6 – The Enemy Habit (Dec 08)

    One of the cardinal differences between the United States and most of Europe is rarely discussed. It concerns the political comfort that is derived from having enemies. Americans are not likely to discuss this because of a widespread assumption that they actually have genuinely threatening enemies. Europeans have, on the whole, not paid attention to the subject since most of them take it more or less for granted that not having enemies is preferable to having them, and assume that Americans can hardly disagree about such a thing. Europe’s publics do not realize to what extent the American national discussion about the world is permeated by enemy talk. Now, the American people would on the whole indeed prefer a world without enemies, I am sure, but they do not determine the policies that are hatched in Washington. Those policies must meet with all manner of conditions that are far from being rationally determined.
     The true story concerning the threats to the United States, and one of the main ingredients of the America Problem for the world, is that for domestic political and economic reasons the United States can no longer do without an enemy. That is the result, plainly put, of habit. In all the post World War II days, during the Cold War, having an enemy seemed a natural thing. Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” book, and the extent to which that was taken seriously right after the Soviet Union disappeared, illustrated a habit of thought centered on clashing. From now on the great political clashes would no longer be between countries with different ideologies or imagined national interests, but between countries that belong to different civilizations.
     The above paragraph is lifted from an essay US vs THEM that I wrote in the summer of 2008, and which you can find here (and here in pdf – endnotes to follow). This is of course a very sad situation, and it may lead, eventually, to true disaster for the United States. That has been understood by a number of genuinely patriotic Americans, among whom the admirable Andrew Bacevich, Chalmers Johnson, Ira Chernus, James Carroll, and Chris Hedges.
     In the essay I try to show how some of the basic ideas that have been associated with the neoconservatives remain alive and well. How well-known intellectuals indulge in fantasies of Islamofascism, and the threat of an Islamic onslaugtht on European culture; how inaction concerning these new enemies is compared to the inaction that preceded the expansion of the Nazi empire; and how a reigning school of International Relations studies encourages the notion of permanent vigilance being required to add weight on “our” side in a grand balancing act with potential enemies on the other side. The focus of these theorists of a supposed threat to the West is not on the actual threats, like the insufficiently controlled nuclear arsenals in former USSR states that might actually fall into the hands of the very wrong people, but simply on defeating enemies, period. Does that sound overwrought? Read the report written by venerable retired NATO generals, prepared for a “whither Nato?” conference. They essentially reject the very concept of international law. And what they write reflects rather well the apparent state of mind of top officials who served in the outgoing administration. The post-Cold-War situation is characterized by uncertainties they do not know how to deal with, and what better response is there than restoring Cold War like certainties?
     One outgrowth of the taken for granted US vs THEM mindset has gained considerable respectability and is insidious enough to have elicited a strong warning (here) by one of Washington’s most level-headed analysts, Charles Kupchan, in Foreign Affairs. It is the project of creating a League of Democracies so as to better deal with an uncertain and unstable world. Who can be against democratic nations? The plan for an association of them would, on the surface seem to be a splendid idea. The more democracy the better, and a League to which it is assumed many nations would want to belong, would seem quite a nice instrument for spreading it.
     Read the essay. The Democracies League project, which was one of the foreign policy notions strongly promoted by John McCain, appears to inspire part of the Obama entourage as well. If it gets beyond the would-it-not-benice-to-have-it stage it will draw a new clear line on the planet for indicating who is “us” and who is “them”. No Iron Curtain, of course, but for the time being it will do.