America! F#%k… Maybe?
Americans sincerly believe in their exceptionalism. America really is different. Unlike the Europeans, we don’t have a history of monarchy to escape. Our republic is the oldest in the world. America has the largest military in the world by far and does not hesitate to use it to reshape the world to the government’s liking.
Seeing yourself as a perma-good guy is a mixed blessing. It’s rhetorically useful because policies which are at odds with America’s self-image can be exploited by non-incumbents to highlight hypocrisy to a much greater extent than in other countries. Politically, you can’t get away with running counter to the freedom and equality for all rhetoric, so you have to either hide your actions or redefine the terms until you can convince your audience that what you are doing is in the interests of freedom and the American way. But at the same time, people in power can justify abuses simply by asserting that they are doing them for the greater good. Certainty that one is right is sometimes the greatest force for evil, because you never stop to question yourself and never allow others to do so either. As Oliver Cromwell said, I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken. Being American does not cure you of your human weakness and fallibility.
The America Style of War
Americans are comfortable with total war, but at the same time highly value the lives of their citizens, even more than other democracies. Simply look at the relative casualties in any war America fights: America suffered less than 10% of the casualties of her enemies in both world wars and the modern wars have been even more asymetric. Some people were appalled by Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden, but no one should have been surprised after Sherman’s March to the Sea. If Americans are perfectly comfortable using total war tactics during a civil war, is it really surprising that they would use them against foreigners? A shortened war is a lower casualty war, and a war totally avoided because of deterrence is the best possible outcome.
On the other hand, what happened to Germany and Japan after losing to America? Peace and prosperity for 70+ years. What other country puts so much effort into waging total unrestrained war against its foes only to turn around, rebuild them and “inflict” freedom and good governance? While the wars in South Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq were all costly in terms of both human life and money, at the end of the day, I don’t doubt American leaders sincere intention to produce high quality governance in the conquered lands. South Korea is far better off today than it would have been had America not defended them from the Communists. It’s much harder to say that with Vietnam, mostly because we lost, and it’s too soon to call for Iraq.
If you find yourself fighting America, for heaven’s sake surrender asap. Fighting America sucks. Surrendering to America is about the best thing that could happen to a country. It’s better to be inside the U.S. hegemony than outside it.
My ethical framework is largely liberal humanist in the Enlightenment tradition. Human life is sacred almost above all else. In that context, war is a horrible waste. There is nothing glorious or uplifting about it. It is hell; bloody, wasteful, and despicable. Still, there are some things worth fighting for. Ending Communism was certainly one of them. It’s odd that an anti-war peacenik like me can watch Nixon’s anti-Communist rants of the 50s and 60s and say, “Yep, that looks about right.”. Maybe I am wrong to feel that way, and maybe it is hypocritical. I don’t think it’s too hypocritical though to say that no one should be allowed to advocate an ideology which says people who disagree should be exterminated and whose adherents have killed over 100 million people. Such a movement is perhaps too dangerous to be tolerated. Either way, America’s fight against totalitarianism has probably been a net plus for humanity, but there is no way to know.
I am at my most conservative when I study history and most liberal when I think about the future. I’ve been reading Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature, and one of the themes of the book is that violence decreases in places with a strong central government and dense trade networks. If there are competing violent factions, they will fight over resources, but if one group can corner the market in violence, they can capture all the returns to violence themselves and avoid what economists call “double marginalization“. The video explains it better than I can, but the punchline is if you are facing one coordinated group of thugs, you will pay less than if you have to pay off several smaller groups of thugs.
Dense trade networks are also supported by hegemony, because of the lack, or small amount, of internal tariffs and other barriers to trade. For example, it is easy to trade between U.S. states, fairly easy to trade within North America and Europe, and harder to trade with the developing world. Likewise, the periods of hegemony under the Roman and British empires were periods of large trade networks as well. Those networks in turn, reinforce the incentives to remain peaceful, because it is more profitable to trade with someone than to fight. I’d almost go so far as to say that it doesn’t matter much who is doing the hegemonizing, so long as there is a hegemony, but I don’t think that’s quite right either. The Mongols are perhaps an example of an empire that hurt humanity as a whole, despite their unification of much of the world.
Some people, and many libertarians, suggest that small independent countries might be better at protecting individual freedom than large countries, but surprisingly to me, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Micronations are simply not more likely to have more freedom promoting policies. Without international freedom of movement, there just isn’t much competition among countries to provide their people with better living conditions, apparently.
I’m not a cultural relativist. Some cultures really are better and more morally advanced than others. Women’s rights, minority rights, reduced violence, rule of law, McDonald’s, capitalist economic organization, democracy, and many other American things are worth having in a culture. Cultural trade is a force for improving the lives of humanity as well. I don’t think that the American way is better because it is American. Rather, I think that better cultural elements will emerge when cultures meet and people select which elements they personally like from each culture and mix and match them. For example, Korean tacos. A preserved culture is a dead culture.
America is not unalloyed good
Americans need to be realistic about themselves. Exceptionalism is great when you are aspiring to do great things and need motivation to do so. It is less so when your country is commiting atrocities and using “we are exceptional, so we are exempt from the rules” arguments to justify it. The slave trade, the extermination of native Americans in general and The Trail of Tears, the internment of the Japanese, the deliberate attacks on civilian populations is every single war we have ever fought (too numerous to even attempt to list), the endless overthrowing of democratically elected governments during the Cold War, and the recent abuses of power at the NSA and CIA are all examples of America… shall we say, “failing to live up to her ideals”, to put it at a British level of understatement. Even concerning our vaunted civil liberties, America has a long history of trampling on rights. No sooner had the ink dried on the First Amendment than John Adams passed a law that made it a crime to say anything hurtful about John Adams. No sooner had the ink dried on the 14th Amendment than the Southern states began denying African Americans the right to vote among many other rights.
Throughout our history, we have flirted with fascism. It’s a continual tug of war between freedom and tyranny, and recently it’s pretty clear tyranny is winning right now. But we’re not in the darkest moment of American history; not by far, and we’ve come back from worse. On one hand, trust critically important both for economic growth and good governance. Undermining that and hoping for better governance is counterproductive. On the other hand, if there are abuses in the system, are we just supposed to stand by and let them occur so we don’t ruin our self image? What would the Swedes do if they found out that their government were a secret cabal or torturers and murderers? I have no idea, but probably not just all say “Well, I suppose we have to support them anyway, so we don’t undermine the high levels of trust in our society.” I don’t know what’s going to happen, but we do live in interesting times.