Some honest men fear . . . that this Government, the world’s best hope, may by possibility want energy to preserve itself. I trust not.—Thomas Jefferson, 18011
As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.
—Abraham Lincoln, 18642
The real war always has been to keep alive the light of civilisation everywhere. . . . The end of the world begins not with the barbarians at the gate, but with the barbarians at the highest levels of state.—Ben Okri, 20033
THE SO-CALLED WAR ON TERROR will breed only more terror and more war. The neglect of the world’s poor will lead to chaos. The rape of the environment will take our civilization to catastrophe. Our only hope, as great Americans such as Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt understood, is to build a world order in which everyone has a say and shares the rewards. A full belly and a fair hearing won’t stop a fanatic, but they will greatly reduce the number who become fanatics.
George Orwell once likened the British nation to a family with the wrong members in charge. In America the “wrong members”—the Bushes, Reagan, Nixon and others who have betrayed America’s founding ideals since the days of Andrew Jackson—seem to get hold of the nation about once every third or fourth presidential term, the time it takes for memory to fade and a crook or an incompetent to mature by the glow of nostalgia into a statesman. As Tocqueville foresaw, the great risk in a democracy is that the voters can choose tyranny. Sometimes the enemy of the people is the people. This risk is probably higher in the age of the sound bite, the televangelist, Fox News and the politics of fear than it was in the 1830s. Tocqueville may also be right that “nothing is more opposed to the well-being and the freedom of man than vast empires.”4 Rome was only slightly and briefly democratic; Spain never so. The only precedent for a world empire run by a democracy is Britain—and Britain opted to keep its democracy and let its empire go.
Since the mid-term elections of 2006, there have been encouraging signs that the great machine of American democracy is still capable of repairing itself. In the caucuses and primaries for the 2008 presidential election, the field of candidates was less predictable than it had been in half a century. Turnout was unusually high, especially among the young. Whatever else George W. Bush may have done, he awakened American voters to the importance of taking part. Republicans could choose from a Vietnam War hero, a Mormon millionaire, a Christian fundamentalist, or a maverick libertarian who agreed with many on the left that the terrorist threat to America has been caused by his own nation’s foreign policy. Democrats were ready to make history by nominating either a woman or an African American (literally).5
The Republicans settled on Senator John McCain, whose forthrightness, courage and military background made him the candidate most likely to draw swing voters. The Democratic contest (still open at the time of writing) was hampered by its embarrassment of riches. In a normal election year, Hillary Clinton’s candidacy alone would be remarkable. But the young outsider, Barack Obama, managed to inspire a broad range of voters with what he called (in a book title) the “audacity of hope.” His policies did not differ much from Clinton’s, but his eloquence, intelligence and liberal record—notably as one of the few senators to vote consistently against the war in Iraq—aroused a national mood for change. Change and hope were soon on every candidate’s lips; even those of McCain, whom George W. Bush publicly endorsed, and whose inner circle includes William Kristol and other neoconservative ideologues close to the Bush White House.6
The hope so easily aroused will be far less easy to fulfill. Much will depend, as always, on which party carries Congress. Whether it is Backwoods America or Enlightenment America who takes charge, the new leader will inherit the wreckage of the past eight years: wars that seem both unwinnable and inescapable, a ruinous public debt and a financial crisis that may prove to be the worst since the 1930s. Hope may be a virtue—and it can win elections—but hoping for the best instead of learning from the past has often led America astray.
It remains to be seen whether the count in November will be accurate and fair; whether moderation and thought will prevail over extremism and personality; whether the outgoing regime will resist the temptation of exploiting a crisis such as a “terror alert” (real or not) to throw the election its way.7 The latter possibility is less far-fetched than it may seem. In mid-2004, when George Bush’s re-electoral prospects were looking dim, the White House and the Justice Department actually discussed postponing the general election because of the “terrorist threat.” Such a thing has never been done in the history of the United States—not even in world wars.8
No matter who wins the keys to the White House in 2008, it would be a mistake to think that the outgoing presidency was an aberration and that its like will not be seen again. Politicians such as George Bush and Dick Cheney—who feed on superstition, fear and the worst kind of patriotism—are “grounded in a widespread cultural pattern.”9 Their power base is one half of a polarized nation. Roughly half the electorate may be expected to agree with Katherine Harris, who presided over Florida’s voting fiasco in 2000, tried to disenfranchise as many blacks as possible, and later said that “God is the one who chooses our rulers.”10 This is Backwoods America talking—or being talked to (Harris herself is a wealthy banking, fruit and chemical heiress). Enlightenment America is outraged by such statements, which cater to a fundamentalist mindset not vastly different from that of the Taliban, al Qaeda and other extremists whom the “godly man” in the White House vowed to destroy.
In short, a significant part of the United States still belongs to an archaic, aggressive and colonial culture that has drifted a long way from the mainstream of western civilization. If this judgment seems harsh, consider these departures from the modern norm. The United States is the only major western nation
• where the death penalty is still used—only China and Iran outdo America in executions; George Bush alone, while governor of Texas, issued 152 death warrants; 11
• where one person in 130 is in jail—the world’s highest rate of incarceration (about seven times higher than in Canada or Europe);12
• where automatic pistols and assault rifles are readily on sale;13
• where five out of ten think the Creation myth in the Bible is literally true;
• where only one citizen in eight holds a passport;
• where there is no universal health care (47 million have no coverage).14
America also has the widest gap between wealthy and poor, and the lowest direct taxation. Education is locally funded: poor districts get poor schools—another problem first identified by Tocqueville.15
In a recent opinion poll taken for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 52 percent of those interviewed chose the United States as “the country that stands out as a negative force in the world.” (The second choice, Iran, came in at 21 percent.)16 It is likely that a similar poll taken in Europe, Australia or Latin America would yield similar results. American prestige has never been lower; yet, whether we like it or not, the United States is such a military and economic power that what it does is everyone’s business. All of us, Americans and outsiders, must live with this land of paradox: a democracy hobbled by theocracy and plutocracy; a “peace-loving” country at war almost constantly for four hundred years; a nation both well-meaning and rapacious, welcoming and suspicious, devout and materialistic, friendly and fearful, innocent and corrupt, libertarian and repressive, individualistic and conformist, generous and grasping, imperial and parochial, modern and archaic.
We may still hope for progressive American leadership in the world, but we can no longer afford the old twentieth-century habit of depending on it. Repeatedly seduced by atavistic impulses, America has become an unreliable member of the world community.17 Despite the sorry record of the past eight years, the 2008 elections could still go either way. Too many voters, like the first President Bush, “don’t care what the facts are”; too many opt for the fast food of the national myth instead of the sobering nourishment of history—even history so fresh that its dead are not yet cold.
The tragedy of American diplomacy since 1918 has been that the United States did learn the hard lessons of world history in the first half of the twentieth century, and then forgot them in the second. Over the same period—especially the last four decades—mankind has begun to grasp that its problems have grown beyond the purely political. The human boom set off by history’s Big Bang in 1492 is reaching Nature’s bounds. The crops, metals and “free” land of the New World gave western civilization a new lease on life which has lasted five hundred years, the period I have called the Columbian Age. Now the lease is up for renewal on much steeper terms. We are still enjoying the wealthiest times of all times, but we are eating into Nature’s capital instead of living on her interest, wrecking the very ecosystems on which we depend.18 The economic “surplus” is in fact an overdraft—mortgaged against the future of all, squandered by the few on luxury and weapons.
If there is to be order, not chaos, in the twenty-first century, we must build a new world order strong enough to manage the ending of the boom and make the best of what the Earth provides. We must opt for quality over quantity, thrift over opulence, right over might, stability instead of reckless change. These aims will be extremely hard to fulfill: they require a new politics, a new economics and a new demographics, all cutting against the grain of human nature. But there is no other choice. As the great British historian Eric Hobsbawm warned more than a decade ago: “The price of failure, that is to say, the alternative to a changed society, is darkness.”19
Many Americans, from Rachel Carson to Al Gore, have done their best to awaken us to what we face. In the 1970s the United States led the world in environmental standards and protection. But that momentum has since been lost. Government regulation and conservation have been demonized, international cooperation undermined, and the public good abandoned to the despotisms of the market and the military. For the past eight years in particular, the American empire has become the problem, not the solution, a neo-Aztec pyramid of force and greed.
It is one thing to answer the question “What is America?” with such unflattering words. We must also ask if there are any other candidates for the title of “the world’s best hope,” any better models for how the future might be run. The former Soviet Union seems to be returning to a corrupt authoritarianism, tossing its short-lived liberal democracy on the same midden as its socialist dreams. The rising powers of India and China, who together make up more than a third of the human race, seem locked in the embrace of globalization, repeating the worst mistakes of the Industrial Revolution: dirty industries, exploited workers, reckless urban sprawl. Chinese communism has mutated into a surreal hybrid of dictatorship, state corporatism and chaotic private enterprise.20
There is one big, bumbling, yet remarkably successful attempt to find a new way forward: the European Union. For some sixty years now, Europe has grown away from tribalism, fanaticism and militarism, and towards a new commonwealth built not on the threat of war but on its memory. The Union has gelled little by little, expanding from six members to twenty-seven, with others on the waiting list. More than a trading alliance but not quite a federation, this evolving supranational organism now has more people and a bigger economy than the United States.21
The Union’s political structure is adaptive, pragmatic and uncertain. There is still no formal constitution or unified foreign policy. Per capita income in the richest member nations is ten times higher than in the poorest—but that is partly because the EU is admitting the ruins of the Warsaw Pact and the Balkans. New members with weak economies and civic standards are being upgraded as they join what began as a rich man’s club. The European Union seems able—or at least willing—to refit whole countries, while the United States can barely restore New Orleans.
Europe still has considerable sins: marginalized “guest” workers, exploitive investment in the Third World and unsustainable levels of consumption. That said, energy use per head is half that of the United States and Canada, while the average standard of living is about the same.22 A better balance has been struck between the interests of capital, labour and the environment than in any other trading bloc. The greatest threat to the European experiment is Americanization: Friedmanite pressure to weaken social and environmental laws in the name of business “efficiency.” So far the Union is standing its ground. As Mark Schapiro wrote recently in Harper’s, “Europe is now compelling other nations’ manufacturers to conform to regulations that are far more protective of people’s health than those in the United States. Europe has emerged not only as the world’s leading economic power but also as one of its moral leaders. Those roles were once filled by the United States.”23
Early in 2008, the European Union announced a plan to spend €60 billion (some $90 billion) each year for twelve years to reduce carbon emissions at least 20 percent by 2020.24 This reduction still may not be enough—especially if diehards such as the United States and Canada fail to join in—but it is leadership. If carried through, the Europeans’ financial commitment to fighting climate change will rival what America spends fighting the enemies it has made in Iraq.
Like a rehabilitated criminal, Europe seems to have confronted the grim realities of its own past. The peace within the Union since 1945 offers hope that peoples, like individuals, can learn from their mistakes. Nations who had been killing one another for centuries are now at work on a shared future. If the human race as a whole is to avoid a worldwide catastrophe caused by its own desires, fears and delusions, it will do so along such lines.
The Columbian Age was built on colonial attitudes: on taming the wilderness, civilizing the savage, and the American dream of endless plenty. Now there is nothing left to colonize.25 Half a millennium of expansion has run out of room. Mankind will either share the Earth or fight over it—a war nobody can win. For civilization to continue, we must civilize ourselves. America, which helped set the Europeans on their new path half a century ago, must now examine its own record—the facts, not the myths—and free itself from the potent yet potentially fatal mix of forces that created its nation, its empire, and the modern world.