The Crisis of the Western Democracies is a Crisis of Selfishness

January 02, 1994|By MARTIN WOOLLACOTT

LONDON — London. -- "Hell No, We Won't Go" was what the Vietnam war protesters, including the young Bill Clinton, used to chant. Powerful elements of both moral argument and self-preservation were what made it such an effective, and affecting, slogan.

Today the same sentiment rules again in President Clinton's America, but without either of those justifications. Those who voice it have no moral arguments with which to sustain their distaste for foreign commitments, nor is their own personal safety or that of their sons at risk, since the country now has a professional, not a conscript-based, military establishment. Yet poll after poll shows Americans as isolationist as they have ever been in modern times.

Nor is this only a question of military involvement, but also of the readiness to give economic aid, to help former allies or to enlist new ones, to make new commitments of any kind at all, or even to honor old ones.

A recent survey shows clear majorities against military intervention abroad under almost any circumstances, and, in general, an America which sees its domestic economic interests as far more important than anything else. The prime purposes of foreign policy are seen as protecting jobs, stopping drugs, guarding energy supplies and halting illegal immigration.

Woodrow Wilson said, "It is only once in a generation that a people can be lifted above material things." Did America's moment of readiness for sacrifice on behalf of others pass, wasted in the paddies of Vietnam or the garrison towns of Germany?

But, before we pronounce on all this as uniquely American, bringing out the Jefferson quotations, it should immediately be said that a similar mood prevails in Europe as well -- perhaps not to the same extent but very nearly. On each side of the Atlantic an extraordinary process is taking place, the White Man's Burden re-played as Pass the Parcel.

What is happening in the West? The supposition that must at once be set aside, because it leads to a deep misunderstanding of what we face, is that, in America or in Europe, the shying away from foreign commitment has to do with the pressing necessity for change and reform at home. Home and abroad are not opposites: The idea that they are lies at the root of our troubles.

A recent book on the years of American superpower ends with a typical line. After weighing the pros and cons of 40 years of American engagement abroad, the author, Melvyn Leffler, lists the problems awaiting solution in America, in the schools, the cities, in the factories, in race relations, and concludes that now, "The challenge lies within and must not be shirked."

But the truth is that we do not have, either in America or in Europe, a social fabric that has been neglected or has degenerated because of our governments' concentration on foreign affairs and to which we must now urgently turn, necessarily putting foreign policy in second place for a while.

We have instead a civic crisis of selfishness that equally affects the two domains, home and abroad. Beneath the carapace of a moral internationalism based on opposition to communism and of a moral communitarianism at home, the economic and social changes of the last 30 years have gradually leached out the substructure of both.

In foreign affairs, the essence of the situation at the end of the Cold War is that while during that conflict the West in general maintained its position by posture rather than by practice, after it the reverse became true, or, rather became necessary. Now, when we finally had to put our money, or our men, where our mouth was, we found we could not do so.

In retrospect the moralizing of the Cold War years appears a fraud. In domestic affairs, the problem is that our societies have gone badly wrong in themselves over the same period. Military spending may have had a little to do with the eroding of community during these years, but the main cause was surely the development of the highly articulated selfishness, of individuals and of groups that is now such a characteristic of our societies.

This is why we can see strange similarities between the foreign emergencies with which we are failing to deal and the domestic difficulties we are supposedly striving to overcome. It is not just a journalistic conceit that applies the term "Balkanization" to the Balkans proper and also to the disintegration of American cities or to the possible breakdown of economic life within the European community.

It is worth stressing that the process of physical separation in those American cities, in which the classes wall themselves off ,, from one another -- by the physical instrument of the car and the legal instruments of municipal incorporation and zoning law -- is exactly in line with the drawbridge mentality that sees and takes no responsibility for Somalia, for Angola or for Eastern Europe.

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