A Call for the United States to Rediscover Its Ideals
What can George Washington and Elvis Presley teach U.S. policymakers about the value of modesty as a tool of powerful multilateralism?
May 24, 2011
Neither the theory of decline, advocated by voices both inside and outside the United States, nor its oft-presented alternative, a robust belief in American exceptionalism, help get to the bottom of the waves of uncertainty that currently travel across the Atlantic Ocean.
At the core of the problem lies the unsuccessful search for a new common frame of mind between the United States and the European Union as the political embodiments of the Atlantic, or Western, civilization.
The end of the Cold War left the United States as the world’s only superpower. From then on, what lay ahead for the United States was business as usual, albeit without a powerful challenger. For Europe, the end of the Cold War meant the beginning of yet another period of transformation.
For Americans, in contrast, that transformation was suddenly obscured, if not obviated, by 9/11. It has become gradually apparent, however, that the end of the Cold War, not 9/11, was the truly defining moment in recent American history.
Perhaps because of this asynchronicity, we must also recognize an uncomfortable reality: The United States and the EU are still missing a new common frame of mind. How did that come about?
In the absence of an ideological enemy and with the proud conviction that its own ideals could hardly be challenged by any other concept, the United States made a crucial change. It moved from an ideal to a material power. This material power basis, which of course had always been there, was increasingly decoupled from its idealistic underpinnings.
As a result, America soon was no longer an idea. America became a power — exceptional, so many thought, only and lonely. A certain Protestant self-righteousness was introduced into the political culture of a country that turned more inward, more national and less open than it had been for most of its history.
In Europe, a different mindset started to drive the post-Cold War era: Europe was headed toward becoming the European Union, based on a post-sovereign integration concept, accommodating different interests and reconciling diversity, including in size and political culture.
When the European Economic Community was founded in 1957, the six founding members had a majority of Catholic citizens. Yet the founding documents did not refer to any religious values. When the EU designed its (eventually aborted) Constitution in 2003-05, the most intensive controversy took place over the invocation of God.
Laicists and secularists seemed to dominate the scene. Yet the enlarged and deepened EU of the years after 1990 has become more Catholic in the original sense of the word (i.e., all-embracing) than any period of its predecessors since World War II: ecumenical, universal, embracing diversity under one umbrella. The United States, a key — if not the key — reference point until then, simply was no longer a direct part of this experience.
Instead, the lone superpower was confronted with a new ideological challenge of a totalitarian nature. Al Qaeda’s disdain for the United States — and for Western civilization as a whole — was expressed through the mean and destructive forces of asymmetric warfare. September 11 became the symbol of Islamic totalitarianism.
This event also revealed different instincts on both sides of the Atlantic: While most Europeans (in agreement with the majority of peaceful Muslims around the globe) considered 9/11 an attack on all civilization, the United States had a narrower frame of mind. It declared it a war on the United States.
“Homeland” security was strengthened, understandably so. But the universal interpretation of the principles and ideals which the United States of America, Europe and the Atlantic civilization as a whole are built on was placed somewhat on the back burner. The terrorist threat was answered with military means by the United States, while value aspects and normative implications were neglected. The United States acted as a superpower of might, not as a superpower of ideals.
It is little acknowledged that, in that process, the United States has somewhat become “Old Europe,” a European-type of nation-state with particular security interests built on skepticism about, if not suspicion of, its surroundings, a nation-state proud of its power — but with mounting difficulties in communicating its ideals to the world.
In other words, the United States has turned into a type of state Europe had known aplenty in the century-long era between the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the outbreak of World War II in 1914. Quite an irony, indeed.
In contrast, post-Cold War Europe, for all the criticism that is often heaped upon it, has taken on the mantle of the idealistic embodiment of politics, albeit in its post-sovereign, post-modern fashion.
As much as these distinctions are clichés, like all clichés they do hold some grain of truth. European politicians, supported by the Pope, were promoting the dialogue of civilizations. President George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, meanwhile, were engaged in a battle of positioning themselves as the true and only legitimate interpreters of the true and only message of Jesus and of Mohammed, respectively.
In the case of bin Laden, the totalitarian arrogance was matched by the cruelty of terrorist activities against innocent women, children and men of all faiths. In the American case, the message that the world at large understood ever since was more mundane: The United States is materially exceptional — and the main expression of this exceptionalism is its military power. The issue of America as an idea, sadly, got somewhat lost in the process.
In terms of truly historic events, we must recognize that it was in Afghanistan and in Iraq, of all places, not in dealings with the then-Soviet Union, where the United States encountered the real limits of this reliance on material, military-focused power.
On the home front, the debt crisis, along with a sense of vulnerability in the face of new rising powers in Asia, has done its part to undermine the sense of U.S. exceptionalism, too.
Domestic debates on the decline and, somewhat arrogantly, on the “rise of the rest” became fashionable. Europe, for its part, almost disappeared from the American radar. For now, the United States has become a country in search of its soul, feeling vulnerable and more insecure than ever, and having lost much of its relaxed optimism of former decades. For the time being, America has no project by which it could reinvent itself as the embodiment of an idea.
This critical remark does not at all imply that the EU is in perfect shape. The sovereign debt crisis, ongoing quarrels over migration policies and the absence of a sufficiently far-sighted policy to support the Arab Spring at Europe’s doorstep (which ought to be done very much in the American spirit of the post-World War II era — with compassion and vision that is out of enlightened self-interest) are no less comforting than the present wave of navel gazing in the United States.
Yet one difference between the United States and the EU stands out. In its past, Europe has gone through all possible tragedies, and all European nations have experienced all the ups and downs history can offer. Out of this experience, the European sense for transformation and renewal goes beyond the fancy fascination of a simplistic dichotomy of either “rise” or “decline.”
The discourse of the “decline of the West” seems to be rather a challenge for the U.S. part of the West than for its European sibling. Europe has been transformed after having been down. The United States still stands tall on the mountain and is not yet really confronting the idea that, in mountaineering terms, one has got to come down from the mountain in order to say that one “did the mountain.”
Maybe it takes defeat to learn this modesty in face of ever-new chapters of history. Another, and probably gentler, strategy to come down from the mountain starts with an honest return to one’s ideals and principles.
American history does offer an example of “coming down from the mountain”: George Washington stepped down twice, after victory, as general and as president, to return from the mountains of power to the mere hillside of Mount Vernon. This recognition of the primacy of ideals and values over power and material might made him the great man he is.
Mount Vernon, his beautiful estate on the Potomac River in Virginia, is the most visited private home in the United States after Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. Both estates carry powerful messages which, coincidentally, touch a similar chord.
Mount Vernon epitomizes the honest modesty of giving up material power in order to maintain the highest possible esteem and reputation by re-focusing on principles and ideals. Graceland stands for Elvis Presley’s unique message of transformation through means of culture — singing as an act of reconciling white and black America.
The sound of the “King of Rock and Roll” gave a voice to the idea of overcoming racial divide and hatred. Elvis was also surprisingly gentle and always ready to share. George Washington and Elvis Presley, to me, represent America as an ideal, an America that lives its values, principles and ideas.
They represent an America that goes beyond power and military might. An America that becomes stronger than ever before, by relying on the uniquely American creative force and driver of transformation, that pairing of maximum reach and self-limitation at the same time.
That is why Mount Vernon and Graceland symbolize America as the exceptional ideal more than any other places in the United States. These are not places one can associate with declinism or exceptionalism. Mount Vernon and Graceland stand for the power of transformation that is at the heart of America as a universal idea.
In reshaping or reconstituting the Atlantic civilization, we need to remember this: The 21st century, unlike the period after the Congress of Vienna, is no longer a zero-sum game of winners and losers. Rather, it is a century of multiple networked nodes.
The better these nodes are connected with each other, the more they will resonate with the best ideals and principles Europe and the United States stand for. This lesson of history is yet to be discovered by those who try to reinvigorate a common transatlantic frame of mind. This effort goes well beyond the surface of debates on a “declining” West and of U.S. “exceptionalism.”
The United States has become a country in search of its soul, feeling vulnerable and more insecure than ever, and having lost much of its relaxed optimism of former decades.
The discourse of the "decline of the West" seems to be rather a challenge for the U.S. part of the West than for its European sibling.
Mount Vernon epitomizes the honest modesty of giving up material power in order to maintain the highest possible esteem and reputation by re-focusing on principles and ideals.
Graceland stands for Elvis Presley's unique message of transformation through means of culture — singing as an act of reconciling white and black America.
The 21st century, unlike the period after the Congress of Vienna, is no longer a zero-sum game of winners and losers. Rather, it is a century of multiple networked nodes.