The metamorphoses of American leadership in the 20th century

The Wilson Vision
On 8 January 1918 the American president Woodrow Wilson before a joint session of US Congress outlines his famous Fourteen Points as a basis for a lasting peace in Europe. At the heart of this speech was the idea of the self-determination of all people. The principle of self-determination could not stand on its own, and to guarantee a framework for such balance of powers Wilson added restrictions on armament, that were designed for national security a priori. Not even 90 years later, the Republican president George W. Bush formulates his policy of pre-emptive strikes in the aftermath of 9/11 which allowed the US to strike first and ‘pre-emptively’. There could hardly be a greater world apart between the principle of self-determination and the policy of pre-emptive strikes. The question that should be asked is if this development from one to the other is a historic evolution or a sudden, drastic shift in policy under influence of dramatic contemporary events?

The Truman Conditions
In 1944/45 the Americans liberated the world from fascism and established democratic regimes. The years of the Cold War, were in retrospect perhaps the zenith of American power. Never before, were countries around the world indebted to the US as during the Cold War. The fall of the Soviet Union and its Leninist and Stalinist form of communism was the beginning of the end for US credibility. No longer was its global power justified under the totalitarian thread of neither fascism or Leninism/Stalinism, while at the same time and rapidly its sphere of influence expanded almost overnight. This disbalance of power in the post-Soviet era was marked by a growing criticism or even straightout hateful anti-Americanism in the world. The Truman doctrine and the Marshall plan became the policy instruments for this new role the US played. The new internationalism was based on developing independent free economies and societies, trusting on the impetus of freedom as a morally (read: the social synthesis of self-interest) superior force. That this new moral was strengthened by military and economic dependency did not weaken it, which proves the absolute visionary strength of the Truman Doctrine. But its success however was largely dependent on underfocused circumstances, like the fact that the US was a relative new player on the global stage and behind the scenes replaced old European colonial powers that had played a visible repressive role on the foreground. This allowed the US to be seen as liberators, restoring national souvereignty, based upon the Wilson principles. However, the international political tradition and context has evolved 60 years, and with it, the US has now accumulated the burden of global dominance in a context of political tradition based upon national souvereignty. The development of a tradition of national souvereignty makes it impossible for the US as a foreign power to ‘liberate’ countries without suspicion of neo-imperialism. This development has caused the great American paradox: where Truman established an American sphere of influence with his principle of national souvereignty and created a credable moral leadership of America in the world, the establishment of national sovereignty limited in principle(!) the American sphere of influence.

Bush and The Assumption of Heaven
George Bush can certainly not be seen as the sole motivator behind the loss of moral leadership of the US in the world. But his policy of pre-emptive strikes does define a clear ending point of a political metamorphoses that started with Wilson’s souvereignty principle. Although Bush’s policy claims to defend American souvereignty, in practice the principle of pre-emption must always assume “a loss of American souvereignty in being” in order to be truely pre-emptive. This assumption is given moral justification with the claim of being guided by God, Who gave Freedom to the American People. It is this blasphemous assumption that gives Bush an active role in this larger process.

Yet, in many ways Bush is rather a victim of these developments, afterall his personality not only combines many stereotypical prejudices about Americans outside the US which decrease the moral greatness of the American principle in the eyes of the world (self-righteousness, the hawkish right of might, lack of intellectual foundation, unilateralism, more loud than shrewd, advocate of special interests, lack of political unity and economic solidarity between social classes, etc), his foreign policy and its effect for foreign countries also confirm these prejudices.

George Bush however was nothing more than the perfect lightning rod that allowed the build-up of new political sentiments around the world to be ignited, and literally and figuratively the new political tensions exploded. It was unfortunate that Bush (and the American public) never up to today have become aware of the severity of these tensions, which are obvious to any person living abroad, and the larger historic-political space in which these new forces operate.
Yet at the same time, we should acknowledge the reality that his foreign policy does not differ much from that of his beloved predecessor Bill Clinton, nor will from his successor, however in style they could not be more different. And it is above all this perception of government that has allowed anti-American sentiment to accumulate and burst, flowing over in a loss of moral leadership. In reality however, it represents a process and facts that have been building up since decades, and lost their counter-weight starting with the rapid decline of Soviet influence and power.

That Bush and his team of Fukuyama followers like Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and Cheney, underestimate heavily this power of appearance in foreign policy, while strangely enough being more than fully aware of this force in national politics, has only catalized this fierce reaction.

The Herd before the Abyss
Now, like in William Hunt’s famous painting ‘Lost Sheep’ the herd of the American masses find themselves standing before a deep political abyss. As a continental European living in the US, and a radical advocate of the principle of individual freedom, I am very ambiguous toward this lack of self-reflection and analytical detachment in politics in both the US and foreign countries alike, toward the great wave of anti-Americanism and the as inadequate as blunt American response toward it. Both emotions are filled with narcistic self-affirmation, with only little hope for the softening of the bitter hatred that defines the new wave in global politics. Although Europe remains open for a symbolic turnaround of policy in the US, and in the US there is a, be it marginal, awareness of the latitude of anti-Americanism, the larger historical continuum keeps expanding in a destructive direction. It is only closer to the abyss that resistance in the herd might grow, but the question remains, how fast are we approaching this abyss of decline in American moral leadership?

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