“Americanism” has been invoked as a base concept from the muscular Teddy Roosevelt to the merely vain Donald Trump.
In the past, American mythology energized the country in ways that helped it to thrive. Today, it is a dangerous hallucinogen that traps Americans in a time warp more and more distant from reality.
The key challenge is to find a proper balance of assertion and restraint in order to secure the core interests of the United States and its allies.
For all the deeply troubling features of Donald Trump, perhaps the real shocker is that even during the Obama presidency evidence of a smart reconceptualization of that much-needed balance was scant, if at all existent.
Not so surprisingly, that also holds true for large parts of the country’s foreign policy community. They may all be eggheads, but they love to underscore their manliness by advocating plenty of “muscle” — read: military force.
Guidelines for a reorientation
The real reason for the inability to tackle the problem of scaling back the seemingly limitless aspirations of Americanism is this. The underlying insecurities that encourage the perpetuation of an unrealistic conception of America’s place in the world are not limited to the “experts.” They extend to the nation as a whole. That, however, means that it cannot be treated directly.
Group therapy for a nation of 310 million is not in the cards. To resolve the situation, ways should be found to make practical adjustments whose cumulative effect will be to restrain impulses and to dispel fanciful visions.
That would be a behavioral approach rather a therapeutic one. Of course, it does depend on leadership that has some self-awareness of why and how some of the country’s tenets of faith and belief are hampering the United States’ ability to meet its most basic obligations to itself as well as to others.
And that is precisely the point where the presidency of Donald Trump will prove so disastrous.
Rather than see through a long-delayed adjustment process, Trump has embarked on the opposite course — American gigantism on steroids.
Intemperate and completely impulse-driven as he is, Trump is hallucinating constantly. Worse, he only sees the sky as the limit.
Guidelines for a transition
But at some point, the day of reckoning and adjustment will become inevitable. Here are some guidelines for making the transition:
1. Set aside the creed that proclaims the existence of an American mission to reshape the world.
America may well remain a model and a beacon for many — as it was for East Europeans. However, our experience in other regions, especially the Middle East, underscores the limits to active promotion of “Americanism.”
2. Inescapable trade-offs between native idealism and the dictates of realism should be openly acknowledged.
It serves no useful purpose to propagate make-believe narratives as the United States strikes unsavory deals with regimes like those in Egypt, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. That simply perpetuates illusion at home and evokes charges of hypocrisy abroad.
3. Scrutinize skeptically the premise of the Global War on Terror that sees potential threats in unlikely places, groups and local circumstances.
4. Establish a clear hierarchy of priorities and act on it. The present subordination to the Saudis and the Gulfies is illogical.
5. Avoid being entangled in other peoples’ ideological passions.
A clear line must be drawn — and observed — between partnerships based on a convergence of interests and the serving of sectarian agendas that powerfully shape their aims and objectives. The Sunni/Shiite divide that exacerbates our dealings throughout the Middle East is the outstanding case in point.
6. Pragmatism and candor are two distinctive American traits that can be assets in our relations.
While cultural sensitivity and awareness of local political conditions are valuable, they become liabilities when they impede the transmission of essential messages. The current distortions resulting from Washington’s excessive deference to Jerusalem and Riyadh are testaments to how costly that can be.
7. Cultivate modes and methods for sharing responsibilities.
Multilateralism is the future
Whatever the leanings and instincts of the current U.S. president, multilateralism — formal and informal — will be the primary basis for whatever degree of international order that we can achieve in the future.
An America that recasts its global strategy along more sober, realistic lines would be less exceptional, but more effective.