29 October 2010

A Boldly Multicultural Foreign Policy

You don't hear much talk about the Western Alliance these days. And to think barely a generation ago, such language was not only still common but - in view of the great common enemy we all understood ourselves to face - quite vigorously employed. Yet how many of us today would argue that even the linchpin of that alliance, the United States, is fundamentally the same country it was back in 1985 - whether in its internal demography, its place on the world stage, or even its perception of itself?

One point at all events seems clear to me: Over the past twenty years in particular, we Americans have made certain interesting choices of policy and alignment, which in turn have worked powerfully to shape not just our self-perceptions, or even our demographic makeup, but something still more essential to who we are. A certain "something" I find easiest to describe not as our historical, or traditional, but rather as our emerging, self-identity. But what have we been emerging from?

It seems to me that since the end of the Cold War, we Americans have been understanding and defining ourselves less and less as one Western nation among others, and more and more as a singular and unique post-Western civilization. One so unique, I would argue, as to be utterly defiant of comparison even with younger English-speaking countries like Canada and New Zealand. Mind you, I'm not saying there is no comparison; only that more and more of us - and especially our pundits and policy-makers, both Left and Right - are talking and behaving as if there were none. More and more we're being defined, in effect, as a microcosm of every nation on earth - and so by implication as not just a but the immigrant nation. And occasionally even, by some of our bolder visionaries, as not just the salt of the earth, but the cream of its crop too.

Naturally, many global economists and others would like us to see these recent choices we've made, and this bold new self-identity we're forging, as powerfully self-limiting factors - i.e., as arrangements both binding all our present moves and constraining all our future choices throughout the world. And particularly in matters of trade. After all, they say, we're a multicultural nation now, and so must choose our trading partners accordingly. Indeed, I'm sure many of them would not unwisely urge us that, at least in these abstruse and difficult commercial matters, the outcomes of the pending elections have been largely decided in advance, regardless of which flavor of tea or party we choose on Election Day.

And yes, at times it does seem all so completely sewn up, long before the first absentee votes have been cast. Yet I keep wondering how it got that way. Just what was it, I wonder - what radically new definition of national interest (or civilizational ambition?) was it, that made us Americans practically break our necks hoop-jumping, over the past two decades, to accommodate the agendas of countries so profoundly different from ourselves? And different not only in language and recent history, but in longstanding and deepseated political traditions and culture? Imagine if, just fifteen years ago, we'd applied the same urgency and substance to our strategic ties with, say, Britain, Australia, or India, that we've since been according our commercial ties with China, and Mexico, and Saudi Arabia. If I'm not mistaken, our present tight nexus of economic alignments dates largely from the period 1995-2005. All part of our project to "stand taller and see further" - if I remember correctly. Why yes, all the way to Bremer and Rumsfeld's Baghdad.

Neither, since then, have the prevailing arrangements, much less the visible outcomes, been to everyone's liking by any means. Yet today, popular outcry notwithstanding, we seem to be more closely than ever enmeshed in the affairs, aims and problems of these three - more or less sacred - multicultural trading partners. More closely than ever, I'd say. But are we, or they, or the world any stabler - any safer - because of it?

I know, for the thousandth time: It's not about mundane, pettifogging things like stability and safety. It's about productivity, and growth, and the unimaginable glory and power of untold future generations. (It surely isn't present ones we're thinking of.) In that case, allow me to rephrase my question . . .

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