They Aren't Americans

June 13, 1995|By RICHARD REEVES

NEW YORK — New York. -- America's current problems in Bosnia and Japan may seem quite different at first glance or may appear somehow all to be the fault of our current president, Bill Clinton. Neither of those is true. The foreign-policy problems of the United States, unfortunately, go much deeper than two countries or one man.

In fact, the United States has no foreign policy, at least not in the sense that our actions in any given situation can be predicted by adherence to a set of governing principles or plans. Or, more precisely, the principles we have been acting upon for decades turn out not to be true. So, in a very real sense, the United States has to start all over to find its real place in the world.

The false principles (or assumptions), which made sense to me and to most Americans for a long time, were these:

* Other peoples wanted to be us, or they wanted to be like us.

* We had the power -- economic, military, even moral -- to make them be like us.

Unfortunately, neither of those things happens to be true, either. Our success in creating a global popular culture and in winning a long, twilight tug-of-war against opponents who proved to be pathetic, deluded many of us into believing that world questions, large and petty -- or petty to outsiders who are not Japanese or Serbian or Muslim -- had now been resolved, and we were all brothers and sisters under a universal and rational umbrella stitched of freedom, tolerance, free trade and other things that seemed sensible to us.

All we can be certain of now, though, is that peoples all over the world wanted to have what we had, beginning with freedom of speech and religion for themselves, if not their neighbors, and fast cars, big washing machines and Mach 2 fighter-bombers.

But even if he is wearing a Michael Jordan or Michael Jackson T-shirt, a true-believing Muslim fighter in Algiers or Cairo has the deepest contempt for many American ''freedoms,'' particularly those involving women and sex. Whatever we think, he has his reasons for looking forward to the prospect of killing an infidel or two.

And whatever they think of Disney, many Japanese of power see free-marketeering capitalism quite differently than we do, and are comfortable operating only as if they were more or less in a permanent war with us and everyone else. They don't intend to apologize for either their failures or their successes.

The Bosnians, and their many hyphenations, and the very un-hyphenated Japanese, have their own problems. They have rejected -- almost certainly have never seriously considered -- American notions that all problems are everyone's problems and must therefore be solved. That is as ridiculous to them as the American canard that most problems have solutions. Their problems are forever, as they see them.

We are certainly alone as a universal or universalist nation with such goals as assimilation and such habits as intermarriage, placid negotiation, incessant rule-making and general acceptance of election results or court decisions we don't like very much. If we look at the competition, we are still a new kind of nation, a new people, renewing ourselves in the present without so much of the glue of old hatreds.

It goes without saying, I think, that a Bosnian Serb in the hills around Sarajevo, willingly risking his life and family for reasons that are unknown to Americans and would be incomprehensible to us even if we did know, has no interest in American ideas of assimilation and majority rule and forgiveness through forgetting (or ignorance) of history. We think he is a madman. Worse, an animal. He does not know or care about that; he cares only that we are ''weak'' because we cannot remember atrocity for 10 years, much less 10 centuries. And the Bosnian Muslim or the Croat nationalist -- is he any different? Not that I can tell.

I suspect, too, that the Japanese official or businessman is tired now of American appeals to higher courts, higher reason and universal principles -- because they are certain that it is all some kind of Yankee trick. They're not sure they understand exactly how the Americans plan to try to outflank them, but they have no doubt that's the plan. How could the United States be doing (or have done) anything not in American self-interest? That may be irrational in the Japanese mind.

In a new book, ''The Time of the Americans,'' a history of U.S. leadership during and after World War II, David Fromkin of Boston University analyzes why the Americans did the unthinkable: deciding to help rebuild its enemies, Germany and Japan, rather than stripping them in the tradition of European victors of the past. He concludes boldly, and rather unfashionably:

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