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America’s solitary foreign policy.

The greatest American foreign affairs columnist since Walter Lippmann was William Pfaff of The International Herald Tribune. He wrote in his path-breaking book, “Barbarian Sentiments” that the US political atmosphere was full of “exhausted ideas, like a dead star”.

Nevertheless, “these ideas remain central to the way certain subjects are discussed and to the formulation of national policy. These are ideas that people want or need to be true”.

I was told by the editorial page editor, Serge Schmemann, that when the New York Times bought the Herald Tribune the paper decided to cut back on printing Pfaff after 20 years of using him because he was considered anti-American- which, ironically, was one indication that he was right in his diagnosis.

Freud reminded us in his “Civilization and its Discontents”, that we should “familiarize ourselves with the idea that there are difficulties attaching to the nature of civilization which will not yield to any attempt at reform”.

So it is in America. As Irving Kristol has said, the task of the neo-conservative intellectuals, who have been a major influence on foreign policy over the last 50 years, is “to explain to the American people why they are right and to the intellectuals why they are wrong”. That is the easy way out of Freud’s dilemma. For those who disagree with them it is very much harder.

In such a political climate what hope is there for fresh ideas? As Pfaff has written, “In place of a re-examination of the old liberal political ideas, there is, in essential respects, their reiteration”.

Hence the failure of would-be reformers Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Obama at the onset of his eight-year presidency said changing policy was like a large oil tanker making a U-turn at sea- it would take a long time to accomplish. But he never achieved that. He may have damped down the US instinct to intervene in foreign countries, but even he stepped up the number of troops in Afghanistan when failure was obvious, intervened in Libya and helped the French overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, precipitating a civil war and a chaos the country had never known, and failed to put right in Iraq what his predecessor, George W. Bush, had rent asunder.

What sentimental and self-aggrandizing ideas the American culture displays! Even presidents can’t change it that much, especially in foreign affairs. America is not the norm in the world despite it thinking that about itself for 200 years or more.

Only senators Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren have tried to undo that- and even they reiterate the negative sentiments on Russia and China so common in American political discourse. “America’s problem is how to free itself from the grip of its exhausted ideas”, writes Pfaff. If it can, there will be no more failed wars like Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, all of which the US lost and chose to withdraw from with its tail between its legs.

The US passed up the chance to become friends with Russia, Iran and China. Vladimir Putin, as did Mikhail Gorbachev, wanted at one time to see created “a common European house”. This might well have evolved into associate membership of the European Union. But America forestalled that possibility with its expansion of NATO, done with the connivance of its weak-kneed European allies, who, nevertheless, in their hearts didn’t fully agree with Washington’s policies. This provocative act was the mother of the war in Ukraine. They went along with Washington for the sake of NATO unity- a mistake of historical proportions, as Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security advisor and one of America’s preeminent thinkers on foreign policy. argued. Before the deed was done, a big majority of America’s top academic political scientists said this in a letter to President Bill Clinton, the architect of NAT0’s expansion up to Russia’s borders but he did not listen. In foreign policy Clinton was not a liberal Democrat, he was a neo-conservative. Ill-fortune shows her power, wrote Machiavelli, when no wise measures are taken to resist her.

A conciliatory Russia or China could have ameliorated this. But it won’t happen until Europe takes the first step forward. European thoughts are not American thoughts. Europe still has, somewhere buried in its soul and religious foundations, in its architecture, paintings, literature and music (both classical and popular- from Tchaikovsky to Paul McCartney) a very different way of looking at the world.

Europe has learnt the hard way with its world wars that state violence exacts a terrible, blood-soaked, cost. Hence the creation of the European Union, a successful attempt via the means of economic, financial and social policy to bring out the best in European/Christian political thought- the binding together of former war-like nations into a peaceful whole.

Europeans must wake up and see that NATO policy towards Russia has done great harm. Once most Europeans decide to part from America on the big foreign policy issues- as most did already on Iraq,

Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen, Israel (and as a generation ago they did onVietnam)- the relationship with the rest of the world will undergo amajor defrosting. We will likely see a further evolution of Europe’sposture in Europe’s forthcoming elections. And if Donald Trump becomespresident again even more so. America should not be complacent about European attitudes. Europemust further push back on America.  America’s Manifest Destiny shouldcome to its end.


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