In an exalted phrase, the keynote speaker at the Republican convention reviewed the record of the administration, and asked, “When have we rested more secure in friendship with all mankind?” That wasn’t in St. Paul, where the Republicans are gathered this week, but at the 1904 Republican convention in Chicago, when the speaker was Elihu Root, a past Secretary of War and future Secretary of State.
His words were sonorous then, and they are haunting now. They will not be repeated this year, because they could not be. A senior American politician might have said something similar in 1920, or 1945 or 1960. But no Republican now — and no Democrat — could utter Root’s words without inviting utter derision.
Today there might be a more bitter question: When has America rested less secure in friendship with all mankind?
And that explains the intense interest which this year’s presidential election has inspired beyond the shores of the United States. It’s not just Obamania — there’s no point in denying that Senator Barack Obama is the man most people outside the United States would like to win — but he was one of three potential candidates until Senator Hillary Clinton conceded defeat who were all fascinating simply in personal terms: a septuagenarian war hero, a woman, a black man.
The election absorbs us in Europe — and others in Africa and Asia — because we can see that a general crisis spreading around the globe is directly linked to the follies and failures of American policy. In his new book, “The Much Too Promised Land,” about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which he used to be engaged as a State Department official, Aaron David Miller puts it with lapidary succinctness.
Having stumbled for eight years under the Clinton administration over how to make peace in the Middle East, and then for eight years under the administration of George Bush the Younger over how to make war there, the United States finds itself “trapped in a region which it cannot fix and it cannot abandon.” Still more to the point, throughout that region, for all of her seeming might, America is “not liked, not feared and not respected.”
And not only in the Middle East. The theme of these past years has been American arrogance followed by American incompetence leading to American impotence.
From one side of the world to the other the story is the same, whether it’s Vladimir Putin being told by Bush to leave Georgia, or Israel being told by Condoleezza Rice to desist from building more settlements on the West Bank, or China being told by Washington to behave better in Tibet, or even the European Union being told by any number of American politicians and pundits to accelerate Turkish membership.
All these American strictures are vaguely listened to. And then, as the late George Brown (a sometime British foreign secretary who shared Bush’s verbal infelicity) might have said, the rest of the world treats them with a complete ignoral. After all, they come from a supposed hyperpower which in practice is neither respected not feared.
That is a direct consequence of what Washington has done. President Theodore Roosevelt said that America should speak softly and carry a big stick. President George W. Bush speaks loudly and waves a small stick. Stalin and Khrushchev had limits placed on their actions by awareness of what America might do if those limits were overstepped. Putin can do exactly what he likes in Georgia, since he knows that Washington is powerless to stop him.
One stock response from the bedraggled and diminished band of Bush supporters is that to say that all this is no more than “anti-Americanism.” Prejudice against, and resentment of, America is indeed far from an imaginary phenomenon, in Europe or elsewhere, on right as well as left, and for generations past.
But today that stock response quite misses the point. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times (himself no radical extremist) has said very truly that attitudes toward America that were not long ago confined to the hard left in Europe are now found across the political spectrum. “Nous sommes tous Américains,” the Monde bravely exclaimed after Sept. 11; seven years later it would be an exaggeration to say “We are all anti-Americans now,” but not a wild one.
In any case, the whole-hearted enemy of America is the one who ought to be delighted by the eclipse of American prestige, and drink a toast to the Bush administration for bringing it about. It’s those of us who believe that the United States needs to be constructively engaged in the world, and respected by it, who have most cause for dismay.
When Tony Blair said in early 2002 that he was worried about a drift towards American unilateralism, and that he wanted to “keep the United States in the international order,” the diagnosis wasn’t stupid. What was utterly preposterous was his subsequent reasoning that, in order to achieve this, he had to give unconditional support to every American action, above all the Iraq war a year later. As a result, the United States soon stood further still outside the international order, while in the end American power was gravely weakened.
No one who has followed the election campaign can be confident that there will truly be a new beginning in the new year. Electioneering puts reason and restraint at a discount and invites boastful bluster. John McCain’s “we are all Georgians” is a fine example and obviously empty rhetoric. Even he ought to have worked out by now that his fellow-Americans, “Georgians” or otherwise, are not going to fight for South Ossetia, and Putin knows it.
Obama took an almost more damaging misstep when he said that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided” — something not even Bush has said. If taken literally, his words would mean an end to any imaginable settlement of that bitter and intractable dispute — and they raise once again questions about the fitness of the United States for world leadership, under any president.
Whoever wins in November should pause and take stock. The United States has rarely faced greater challenges with the domestic economy but still more in international affairs. Why does America enjoy so little friendship with all mankind? And is there nothing at all that can be done to restore her standing?
Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s books include “Le Tour: A History of the Tour de France 1903-2007,” “The Strange Death of Tory England” and “Yo, Blair!” Reprinted from the International Herald Tribune, September 4, 2008.