I have one major bone to pick with the vast majority of my left-leaning European friends; it concerns the matter of national interest. I believe that it is necessary, reasonable and yes, even legitimate for a state to act in its own interest on the international stage. On this side of the Pond, however, my friends see it as morally wrong, especially when the United States is the actor in question. Now, maybe I’m over-sensitive to these kind of comments because of all the post-election flak I’ve been getting, or maybe I’m just cranky because I’m stuck in a boring (shhhh…don’t tell anyone!) conference and feel a pre-Christmas flu coming on. Whatever the cause of my allergic reaction to this moral argument, my outrage can be identified on three different levels: 1. Get off your high horse and stop being so hypocritical. 2. Quit the selective memory act and start being fair. 3. Your counter-productive ethical pontificating is going to land us all in a dangerous situation. (Please note: the “you” refers to the one uttering the offending comment, not the reader!)

Get Off Your High Horse and Stop Being So Hypocritical
At two panel discussions, completely unrelated to one another, I heard the same argument being made by Joschka Fischer, Foreign Minister of Germany, and Richard Bernstein, Berlin Bureau Chief of the New York Times. In reference to France’s taking the moral high ground in response to America’s adventurism in foreign policy, both speakers accused Jacques Chirac of grandstanding. Really, he should know better that to sit on his high Gallic horse. Fischer mentioned his French counterpart, Michel Barnier’s recent trip to China, where the latter had waxed poetic on the splendid economic ties between China and France/Europe, making no mention of the human rights violations of which the West is apparently so critical. China is vital to France’s national interests. You see, Fischer was saying, France does know better.

In fact, it would be perfectly appalling if France didn’t. No state that fails to pursue its national interests can stay alive politically – or economically, for that matter. It’s just plain naïve to think that any state acts completely selflessly on the global stage. Every democracy seeks to find international political postures that harmonize national interest and strategy with for-the-good-of-the-world philosophies and policies that lend a globalized legitimacy to its actions. I do concede that this balance has become a bit lopsided in the American case recently, but I resent the fallacious notion that there are 1st-world, western do-gooder states fundamentally putting humanity before economic survival and that therefore the U.S. is just a greedy misery-exporting machine.

Quit the Selective Memory Act and Start Being Fair
This is the part where I get upset that people like to ignore the fact that even in the pursuit of its national interests, the United States can positively affect conditions in the rest of the world. The U.S.’s decision to invest so much time, energy and capital into rebuilding Europe – and especially Germany – wasn’t an exercise in pure altruism. It was also in the U.S.’s strategic interest to stabilize Europe and increase its influence on the Continent as a way of securing a counterweight to the Soviet Bloc. Some Western Europeans didn’t appreciate this – I’ll give you that – and the opposition to Pershing-missile deployment in Germany is an example commonly cited by my friends. On the whole, however, it is difficult to dispute that America’s contribution to Europe’s reconstruction was indispensable. Particularly in Iraq, America has lost that delicate balance recently, and we desperately need to make the best of the mess we have made there. But using Iraq as a trump card to deny that the pursuit of American national interest could possibly bring about any improvements in the quality of life of tens of millions of non-Americans sounds much more like pig-headed defiance than a sound political argument.

Your Counter-Productive Ethical Pontificating Is Going to Land Us All in a Dangerous Situation
What makes my blood boil and knees shake more than any of this, however, is when this argument becomes such a part of the accepted rhetoric that it undermines the United States’ very ability to do good on the global stage. Take Ukraine, where moralizing anti-Americanism seems determined to condemn any American efforts to promote clean, fraud-free democracy.

The Guardian – anything but a radical fringe publication – has called the pro-opposition demonstrations in Ukraine "an American creation, a sophisticated and brilliantly conceived exercise in western branding and mass marketing" to counter Russian might and influence in the former Soviet Bloc. As the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum points out, this is a pretty odd accusation to be making, especially since America has traditionally supported Ukrainian “stability” (read: Russian influence). So the mere idea that the CIA is over there generating incidences of voter fraud for the sake of a pro-western opposition and their (probably maliciously) poisoned leader and is playing conductor to this Orange symphony is outlandish. The fact that this was asserted in a respected newspaper, found international resonance and that similar accusations later had to be emphatically (and brilliantly, I might add) denied by Colin Powell, indicates something far more disturbing: those who subscribe to this rhetoric would rather stand on the side of authoritarianism and cronyism than support the U.S. in any way, even in American efforts to ensure fairness in the democratic process. As Applebaum elegantly puts it, “I certainly don’t believe, as President Bush sometimes simplistically says, that everyone who disagrees with American policies in Iraq or elsewhere "hates freedom." That’s why it’s so shocking to discover that some of them do.”

I suppose now it’s my turn to get off my own high horse and admit that I shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. While I am dismayed that intelligent, left-leaning Europeans would become so absolutist in their condemnation of the United States, I’m not blind to the fact that we have become the proverbial Boy Who Cried Wolf.

The fact is, we are losing legitimacy, and we are losing it fast. To borrow a phrase from political scientist Dr. Thomas Risse, legitimacy isn’t about Bush-bashing. Risse, who spoke at a recent AID retreat, describes legitimacy as an element of power. It’s not simply a feel-good phrase – it is what enables the U.S. to show leadership without needing to force others to follow. They follow because they have confidence in us, because they see us as indispensable. But if we can’t show leadership, if our politics becomes ineffectual because we have lost legitimacy in the eyes of the world, then things don’t look so good for us – or for the world.

In the case of Ukraine, we can thank our lucky stars that not all Europeans share the views of that Guardian writer and that Poland especially has shown leadership in mediating. We can be grateful for the courage of the protestors who risked security forces and bitter temperatures and of MPs who risked the political wrath of several major players and are pressing on to settle the dispute as democratically as possible.

But what happens the next time? What happens when European anti-Americanism (or any other anti-Americanism, for that matter) becomes so mainstream that it actually results in the support of a “freedom-hating” dictator and the United States’ impotence in raising international support? What happens when we face a serious collective threat? Can I blame my leftist friends for being against us? Well, I don’t want to demonize them for their opinions, but I will call them irresponsible for being against everything we do without making any constructive suggestions. They’re intelligent people – I know they can do better than that. But we can do better too. We can’t afford to let our legitimacy fall even further, and we need to admit that our foreign policy is not only fuelling the fire, but also kindled it in the first place. What we need is some good old-fashioned humility to re-think the balance between what is good for us and what is good for everyone.

Advertisements