Reprinted from The Nation with permission of the author.
There is a puzzle about American hegemony that should interest us more than it does. We are a conquering empire (even if our latest conquest always seems to end in retreat), but we can’t agree on the content of the product we send abroad. Is it constitutional democracy? Or is it “openness” minus “whiteness” plus “diversity”? We are confident to the point of delusion, and at the same time, we are bewildered.
Robert Frost has a poem called “How Hard It Is to Keep from Being King When It’s in You and in the Situation.” That is pretty much how we look at things. The US has been king since we installed the Bretton Woods financial system in 1944 and oversaw the founding of the United Nations in 1945. As Stephen Wertheim showed in Tomorrow, the World, the plans for our ascendancy go back as far as 1940. Still, what to make of the situation?
Today they call it the rules-based international order. The word “rules” implies that the relevant privileges, limitations, and exclusions are written down somewhere, but of course they are not – a gap that has led clever people to substitute the word “norms.” Evidently, the norms come from what the US desires at a given moment, and what we can press our allies and our half-willing collaborators to go along with.
When Barack Obama said the 2013 chemical attack in Ghouta, Syria, had crossed a “red line” and he would bomb the Assad government in retaliation, he invoked the norms-based international order. Eventually the casus belli was discredited by research from Theodore Postol, Seymour Hersh, Aaron Maté, and others – showing that the attack had likely been a false flag operation by rebels linked to Al Qaeda – but the bombing plan was scuttled anyway when the British House of Commons refused to support it. American popular opinion and Congress likewise balked, the retaliatory strike was put off indefinitely, and Obama had to settle for weapons shipments and covert military support for our new Islamist allies. A few months after the parliamentary vote, I asked one of the dissident Tory MPs what made them take the risk; after all, they knew their standing in the party would suffer by opposing David Cameron. “We saw the intelligence,” he said, “and the intelligence was shit.”
The Anglo-American alliance remains. Boris Johnson, in his speech agreeing to step down as prime minister, advised his successor to “stay close to the Americans.” Britain has certainly done that – in Afghanistan, in Libya, in Iraq, and now in Ukraine with the rest of Europe in tow. Meanwhile, the person whose instructions all these countries are bound to follow, President Joe Biden, often signals his authority by deploying a plaintive or a truculent tone: He is both victim and executioner. With increasing frequency, he combines the two, and the result is the plaintive-truculent, as in his prayer against Vladimir Putin: “For God’s sake this man cannot remain in power.” Soon he may use that voice about Taiwan.
How hard it is for Americans not to assume the US is invincible! The people who run things have gone on assuming it despite the buzz in every newsroom and chat room of a coming civil war. But if you think of all the countries that, in the 20th century alone, were bombed, invaded, or conquered, we have indeed been lucky; and the human propensity, against everything reason may say, is to regard luck as a simple fact of nature. People keep coming to the United States out of a mixture of superstition and hope, because they know our history of exorbitant luck.
By contrast, Russia is the unlucky country. With their invasion of Ukraine, Russians are offloading monstrous unluck on people who never thought to harm them. But what does Russia mean to the mass culture of the West? Peasants, oligarchs who are somehow worse than any other oligarchs, brutal drunkards on an eternal spree, pre-modern washing machines and second-rate driving machines, and, most of all, oppression. Call it bad luck, but – how wrong can a superstition be? – maybe they deserved it.
And the Chinese? The most shopworn clichés of Orientalism retain their force. Those people are inscrutable. On departing from Taiwan after her calculated insult to the “One China” protocol, Nancy Pelosi remarked that an action like hers could hardly matter, since in any case “whatever China was going to do they’ll do in their own good time.” In short, there is no point in observing the canons of ordinary prudence when you are dealing with those people.
In feckless arrogance and theatricality, Pelosi’s decision to land her government plane and push the No-China aspirations of China’s neighbor was a good deal like Victoria Nuland dropping by the Maidan in December 2013 to pass out sandwiches and avow American solidarity with the anti-Russia protesters. Nuland’s career itself incidentally furnishes a proof of the bipartisan continuity of US foreign policy over the past 30 years. She has worked for Strobe Talbott, Dick Cheney, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Antony Blinken. It is remarkable how frictionless those transitions appear to have been.
Ask a well-meaning left-liberal about the riskiness of Ukraine joining NATO, and you’ll be told: “Come on. Why would Russia be afraid of NATO?” The answer is: Look at a map. How close is Ukraine to Russia? How close is Taiwan to China? And how far is the US from both places? Any thoughtful 10-year-old would ask what the average reader of The New York Times no longer asks: “What are you doing there?”
The answer once again – an answer that now apparently satisfies everyone from Lindsey Graham to Bernie Sanders – is that we are enforcers of the norms-based international order. But say it straight: We are the norms. And what is our product? The most obvious fact about America today is that we are the most militarized of nations. With all the energy we can spare from arming ourselves, we sell weapons to help other people kill each other.
David Bromwich teaches literature at Yale University. His latest books are American Breakdown: The Trump Years and How They Befell Us (Verso Books), and How Words Make Things Happen (Oxford), both published in 2019.