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Civilization and Its Enemies

What qualities make the United States first among equals in defending civilization?

January 21, 2005

What qualities make the United States first among equals in defending civilization?

The United States is uniquely equipped to act as the new sovereign in the world today, not simply because of its power — but because of its tolerance.

The very multiculturalism that causes concern among many conservatives — far from weakening the United States' position — has made it a historically unprecedented microcosm of the rest of the world.

Its diversity reflects that of the world — and this means that for the first time in world history, a great power is genuinely capable of transcending the limitations to human cooperation imposed by divisions along the lines of race, sect and ethnicity.

That the United States is a practical design for the next stage of human history — a utopia that works — is a remarkable achievement.

It is the appalling historical insensitivity on the part of the Left that makes them bind to the world-historical significance of this fact.

The great American cultural revolution that began in the 1960s — and which, like all such events had ennobling and appalling episodes — has produced, through no one's design, an America that embodies the cosmopolitan ideal far more than any other society in human history.

Those who still wish to give their allegiance to a purely hypothetical community of all the men and women on the planet are not only indulging in a fantasy, they are being downright reactionary.

By failing to support the United States in its effort to offer liberal values to the rest of the world, the liberal cosmopolitans betray both liberalism and the cosmopolitan impulse — that is, the desire to treat all human beings as of equal moral worth regardless of any accident by birth.

Instead, they prefer to place their hopes in the fantasy of a community that will never exist, because it could never exist.

The burden with which any U.S. president and any administration will be saddled into in the foreseeable future is the horrible problem of being the dominant power in the contemporary world.That world has every reason to be fearful and distrustful of any power at all, much less the staggering degree of power that the United States currently possesses.

In short, we Americans are feared not because of who we are — but what we are.

It is absurd to think that the world should inevitably be jumping up and down with joy that there is one overwhelmingly dominant nation.

That is true even if you happen to believe — as I do — that there has never been a nation whose track record of humanity and generosity can even come close to matching our own.

On the one hand, we do have too much power. On the other, we cannot have any less. This is the paradox that not only we must somehow learn to live with — but so must the world.

The civilization that the United States is now called upon to defend is not America's or even the 'West's — it is the civilization created by all men and women, everywhere on the planet.

We act on behalf of all people who have worked to make the actual community around them less addicted to violence, more open, more tolerant, more trusting. Civilization, in this sense, is Chinese, American, African, European and Muslim.

Those who are working for this purpose are all on the same side — and we all have a common enemy. It is an enemy whose origin goes back to the dawn of history.

And indeed, it is the enemy that began the whole bloody and relentless cycle of violence and war — the eternal gang of ruthless men.

Someone must be prepared to fight them whenever they threaten to enter history and threaten thereby to change even the very possibilities in terms of which we are — forever after — doomed to imagine our future.

After this juncture in history, it is in the interest of civilization, wherever it is found, to keep the legitimacy of Pax Americana intact.

But the United States cannot permit itself to become the arrogant empire that its critics fear — or, indeed, an empire of whatever kind. It must be first, but first among equals.

It must adopt the psychological finesse of a George Washington — that is to say, a style of leadership where the leader is far more concerned with preserving consensus among his followers than with asserting his authority over them.

We must do so not because consensus is good in itself, but because it is an indispensable precondition of strong leadership.

If the leader is not trusted by those whom he must lead, he will be incapable of exercising the kind of leadership that is most necessary in a time of crisis and peril. He will not be permitted to act unilaterally and at his own discretion.

For the foreseeable future, the United States must reserve the option of acting precisely in this manner, unilaterally and at its own discretion. This it must do not to subvert the rules of international liberalism, but to uphold them.

Otherwise, the geopolitical system supported by these rules will collapse, as would any other trust system that has lost its mooring in its traditional code of honor.

In the epoch we have entered, some agency must have the capacity to act quickly, decisively — and with overwhelming strength in order to keep ruthless gangs from charting the course of the next stage of history.

Today those ruthless gangs are Muslim — but there is no reason why this will be true 20 years or two years hence. But in whatever incarnation such ruthlessness appears, it must not be allowed to decide the direction of mankind's future development.

During the course of its history, America has devised a unique solution to the fundamental problem of politics — that of figuring out how to get people to cooperate with each other — and it has done this with an extraordinary diversity of ethnic groupings.

If cultural diversity has a genuine value — which it most certainly does — its value lies in the objective superiority that different cultures have over each other.

What would be the point of looking sympathetically at someone else's culture, if all we could learn from it is how to live better within our own? And if it makes sense for us to learn from others, doesn't it make equal sense for them to learn from us?

To force other cultures to stay permanently in the cake of custom imposed by the tradition of their ancestors is a perverse way of expressing appreciation for their humanity. It is, on the contrary, to treat them like curiosities in a museum of natural history, like those waxwork tableaux.

But hard though it may be, we have to do much better than to show the casual visitor a typical scene of daily life among Paleolithic hunters of early Sumerians.

Adapted from CIVILIZATION AND ITS ENEMIES by Lee Harris. Copyright © 2004 by Lee Harris. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.