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America versus the world
( 2003-11-13 14:36) (Economist.com)

Yes, America is different. But it always has been.

Until a little over two years ago, the fashionable topic for debate in conferences, opinion pages and even bars around the world was whether globalisation was really Americanisation, and whether that was a good or a bad thing. Now, few pundits anguish about whether their countries are having to become more like America. The fashionable source of anxiety in both Europe and Asia is whether America is becoming so different from everywhere else that it is becoming a problem for the world, not a solution. It is not just a reckless Bush administration leading America astray, in other words. On this view, the United States is now inherently assertive and unilateralist, and so can no longer be trusted to lead the world. Instead, it should be feared.

Inevitably, Iraq is the crucible for this debate, though other events and actions!the Kyoto Protocol, the anti-ballistic missile treaty, the International Criminal Court, Guantanamo Bay, federal budget deficits, even cotton subsidies!are being called in as thesis reinforcements. Yet Iraq ought also to cast this debate in a colder, more sobering light. Will it be better for the world if America succeeds in bringing stability, prosperity and even democracy to Iraq, or if it fails? Is it American competence that is feared, or incompetence? If America, under George Bush or a Democratic rival, were to withdraw hastily under the pressure of attacks such as the downing in Iraq on November 2nd of a military helicopter, would that be an encouraging sign of humility or a devastatingly irresponsible act? Given that foreign voices were so keen to disparage America for withdrawing from Somalia in 1994, for failing for years to intervene in the Balkans, for having allowed the Taliban to take power in Afghanistan, and for being reluctant recently to send troops to Liberia, why should so many be hostile now to intervention in Iraq?

Exceptionally exceptional

One answer to this final question is that incoherence is one of the luxuries of impotence. Those who cannot, or will not, take responsibility themselves feel free to snipe at those who do. Another is that it is natural to feel afraid when dramatic, ambitious actions are being undertaken, for the consequences of such actions can themselves be dramatic. But a further answer is that to the outside world America is a strangely puzzling country!strangely, given the openness of its society and the abundance of information about it!and at times the puzzlement turns to worry. This is one of those times.

Such times have, however, occurred ever since the country was founded. As our Washington bureau chief writes in his survey this week, "A nation apart", the very phrase "American exceptionalism" that is so often heard these days was first coined by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835-40, when that brilliant Frenchman wrote his "Democracy in America". Many of the things he pointed out then as profound differences between America and other countries continue to be remarked upon today!its vociferous democracy, its decentralisation, its liking for voluntary associations, the intensity of its people's religious belief. Even during the cold war, which critics like now to describe as a time when fear of the Soviet Union acted as a bond between Americans and others, todays sorts of worries were commonplace. Graham Greene's "The Quiet American" (1955) complained that naive American idealists did more damage than good. Countless films, whether made by Americans or by foreigners, raised worries about a sinister military-industrial complex, about reds-under-the-bed obsessiveness, about zealotry.

Two other things, though, need also to be observed. One is that in recent years it is true that some of America's distinctiveness has become more marked. That is so in economics (working hours, productivity, innovation), society (population growth, religious belief, patriotism) and politics (a win-at-all-costs partisanship). Indeed, the combination of demographic vitality and productivity-led economic vigour is likely to make America even stronger in future, not weaker, despite the fact that high federal budget deficits could force some strength-sapping tax rises. At least in economics, other countries are again going to have to try to follow some of America's example, if their living standards are to be kept high and unemployment low.

Democracy as solution, and as problem

The second observation, though, is that some elements of American distinctiveness divide America just as much as they divide it from others. Religious, puritanical, conservative Americans (mainly Republicans) are ranged against more secular, hedonistic, tolerant ones (mainly Democrats). Until the 2002 mid-term elections, carried out under the shadow of September 11th, successive polls had showed America to be a ^50-50 nation ̄. Both parties can find trends that could favour them in future: demography could favour Democrats, while economic drive and patriotism may favour Republicans. In America's cacophonous and hyper-active democracy, this means that actions and adventures tend to be self-regulating, at least over a period of years. Yet that offers both reassurance and worry: it may moderate excesses, and curb the influence of lobbies such as the religious right; but it could also encourage cutting and running from messes overseas.

If that were to occur, it would be a disaster for America and a tragedy for the world. The basic dilemma that was faced in Afghanistan and Iraq was that doing nothing and intervening both looked bad and risky options, but that doing nothing looked worse. In the Middle East as in Central Asia, intervention has been painful and progress has been stumbling. Both countries still witness the continued instability. life may be better in both than before the intervention occurred; and much, much better than if al-Qaeda's terror camps had been left in place or if Saddam Hussein had been left in power. As the next leader argues, more needs to be done in Afghanistan, and at least some of it is likely to be. In Iraq, however, if the casualty toll among American forces keeps rising it could well prompt influential voices in Washington, including among Republicans, to press Mr Bush to declare victory and retreat.

Fortunately, he is unlikely to. The flip side of some of the things critics dislike about him!a black-and-white view of the world, a tin ear for dissenting views!makes him also show a stubborn determination. Put more favourably, he is a man with a sense of duty. Put more cynically, perhaps, he is a man who will be keenly aware that early withdrawal will look like failure, and such failure would be politically suicidal.

By intervening in Iraq, against the majority of world opinion but with the courage of its own convictions and the support of a few allies, America showed that it was indeed a different nation from others: one prepared to shoulder responsibilities and to do what it thinks is right. Such behaviour is alarming precisely because it is bold and, by today's standards, different. It is never likely to bring forth a cascade of praise or gifts. It was done, however, in a way likely to reinforce the concern, as administration officials poured abuse on their foreign critics and, through their violations of human rights, damaged America's own moral authority. Now, though, the argument has to be won by creating facts on the ground. If the facts are of failure, America will be likely to shrink back into its shell. But success may be there to be had. It will take a long, costly and painful effort. Only once it is done, however, will hope be restored and danger dispelled.

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