'Benevolent hegemony' reflects U.S. narcissism

July 29, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- It does not at the moment look as if presidential candidate Bob Dole will need a foreign policy, but if he should be elected he will find many who are anxious to provide him with one.

The lead article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs offers ''A Foreign Policy for Candidate Dole,'' which the authors characterize as ''benevolent hegemony.'' They are not alone in making such a proposal. Hegemony seems the policy of choice, in nominally conservative circles, opposed principally by the ''realists.''

The latter, when they do not argue for full-blown neo-isolationism, suggest that the country at least cool its efforts to run Russia and the Middle East, while giving instructions to Japan and Western Europe.

Despite the policy abdication of the Clinton administration, which these days is functioning entirely in response to pressures generated by the campaign, these aggressive new Republican proposals are hard to credit.

The sterility of the debate is evident in the agreement that exists between these conservatives and Clinton Democrats on the fundamentals of American policy. All say that to assure a secure future, Washington must promote democracy, human rights, market economies and expanded worldwide trade.

This is sentimentally and simplistically appealing. In practice, all these are explosively destabilizing forces, if not politically revolutionary, as a glance at the rest of the world would show.

An American destiny

They are also implicitly hegemonic in thrust, and reflect a very familiar American assumption, since the time of Woodrow Wilson, that the destiny of the rest of the world is to become Americanized. Even if this were desirable, as a practical matter it is impossible, and is therefore absurd as a guide to American policy-making.

It is important to note that before Wilson's time, Americans considered the United States radically unlike any other country, and believed European societies generally unregenerate and to be kept at distance.

That was the reason for America's isolationism, which lasted from George Washington's presidency, renouncing ''entangling alliances,'' to that of William McKinley -- who found himself, rather to his surprise, agent of a new expansionist nationalism which said (as Senator Shelby Cullom of Illinois exclaimed in 1895), ''It is time that someone woke up and realized the necessity of annexing some property.'' The war with Spain followed.

Mr. Dole's advisers in Foreign Affairs, William Kristol and Robert Kagan, conclude by recommending to Mr. Dole the examples of Theodore Roosevelt as well as of Ronald Reagan, both celebrants of ''American exceptionalism.''

They are mistaken (in part) to do so, as the first President Roosevelt saw the result of America's initial experiment in imperialism and was disillusioned. He said that our annexation of the Philippines had not been meant as colonialism but was an attempt to ''assimilate a land.'' After the Filipino revolt against American occupation in 1899-1901 (which took more American lives than the Spanish-American War itself), Roosevelt wrote that the United States should never again try to ''assimilate'' another people unless they wanted to be assimilated -- ''and not necessarily even then.''

Those who today recommend the course of benevolent hegemony do so in the uncorrupted belief that the rest do want to be assimilated, or as expressed by Joshua Muravchik, author of a new book called ''The Imperative of American Leadership,'' that other nations ''know that they have little to fear or distrust from a righteous state.''

Only we and the French

He says that ''aside perhaps from the French, the only people averse to American leadership are the Americans.'' This, as one of his (conservative) reviewers has already noted, ''may be doubted.'' It has to be said of the neo-isolationists in the policy debate, such as Ronald Steel, that they see the world as it is -- and they would do no harm.

One would think none of this is to be taken too seriously, not only because Bob Dole is an improbable practitioner of ideological foreign policy, but because of the narcissism of these policy recommendations. They rest upon an American perception of itself that ignores or is ignorant of the actual conditions of an actual (rather than virtual) world out there.

These policy theoreticians have little to say, once they have made their points about promoting democracy, trade and markets, and buying more weapons. (Mr. Kristol and Mr. Kagan want to increase defense budgets by a quarter to a third, so as to defend American territory from North Korean missiles, and shield Los Angeles from Chinese nuclear intimidation ''during the next crisis in the Taiwan Strait.'')

Even their obsession with defense spending is internally generated, since the Pentagon knows that American high-technology industry is dependent on it. Unlike the Cold War planning document, NSC 68, to which all these authors respectfully refer, their recommendations -- like Mr. Clinton's policies -- unreflectively express the priorities of international business and the pressures of domestic lobbies.

They put one in mind of another commentator (of the American imperial period), Mark Twain. In 1901 he wrote: ''Would it not be prudent to get our Civilization tools together and see how much stock is left on hand in the way of Glass Beads and Theology, and Maxim Guns and Hymn Books, and Trade Gin and Torches of Progress and Enlightenment . . . and balance the books and arrive at profit and loss?'' Amen, brothers and sisters.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/29/96

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