Comment: After Triumphalism

What a wonderful world it seemed in the 1990s. The
United States had not only won the Cold War; it had demonstrated the economic,
political, and moral superiority of its own system, the free market. Those abroad
who had long resented U.S. global policies were finally revealed to be
self-defeating nationalists or superannuated Marxists. Even the Latin Americans
were scrambling to catch the laissez-faire wave, firing their planners, hiring
Chicago-trained economists, slashing antiquated welfare outlays, privatizing
state enterprises, and, above all, opening themselves to foreign private capital.

The world's truly destitute were easily written off as hopeless cases;
they were simply mired in their own corruption and lassitude. In every society,
the most nimble and alert were precisely those who most wanted to be like
Americans. Indeed, weren't two million of them sneaking across our borders every
year as millions more were turned away? America was now the sole superpower in
every sense. History had ended; and its end was liberal capitalism.

Geopolitically, the Soviet Union hadn't just collapsed, it had splintered--one
more sign that the nation-state was dead, overtaken by the universal market.
Threats to national security had been reduced to small mopping-up operations.
Clinton was somewhat energetic in trying to fix festering regional problems like
Ireland, Serbia, and Palestine; Bush, less so. But these were sideshows.
America's main foreign-policy challenge was not geopolitical but geo-economic:
to chip away the remnants of statism overseas and open the world to market
forces. The IMF and the World Bank were the stick; the prospect of private
investment, the carrot. The triumphalists snickered at Europeans who tried to
maintain some semblance of a universal welfare state; Europe would pay for its
sins with slower growth.

The globalists also found it risible that countries like France tried to
protect a national culture against the relentless incursion of English or the
appeal of America's most loved and hated export industry--Hollywood. Why
subsidize France's film industry when French audiences were voting with their
feet for American fare, however schlocky? Didn't snobbish high-culture Europe
harbor a secret love for blue jeans, Bruce Willis, and le hamburger? The
elements of backlash and tribalism were dismissed as minor
annoyances--throwbacks. Once everyone became a modern capitalist, people could
embrace whatever quaint cultural remnants they desired.

At home, the triumphalists mounted a retrospective assault on liberals, not
to mention radicals, for having been inconstant Cold Warriors or
blame-America-firsters. Former lefties like Nicholas von Hoffman pronounced that
the USSR had been an evil empire after all, that Joe McCarthy basically had it
right. (Never mind that these very liberals had supported containment of
communism but resisted Cold War excesses like Vietnam, blowback such as CIA and
FBI infiltration of domestic politics, and the multiple hypocrisies in U.S.
foreign policy.)

The final victory over communism also supercharged the right-wing project of
undoing the New Deal and the Great Society. Wasn't it just a slippery slope from,
say, Social Security to Sweden to Stalin? To doubters who worried about global
warming, the triumphalists offered SUVs. You had only to read The Wall Street
Journal editorial page. Didn't everyone want to be like America?

Evidently not. Immediately after September 11, the necessary
policy seemed both obvious and entirely righteous. With Americans in a state of
justifiable outrage against an act of plain barbarism, war was a forgone
conclusion. Tactically, there was little doubt that American firepower could blow
away the Taliban. Morally, it was clear that they deserved it. Politically,
pacifists and doubters seemed absurdly out of touch.

But a month later, the global situation looks more like the confusion,
miscalculation, and unanticipated unraveling of World War I. Second thoughts
about the wisdom of the bombing look less like naive pacifism and more like
realpolitik. We don't have a clue how to create a stable post-Taliban regime in
Kabul. In this war, alliances are shifting sands. The enemy of our enemy is not
necessarily our friend (Iran); nor are ostensible friends truly the enemy of our
enemy, as Seymour Hersh documented in his devastating New Yorker piece on Saudi
protection money to bin Laden. Even loyal Pakistan plays footsie with the
Taliban.

The collateral damage will be massive--everything from a much more precarious
Israel to the prospect of an India-Pakistan war, to the creation of millions of
starving refugees. Most explosively, latent mass resentments are now activated
in some of the world's least stable nations. America, it turned out, did not get
off scot-free for propping up one despot after another. Nor did Washington and
Wall Street get away with decimating East Asian economies in the 1997-1998
financial crisis. Inconveniently, these peoples, who were deemed minor casualties
of newly liberated currencies trading, are also heavily Muslim.

And, irony of ironies, the nation-state is back--for who else can mount an
army, rebuild an intelligence capacity, and operate a public-health system? Yet
the globalists were all too prescient when they declared the nation-state
overtaken by events. Only it isn't universal capitalism that moots the power of
the state, but suicide commandos and anthrax letters.

We can't reverse America's global policies of the last half-century. Maybe,
though, we can learn a little humility, even as we rise patriotically to the
defense of our country.

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