On this July 4, Americans may be perplexed and confused about the way their country is perceived in the world. They may feel like Josef K. in Franz Kafka’s The Trial. “Someone must have laid false accusations against Josef K. because one morning he was arrested without having done anything wrong.”
Accusations against the US have become a global phenomenon, crossing borders, classes, religions and generations. America’s critics can be heard everywhere. It is too much in love with money – worshipping the god of the marketplace, the golden calf. It has too much money, seven of the top 10 banks, eight of the top 10 companies etc. It is too stingy, giving away less of its wealth than other countries. It is vulgar, a rich barbarian. It has a lowly culture yet practises cultural imperialism. It makes people dread “Americanisation”. It is arrogant and condescending to “the little monkeys” from other cultures. It is too religious, saying “God bless America” once too often.
It has too much power, spending more on arms than the rest of the world put together. It is a hypocrite, disguising its wars of self-interest as humanitarian interventions and exporting democracy at the point of a bayonet. It is inconsistent – agitating for “regime change” with some “un-democratic” countries, but with others giving arms, aid and trade. It has an incoherent foreign policy – it abandoned the “no first strike” principle which kept the peace for decades; “pre-emption” replaced “deterrence” but has no basis in international law. It is too close to Israel. It resists multilateral solutions, preferring unilateralism, hegemony, a sheriff strategy – In Guns We Trust. It has aroused the envy of Europeans, causing them to want to form a rival power bloc. It has hit a brick wall, the Great Wall of China, where “state capitalism” works. It has not solved the mystery of Islam. And it is not even a democracy, as the 44 per cent turnout of its eligible voters in presidential elections proves.
The accusations against the US are endless. Speaking up for America has become a lonely ordeal.
Before globalisation it was possible – at least in theory – for the US to be isolationist. It was possible to say about other nations, as prime minister Neville Chamberlain said about Czechoslovakia in 1938, that it was “a faraway country of which we know little”.
Now there are no faraway countries. There never will be again. Each day, we have a clear, stark and often alarming view of our multi-ethnic planet.
Americans once brilliantly transcended the inherent fragility and insecurity of their own multi-ethnic community. In George Washington’s words: “The bosom of America is open ... to the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions.”
Woodrow Wilson called it “the great melting pot of America” and made it the prototype of a diverse society. E pluribus unum: one out of many.
It is to the new melting pot of the world that the US can bring, if only it can find a way to express it, its unique message.
America was born out of a desire for self-determination, a longing for the human dignity that only independence can bring. That is what the Pilgrim Fathers hoped when, inspired by the scriptures, they announced their aim to create a “A City upon a Hill”, their new Jerusalem. Americans of all national origins, religions, creeds and colours would hold in common the ideals of the essential equality of all human beings, of inalienable rights to freedom, justice and opportunity. America would embrace meritocracy before hierarchy. Its frontier spirit would mean anyone could do well if they were determined. In the US nothing would be impossible. Americans would breathe free – with freedom of speech and thought for all men and all women. These were the motives that made America the inspiration for so many millions of people – not its wealth but its intense belief in its moral purpose.
This is why it is such an error to think of Americanism as merely a belief in “practicality” and “efficiency”. True Americanism is practical idealism. Its aims, instead of being materialistic and mechanical, are idealistic to the point of being Utopian. In this way, the US can provide and express ideals that strike a chord in humans everywhere – a declaration of independence on behalf of all the peoples of the world.
To disarm its enemies and defeat its rivals, America only has to focus its intellectual energy and its vast economic resources on the policies that would help the world follow its lead, to rediscover the language to project its founding ideology beyond its own shores and to remind the world of its ultimate belief – in self-determination, individuality, independence – and in democracy only as a means to that great end.
To do that will require a marching tune people can respond to, so that Americans can once again, as the Pilgrim Fathers intended, show the world “The American Way”.
The outcome of the battle of ideas between Americanism and anti-Americanism will set the tone of the 21st century. It will be the decisive ideological struggle of our times. The US has a fine ideology. But it has either forgotten what it is, or forgotten how to express it. America today is a sleeping beauty. It is time to wake her up.
Lord Saatchi is an executive director of M&C Saatchi. The article is based on a pamphlet Sleeping Beauty: Awakening the American Dream published by Politeia