America needs a new concept: humility

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 January, 2009, 12:00am

At her Senate confirmation hearing last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was harping on an old theme. She said her top international principle was to 'strengthen America's position of global leadership'.

This reminds one of her Clinton administration predecessor, Madeleine Albright, who said that 'America is the indispensable nation' and 'we stand tall and, hence, see further than any other nation'.

It suggests that other nations are dispensable and that American indispensability is the source of wisdom. ( So what about Iraq, global warming, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the International Criminal Court and financial probity?)

'One reads about the world's desire for American leadership in the United States,' a British diplomat once told me. 'Everywhere else, one reads about American arrogance and unilateralism.' And this was said before George W. Bush came to power.

Sad to say, even President Barack Obama wrote in Foreign Affairs two years ago that the US 'must lead the world once more'.

One of the more surprising books of the past two years is Dangerous Nation, by Robert Kagan, who made his name with Paradise and Power, in which he said America was like Mars and Europe was like Venus, unwilling to take on its international responsibilities and leaving America to police the world.

His new book is a history of the violent, imperialistic tendencies that have governed US white rule since its inception. He concludes by saying that the Declaration of Independence 'reflected Americans' view of themselves as the advance guard of civilisation' and that this has continued to be so ever since.

It may be true, as former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski has said, that the US 'will be the first, the last, and only superpower'. But this certainly doesn't mean that it will make much progress in the world by seeing itself in unipolar terms. In history, only the classical world under Rome and, at times, East Asia under China, approximated this model.

During the cold war, the global structure of power was bipolar. Now it is multipolar, with several powers of either equal strength, or approaching it. Economically, the European Union is a potential equal; the euro is beginning to overtake the US dollar as the currency of choice for investors.

As Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations, observed: 'Virtually all major regional powers are increasingly asserting themselves to promote their own distinct interests, which often conflict with those of the US.'

Despite previous rhetoric, it seems that Mr Obama has grasped the nature of our changing world.

Whether the same can be said of Mrs Clinton, or other top officials - who may find it hard to locate Kosovo, Burundi or Turkmenistan on a map - is a good question.

Mr Obama must turn round a whole mentality, one which is rooted deep in the American psyche, in a short time. He starts now.

Jonathan Power is a London-based journalist