By early Spring each year, my European History classes reach the age of Imperialism, and the Irish in me can’t help but take a few shots at the British. From Kipling’s White Man’s Burden to Mountbatten’s desire to make the world British, it’s easy for us colonials to poke fun at such national hubris.
Although the US never overtly engaged in the European scramble for colonial possessions in Africa and Asia due to the delayed arrival of the 2nd phase of the Industrial Revolution, we did eventually get into the subjugation business. From Manifest Destiny to Cuban Protectorates to a nasty three-year war with the Filipinos after they helped us boot the Spanish out, but then realized we intended to stay.
The American version was different in that the territories that came under our domination were not for colonizing, but were a way to acquire and expand new markets for American Exports. By the start of the 20th century, American supply was about to surpass American demand, and so new demanders would have to be found. The Philippines were freed from the Spanish and then kept for one reason; China (ten gazillion people, and one toaster) and manufacturers of American toasters had a powerful lobby…
The ten-year kegger of the 1920’s was followed by the hangover of the 1930’s, but then came the demand of the second world war which refired American Industrial vigor, and brought a victory (and the concurrent end of Europe as a world economic player) that presented us with a unique opportunity. The Bretton Woods meetings and the subsequent creation of the IMF, the World Bank and GATT created a world willing to embrace the American Economic model, even more so if it would save them from famine, disease and the Red Menace… And so the power years of American Exceptionalism began.
A devastated Western Europe was more than happy to listen to us tell them of the glories of free-markets, as long as the billions from the Marshall Plan kept pouring in, and the lights came back on and the water became drinkable. The miraculous economic recovery which soon followed seemed testimony to the truth of our message, but it was also a pyrrhic victory.
If the American approach had worked so well in rebuilding an economy and halting the spread of communism in Western Europe, it should work anywhere, right? And so US Cold Warriors attempted to apply the same methodologies in Africa, Asia and the Middle East for most of the next three decades.
Problem – it’s one thing to convince someone in Lyon that “our way” will get the lights back on and the roads rebuilt: because he has actually had lights and roads before! Trying to use that same rhetoric in a small village outside of Saigon is tough, how do you convince someone to want something they’ve never had (I know… Advertising, — a.k.a. “Hearts & Minds). Try as he did, LBJ could never understand why the inhabitants of the Mekong Delta weren’t overjoyed with his offer of building a Vietnamese version of the TVA.
I apologize, that was all supposed to be just a quick paragraph of historical background to what I actually wanted to write about, but I wrote myself into a hole and decided to just keep typing till I found a way out.
Back to the point that I was trying to get to; when American Exceptionalism was tied strictly to profit motive and the defeat of communism, most of the world was willing to give us a pass – America was scene as noveau-riche, but well meaning, even if a bit self-righteous. It’s like getting stuck next to the obnoxious rich guy at a dinner party; you’re pretty sure he’s an idiot, but all that cash demands a modicum of respect.
Then the world changed, Nixon took the US off the gold standard in 1971, which gutted the clarity of the IMF and introduced the world’s economy to the joys of floating currencies. OPEC flexed its cartel muscles the next year and gave every Western industrial economy a lesson in supply-side theory that would have made Adam Smith splotz. (say that five times fast…) To make things worse the Soviets go and invade Afghanistan and the US sends stinger missiles, piles of Charlie Wilson sponsored cash and Rambo in to help the Freedom Fighters – Afghan Rebels – Taliban – Al Queda… no way that ever comes back to bite us.
Anyway, what the hell was I really trying to get to? Oh yea, I remember. We rebuilt Western Europe so well that the EU now controls about 40% of the world’s trade, the rapid capitalists of communist China (wtf…?) now hold more American currency IOU’s than we can admit and the hallmark banking houses of American finance are vacationing down the rabbit hole.
So what of American Exceptionalism, what is it that we preach to the world now? Surprisingly, we haven’t really changed our message that much – how long will the dinner guests politely listen to us once they know that we can’t pick-up the tab anymore?
What you may not know, and what may be doing our image more harm than even the overtly retarded foreign policies of Bush II, is the hysterical ranting of American evangelicals who have been taking their twisted show of homophobic hatred on the road to Africa.
If this becomes the version of America that the rest of the world begins to believe, I think that the global anti-Americanism of the Bush years will pale in comparison.
Much of the world still believes in us and really does hope for our full economic and political recovery, but if this is the message that a weakened US economy is trying to back-up, they will all be lining up to come after us – and it will be hard to blame them.