Monday, May 5, 2014

Settling into the Dusk?

The latest issue of The Economist features an eagle perched on a globe and the headline question: What Would America Fight for? The question haunting its allies. Recent events in Ukraine and earlier the US's failure last Fall to use force against Syria after having in effect threatened to do so, have heightened doubts about America's international resolve and reliability. That American policies seem to be reflecting an increasing isolationism among American voters itself adds to the discomfort of this baby-boomer who was raised and came of age in an internationalist era, where American power in the world was not just a fact but also understood as a political and moral responsibility.

Of course, there have always been isolationist tendencies in American society, although they seem stronger now than at any time in many decades. What is particularly troubling is how such sentiments seem to resonate with a growing loss of confidence not just in American power but in America itself, in what, for lack of better words, we commonly call the "American dream." Thus political strategist Doug Sosnik has located "the core of Americans' anger and alienation" in their "belief that the American dream is no longer attainable." This change in belief is rooted in a historically startling reality. "For the first time in our country's history," Sosnik writes, "there is more social mobility in Europe than in the United States." As the grandson of immigrants and as someone who grew up in the golden age of middle class progress that spanned the quarter-century after World War II, I find that an amazing revelation, a real challenge to wrap one's head around.

Frank Bruni quoted Sosnik in his column in yesterday's New York Times, revealingly titled "America the Shrunken." It is not just that Americans increasingly fear their children will live in a less prosperous society with fewer opportunities than their parents, it is how our aspirations have correspondingly atrophied. As Bruni expresses it, the 2014 edition of the American dream seems to have become: "Squirrel away nuts for a leaner tomorrow. The worst is yet to come, so insure yourself against it if you're among the lucky few who can."

It reminds me somewhat of a dystopian vision that seemed briefly to have some traction back in the 1970s of an America in which the rich retreat to their protected enclaves, while the rest of society decays - which is, in fact, not all that different from what is actually  happening, except that the rich now are way, way richer than anyone in the 1970s might have anticipated.

But it is not just the material impoverishment of our society that is so problematic for both American and the world. It is most critically the loss, in Bruni's words, of "the optimism that was always the lifeblood if this luminous experiment, the ambition that has been its foundation, the swagger that made us so envied and emulated and reviled."

The British Empire likewise once embodied an optimism and ambition that made it also envied and emulated and, yes also, reviled. But when the sun set on the British empire in the wake of World War II, there was some comfort that its place as maintainer of order in the world was being taken by a very optimistic and ambitious post-war United States. Now, however, as America's sense of itself and of its responsibilities in the world seems to shrink, what is there to replace it? From Africa to the Middle East to Ukraine to the Pacific, we are witnessing the feeble structures of international order becoming even more enfeebled, with the result that everywhere chaos - military, political, economic, and moral - seems increasingly on the rise.

It may well be that the 1980s myth of "morning in America" was a fraud that distracted us from facing up to the challenges of a changing world. But, as Bruni observes, "we're no better served by settling into the dusk."

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