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Feb 18 2012

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Cold War nostalgia

The US in a ‘dangerous state of funk’

By Ian Buruma, 18 Feb 2012 13:48

The eccentric Bengali intellectual Nirad C Chaudhuri once explained the end of the British Raj in India as a case of “funk”, or loss of nerve. The British had stopped believing in their own empire. They simply lost the will, in Rudyard Kipling’s famous words, to fight “the savage wars of peace”.

In fact, Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden”, which exhorted the white race to spread its values to the “new-caught sullen peoples, half devil and half child”, was not about the British empire at all, but about the United States. Subtitled “The United States and the Philippine Islands”, it was published in 1899, just as the US was waging a “savage war of peace” of its own.

Chaudhuri had a point. It is difficult to sustain an empire without the will to use force when necessary. Much political rhetoric, and a spate of new books, would have us believe that the US is now in a dangerous state of funk.

For example, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney likes to castigate President Barack Obama for “apologising for America’s international power”, for daring to suggest that the US is not “the greatest country on earth” and for being “pessimistic”. By contrast, Romney promises to “restore” the greatness and international power of the United States, which he proposes to do by boosting its military force.

Romney’s Kipling is the neo-conservative intellectual, Robert Kagan, whose new book, The World America Made, argues against “the myth of American decline”. Yes, he admits, China is growing in strength, but US dominance is still overwhelming; The US military might can still “make right” against any challenger. The only real danger to US power is “declinism”: the loss of self-belief, the temptation to “escape from the moral and material burdens that have weighed on [the US] since World War II”. In a word, funk.

Like Chaudhuri, Kagan is an engaging writer. His arguments sound reasonable. And his assessment of US firepower is no doubt correct. True, he has little time for domestic problems such as antiquated infrastructure, failing public schools, an appalling healthcare system and grotesque disparities in income and wealth. But he is surely right to observe that no other power is threatening to usurp the US role as the world’s military policeman.

Less certain, however, is the premise that the world order would collapse without “American leadership”. France’s King Louis XV allegedly declared on his deathbed: Après moi, le déluge [“After me, the flood”]. This is the conceit of all great powers.

‘Pax Americana’

Even as the British were dismantling their empire after World War II, the French and Dutch still believed that parting with their Asian possessions would result in chaos. And it is still common to hear autocratic leaders who inherited parts of the Western empires claim that democracy is all well and good, but the people are not yet ready for it. Those who monopolise power cannot imagine a world released from their grip as anything but a catastrophe.

In Europe after World War II, Pax Americana, guaranteed by US military power, was designed “to keep the Russians out and Germany down”. In Asia, it was meant to contain communism, while allowing allies, from Japan to Indonesia, to build up economic strength. Spreading democracy was not the main concern; stopping communism – in Asia, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas – was. In this respect, it succeeded, though at great human cost.

But, now that the spectre of global communist domination has joined other fears – real and imagined – in the dustbin of history, it is surely time for countries to start handling their own affairs. Japan, in alliance with other Asian democracies, should be able to counter-balance China’s growing power. Similarly, Europeans are rich enough to manage their own security.

But neither Japan nor the European Union seems ready to pull its own weight, owing in part to decades of dependency on US security. As long as Uncle Sam continues to police the world, his children won’t grow up.

In any case, as we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, “savage wars of peace” are not always the most effective way to conduct foreign policy. Old-fashioned military dominance is no longer adequate to promote US interests. The Chinese are steadily gaining influence in Africa, not with bombers, but with money. Meanwhile, propping up secular dictators in the Middle East with US arms has helped to create Islamist extremism, which cannot be defeated by simply sending more drones.

The notion promoted by Romney and his boosters that only US military power can preserve world order is deeply reactionary. It is a form of Cold War nostalgia – a dream of returning to a time when much of the globe was recovering from a ruinous world war and living in fear of communism.

Obama’s recognition of US limitations is not a sign of cowardly pessimism, but of realistic wisdom. His relative discretion in the Middle East has allowed people there to act for themselves. We do not yet know what the outcome there will be, but “the greatest country on earth” cannot impose a solution. Nor should it.

Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy and Human Rights at Bard College, and the author most recently of Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents.

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/02/201221085359383148.html or http://aje.me/ACzzHQ

Photograph of U.S. Army soldiers with the 1-6 Field Artillery division on patrol in Gandalabog, Afghanistanan on February 18, 2009, by Spencer Platt (Getty Images).  http://www.captainsjournal.com/category/pictures/

Permanent link to this article: http://levantium.com/2012/02/18/cold-war-nostalgia/

1 comment

  1. Jacques

    The White Man’s Burden, by Rudyard Kipling, 1899

    Take up the White Man’s burden–
    Send forth the best ye breed–
    Go bind your sons to exile
    To serve your captives’ need;
    To wait in heavy harness,
    On fluttered folk and wild–
    Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
    Half-devil and half-child.

    Take up the White Man’s burden–
    In patience to abide,
    To veil the threat of terror
    And check the show of pride;
    By open speech and simple,
    An hundred times made plain
    To seek another’s profit,
    And work another’s gain.

    Take up the White Man’s burden–
    The savage wars of peace–
    Fill full the mouth of Famine
    And bid the sickness cease;
    And when your goal is nearest
    The end for others sought,
    Watch sloth and heathen Folly
    Bring all your hopes to nought.

    Take up the White Man’s burden–
    No tawdry rule of kings,
    But toil of serf and sweeper–
    The tale of common things.
    The ports ye shall not enter,
    The roads ye shall not tread,
    Go mark them with your living,
    And mark them with your dead.

    Take up the White Man’s burden–
    And reap his old reward:
    The blame of those ye better,
    The hate of those ye guard–
    The cry of hosts ye humour
    (Ah, slowly!) toward the light:–
    “Why brought he us from bondage,
    Our loved Egyptian night?”

    Take up the White Man’s burden–
    Ye dare not stoop to less–
    Nor call too loud on Freedom
    To cloke your weariness;
    By all ye cry or whisper,
    By all ye leave or do,
    The silent, sullen peoples
    Shall weigh your gods and you.

    Take up the White Man’s burden–
    Have done with childish days–
    The lightly proferred laurel,
    The easy, ungrudged praise.
    Comes now, to search your manhood
    Through all the thankless years
    Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
    The judgment of your peers!

    http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/kipling.asp

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