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/

Related Posts

Not everything bounces back Last edited by Monsieur d'Nalgar on September 9, 2012 at 4:18 pm.   1965 was an interesting year. The first American combat troops were sen...
There are two things that will change the world The Betrayal of Helen Thomas By Barbara Lubin and Danny Muller, July 23, 2013   When the news spread through Washington this weekend that ...
What should we teach our children? Why I had no choice but to spurn Tony Blair By Desmond Tutu, Saturday 1 September 2012   The immorality of the United States and Great Bri...
Imminent threat of extinction We've been here before – and it suits Israel that we never forget 'Nuclear Iran' By Robert Fisk, Wednesday 25 January 2012 ... Turning round ...
Unsayable The World War on Democracy By John Pilger, January 20, 2012 ... Lisette Talate died the other day. I remember a wiry, fiercely intelligent woma...
Old herrings An attack on Tehran would be madness. So don't rule it out By Robert Fisk, Saturday 04 February 2012 ... If Israel really attacks Iran this y...
Peaceable revolution America's Dumbest Congressman says 'Selma' shows why we should fight 'radical Islam' By Hunter (Daily Kos staff), Fri Jan 23, 2015 at 09:53 AM PST ...
Xenophobic panic "Conservatism Is True." By Andrew Sullivan, 16 Jun 2011 09:57 PM ... It's funny that Fareed Zakaria and I are now seen as beyond the conservati...
Individualism amid barbarism We can't tell the victims to leave mass graves in peace By Robert Fisk, Saturday, 18 June 2011 ... The Syrians say they discovered a mass gra...
A load of old cobblers Watch us lead the UN donkey up the Khyber By Robert Fisk, Saturday 31 March 2012 ... So back to THAT BLOODY WAR. I mean not the Syrian one – ...

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

1 comment

  1. 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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.