William Pfaff, a writer who wrote about European-American relations and the challenges of perceived unchallenged US global leadership well before the Iraq induced and war-blogged “transatlantic rift”, may have indeed listened to Carly Simon when he wrote his not too favorable review of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s election year foreign policy summary “The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership” for the latest issue of the New York Review of Books.
His disappointment with the book is primarily caused by its unwillingness to fundamentally challenge some of the myths of rationality of current US foreign policy. Quite to the contrary, Mr Pfaff has no inhibitions to call them all by their name, despite being aware that many of the myths of past and present American foreign policy and politics, particularly the notion of a “unique historical mission ? whether or not divinely commissioned” ? are not open to logical refutation.
That said, I think the last part of his essay is one of the most eloquent descriptions of the communicative disaster that happened particularly between Europe and the US in the last two years.
“Every country has a “story” it tells itself about its place in the contemporary world. We are familiar enough with the American story, beginning with the City on a Hill and progressing through Manifest Destiny toward Woodrow Wilson’s conviction we are “to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty…. It was of this that we dreamed at our birth.” The current version of the story says that this exalted destiny is fatefully challenged by rogue nations with nuclear weapons, failed states, and the menace of Islamic extremists. Something close to Huntington’s war of civilizations has begun. National mobilization has already taken place. Years of struggle lie ahead.
The “isolation” of the United States today is caused by the fact that its claims about the threat of terrorism seem to others grossly exaggerated, and its reaction, as Brzezinski himself argues, dangerously disproportionate. Most advanced societies have already had, or have, their wars with “terrorism”: the British with the IRA, the Spanish with the Basque separatist ETA, the Germans, Italians, and Japanese with their Red Brigades, the French with Palestinian and Algerian terrorists, Greeks, Latin Americans, and Asians with their own varieties of extremists.
America’s principal allies no longer believe its national “story.” They have tried to believe in it, and have been courteous about it even while skepticism grew. They are alarmed about what has happened to the United States under the Bush administration, and see no good coming from it. They are struck by how impervious Americans seem to be to the notion that our September 11 was not the defining event of the age, after which “nothing could be the same.” They are inclined to think that the international condition, like the human condition, is in fact very much the same as it has always been. It is the United States that has changed. They are disturbed that American leaders seem unable to understand this.
When American officials and policy experts come to Europe saying that “everything has changed,” warning that allied governments must “do something” about the anti-Americanism displayed last year in connection with the Iraq invasion, the Western European reaction is often to marvel at the Americans’ inability to appreciate that the source of the problem lies in how the United States has conducted itself since September 2001. They find this changed United States rather menacing. An Irish international banker recently observed to me that when Europeans suggest to visiting Americans that things have changed in Europe too, as a direct result of America’s policies, “it’s as if the Americans can’t hear.” A French writer has put it this way: it has been like discovering that a respected, even beloved, uncle has slipped into schizophrenia. When you visit him, his words no longer connect with the reality around him. It seems futile to talk about it with him. The family, embarrassed, is even reluctant to talk about it among themselves.”