money or troops could ever convince these countries that their national interest was the same as America’s. What’s more, in each of these wars, the U.S. could never care as much as the neighboring power, for whom there was never an option to cut and run. In each case, geography trumped interests.

For Ukraine, America is and will remain a force of liberation. Yet, it is not unreasonable for the rest of Europe to worry that history may repeat itself. What if Ukraine is not Greece or South Korea—where American might guarantees somebody else’s freedom—but Afghanistan where it tried, failed, and eventually gave up? Ukraine, too, has a country on its border that has decided on a policy that cannot be brought into line with America’s. Neither carrots nor sticks are likely to change Russia’s fundamental assessment of its interests.

Even the current U.S. administration is under no illusion that so long as Russia remains in conflict with Ukraine, even if Moscow is stuck and unable to achieve its goals, it will always be able to rain down missiles on Kyiv, making it almost impossible for the West to restore a settled free, democratic Ukraine, just as Iran was always able to destabilize Iraq, Pakistan likewise in Afghanistan. What then?

In 1988, the great scion of Irish America, Joe Kennedy, son of the assassinated presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, found himself in a heated row with a British army patrol in Belfast. Kennedy was infuriated that British soldiers were ordering him around and asked why they did not go home. One of the soldiers—who was from Northern Ireland—pointed out that he was home. Another soldier suggested that perhaps Kennedy might want to go home.

I thought of this after Representative Richard Neal’s recent visit to Ireland, leading a delegation of mainly Irish-American congressmen, during which he was intent, it seemed, on committing as many faux pas as possible in one trip. At one point, Neal, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and co-chair of the Friends of Ireland Caucus, declared that the dispute engulfing Northern Ireland over Brexit was “manufactured,” and that the division between the British and Irish was between “the planter and the gael.”  Planter is a loaded term for British protestants in Northern Ireland, many of whom likely descend in one way or another from English and Scottish settlers, a not-so-subtle way of implying that they are foreign, though perhaps Neal didn’t mean it so bluntly. It doesn’t seem to have dawned on Neal that by his own logic, he—along with almost everybody in America whose ancestors were not already there, or who were taken there against their will—is a planter.

The thing about Neal’s clumsiness is not simply that it reveals his own prejudices, which of course it does. It lifts the lid on something more profound about the great American delusion that underlies many of its foreign-policy problems.

The U.S. still seems to think of itself in contrast to the British empire—even as it has seamlessly stepped into London’s shoes. America believes that it is a superpower, but an anti-imperial one, founded in opposition to arbitrary force, monarchy, foreign domination, and the like. Its supremacy, unlike other imperial powers, is good for everyone.

The reality, however, is that we live in what the German historian Friedrich Meinecke identified as the “Pax Anglo-Saxonica”—an empire created by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, but inherited from William Gladstone and Winston Churchill. The essential features of the American order remain strikingly similar to the British one that came before it. America, like Britain, is a commercial power that rules the waves and keeps trade flowing, ports open, and waterways clear, while jealously guarding any encroachment on its spheres of influence. More than this, though, the U.S. inherited from Britain a similar idea.

In Meinecke’s classic text, Machiavellianism, he showed how London gained global supremacy through brute force only to then claim that it was using its power for the benefit of all. In doing so, Britain talked not of its interests, but of preserving international law (which it had created). At first Meinecke and others were dismissive of such claims, but they later realized that these statements actually helped Britain amplify its power. It was, in fact, the most effective kind of Machiavellianism, unconsciously turning a policy of power into something of “pure humanity, candour and religion.”

This is what Henry Kissinger later called the “convenient form of ethical egoism” deployed by both the British and Americans. In the 19th century, London believed that “what was good for Britain was best for the rest.” Today, Washington feels the same about itself.

This “ethical egoism” has been shared by all American presidents from Truman to Joe Biden—apart from one. Until Trump came along, it was accepted a priori that the U.S. had a special duty to maintain the global order for the benefit of everyone. Without such a sentiment, there would not have been the Truman Doctrine or the Berlin airlift, or a free Greece or South Korea. This same sentiment underlies Biden’s decision to arm Ukraine in its battle for survival today.

Trump, in contrast, believes American interests and the world’s interests can, and do, clash. And, ironically, he’s not alone.

The great paradox in the world today is that the “dumb simplicity” of America’s self-perception, as one senior European government adviser put it to me, is both obviously bogus and fundamentally true. The story that America tells about itself is both the source of many of its foreign-policy disasters and the necessary myth without which much of the world would be a more brutal place.

The dumb simplicity of the idea means that the U.S. will continue going around the world offending people and annoying them. It will continue to make catastrophic mistakes, causing much more than offense, overreaching, and being resisted by rival powers. And it means that the U.S. will carry on pulling back when it realizes its myth has bumped up against a different reality. But, as the same government adviser put it to me, “show me a foreign minister in the West who really wants less America.” Certainly not the Ukrainian one.

Here is a country that is not in NATO, not covered by an American security guarantee, and without almost anything of central importance to the U.S., and yet is able, so far, to resist Russian colonization in large part because the U.S. has decided that it is in the West’s interest for Russia to fail. For Ukraine to carry on surviving, the West, led by the U.S., cannot step back from this calculation, or from America’s idea of itself.

Over and over again this myth of American exceptionalism, of benevolent American power, worms its way into the minds of its presidents and plenipotentiaries, so powerful that it took Richard Holbrooke to Bosnia, convinced of his mission to save the world, even after he had witnessed the spectacular failure of American power in Vietnam. The same myth later sent Holbrooke to Afghanistan, convinced once again of the righteousness of his mission, only to see it this time ground in the dust.

The dumb simplicity of America’s interventions is often infuriating and obtuse, or even disastrously naive and destructive. It exists in people like Neal and Holbrooke, Bush and Biden. And yet if America stops believing in its myth, if it scurries back into the safety of its continental bunker, having decided it is now just another normal nation, then a cold wind might start to blow in places that have become complacent in their security. When the dumb simplicity is removed, the complexities of the world start growing back.

This is what Ukraine fears and others in Europe expect. In the end, though, what really matters is which story America believes, and for how long.