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American Ideology? There Is No Such Thing

Flags at the Capitol
American flags at the U.S. Capitol. Photo by: Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images

Distinguished Fellow in Grand Strategy and Senior Lecturer Charles Hill has been on the Yale faculty since the mid-’90s after a long career in the U.S. Foreign Service, with tours in Vietnam, China, and Israel, among other posts. He was assistant to Secretary of State George Shultz and to Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali at the United Nations.

A Senior Fellow at Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institution, Hill is the author of several books, including “Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft and World Order.” After asking George Lodge to expand on a short essay he’d given me at a recent lunch, I gave a copy to Charlie and asked him to respond. Having co-taught with him for the last five years, rest assured, he is as blunt in class as he is in print.

Making Sense

Charles Hill: America has no ideology. Without understanding this, there is no way to comprehend this country and the national character of the American people.
Ideology is a modern invention, produced as an alternative to religion. An ideology answers every conceivable question that can be put to it. That’s why governments like ideology and that’s why in recent years the Congress of the United States has produced legislation thousands of pages long. As ideologues they believe they have the answer to everything.

This shift from non-ideological America toward ideological governance is embodied in the recent attacks from the left on the idea of American exceptionalism, which they denounce as arrogant behavior designed to intimidate others and entangle ourselves in endless and fruitless world problem-solving. The louder and more frequent assaults on American exceptionalism only underline how exceptional the country has been.
That exceptionalism is our commitment to freedom through democracy; freedom for the individual and freedom for other peoples. Democracy, Tocqueville recognized, was an 800-year long force of history. Its fate would come down to what America — “Democracy in America” as his title put it — would do with this historical force. The main thrust of the force was for equality; but perfect equality would suffocate liberty. America’s task was to find a way to achieve equality of opportunity while preserving breathing room for liberty.

As the intelligentsia of Europe and their admirers in America understand, this would require exceptional efforts because democracy gives people the voting power to give government the authority to take other people’s money and to “redistribute” wealth. Governments love this idea of course; it is a legal way to buy votes.

Since history’s earliest expressions of political theory, the concern has been how to prevent government from becoming corrupt. In our time, however, governments — in Europe in the first instance — have discovered how to corrupt people by encouraging them to want, and by supplying “more stuff.” As the recent bumper sticker put it: “Do we want a country in which everything is ‘free’ except us”?

Thus every American presidential election in recent times has been about whether we will become a European-style “social model” state or remain exceptional. Finally, we now have our first “European” president and the question is whether he will be empowered to lock our economy and society into a European box.

That is, as people like to say these days, “ironic.” The European big government/ social-welfare states have been subsidized over many decades by the United States in that we have borne the bulk of their defense costs. Now, as we move toward expanding government to European-style levels, we will no longer be able to maintain our defense establishment at former levels, making America into a militarily lesser country even as we move into the bankruptcy territory occupied by Europe today. When we began our European envy, they looked attractive. Today they look pathetic, and our yearnings haven’t adjusted to reality.

This is not just an American conundrum; it has vast consequences for world order. Since the opening of the twentieth century and especially during and since the Second World War, all American administrations have upheld three basic principles for the international community: open trade, open expression, and defense of the international state system. These have been understood as 1) equal opportunity and economic development; 2) democratization and human rights; and 3) a procedural, not substantive, international order. This last point is vitally important because it has meant that the U.S. has been an anti-ideology bulwark among the nations.

There are now three great and fundamental transformations going on. The first is “The Transformation of the Greater Middle East” as called for by the U.S. in 2002 and launched by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. This inspired Lebanon’s 2005 “Cedar” Revolution, which was crushed. Then came Iran’s “Green” protests, which were crushed in 2009. Then in 2011 came “The Arab Spring,” which is in the process of being crushed. The U.S. has stepped away from moving with the force of history toward freedom that it formerly championed.

The second is “The Fundamental Transformation of America” promised by President Obama. This has taken the shape of turning away from American exceptionalism, from our defense burden, from direct promotion of democracy and human rights, from our closest allies, and from paramount leadership overall; we will now await world consensus before becoming involved.

The third great transformation was in evidence at the “summit” meeting of nations in Tehran a few weeks ago. There, regimes from around the world gathered to talk about how they would replace the established international state system with one more conducive to their own desires. These were one-party states whose policies are not for open trade, but for mercantilism; not for democracy, but for a closed politics; not for the procedural international system and its doctrine of the equality of states, but for ideologically-committed rule. The idea of international cooperation and commonality was challenged by that of “spheres of interest,” a dangerous way for world affairs and one which modern wars have been fought and won to avoid.

If these patterns — domestic and international — continue, if the U.S. continues to explain that it really is “leading from behind,” the world ahead will be a very different and very different place in which to live.

For a take from the other end of the political spectrum, read George Lodge’s post here.

This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions

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