STILL HANGING around the neck of the Truman administration — which it is now fashionable for some conservatives to applaud — is the albatross legacy etched by rote in stone during the 1950s: “Who lost China?” And though the blame can be placed, as always, on the administration, party, and President in power when China slid into the grip of Communism, the possibility must be reckoned with, then as now, that the weight of events can slip out of the grasp of great powers — even America. Faced with the seemingly unprecedented drift of nations away from the agenda and interest of the United States — including allies, enemies, and strategic competitors alike — the new catchphrase for the times could well be “Who lost Earth?”
History reminds us that the world often demands of policy that which mere mortals cannot provide. Dilemmas are old as sin, and one of the more painful lessons of world hegemony is that you cannot always have your cake and eat it too. China remains the classic example. In the wake of the Second World War, the U.S. funneled money to the Nationalists in order to tip the balance of power away from Mao Tse-tung. But Mao’s insurrection, fueled by the defeat of Japan, was powerful enough to throw American strategists of the finest pedigree into a very particular crisis. Too little money, and not only would the Nationalists crumble but the Truman administration would seem resigned to Communism; too much, and — as had been made clear — the clumsy and poorly led Nationalist armies would go down to defeat anyway having done the extra disservice of draining the American treasury at a time of sharpest need.
Another such pickle transpired in Vietnam — back before the arrival of a single U.S. “military advisor.” There — and in a very similar vein — the trouble was that the French empire was collapsing, on account of not just indigenous fervor but metropolitan economics. France was bankrupting herself trying to keep an empire, and given the condition of postwar European infrastructure this was about as stunning as a sunrise at dawn. The U.S. faced an ugly paradox: paying France to fight a losing war against the Viet Minh would parody the slow-mo failure in China; but failing to arm and underwrite the French army’s militarist nostalgia trip in Indochina would cause the collapse of the French economy — which was on toothpick stilts as it was. The default of the government would tip Paris at once into the hands of impoverished Communism. NATO would be a dead duck, and America’s grand anticommunist strategy a dead dog.
WE’RE NOT SO DIFFERENT, then and now. Bush can always be blamed by critics for hurling us into a place — Iraq — we need never have been, but boils are boils and if not lanced they tend to explode in untidy fashion. What had already metastasized in the Islamic world — most particularly, the secret of the Bomb — was not and could not be reversed or even entombed in carbonite. To crib from Trotsky: you may not be interested in taking the plunge, but the plunge, all too often, is interested in taking you. Such are the times in which we live. Russia is steadfast in its determination to not be Western. China continues to consider itself another (that is, not our) planet. India and Japan are on America’s side, but for their own reasons, and South America and Africa remain as alienated as ever. Western Europe loves us no more than it ever has, intent on trending toward that vaunted future Elysium of independent grandeur. And the Middle East is a cauldron of revilement.
That the world has turned largely against the basic American agenda — with the slim exception of a bias toward profitable trade and democracy — can be blamed on the Bush administration, whose problem it is (for now). But responsibility is not exclusively fault. The direction of Earth today is governed by anti-American forces, primarily cultural, that are partially a consequence of administration policy but, more broadly, are the result of system-level refusals to maintain the 1990s in supposedly globalized and pro-American fashion. May we not forget how deep anti-Americanism ran, in those days, from Serbia to Afghanistan to China and beyond.
THE GOOD NEWS, such as it is, is that bleaker times have presaged today’s. The situation in the 1970s was dire enough for one Jean-Francois Revel to subtitle his book, The Totalitarian Temptation, as Why Is U.S. Foreign Policy Failing Almost Everywhere? “Why,” he asked,
is Soviet totalitarianism popular in Africa? Why is Castro a star and Kissinger is a villain, in spite of his brief lionization and notwithstanding his credentials as a detente maker? Why does the President of the United States have to be heavily protected in Rome, Tokyo, Paris, or Stockholm against hostile demonstrators while in some Western cities any Eastern statesman walks or drives peacefully through friendly or indifferent crowds?
The irony of the age is that this ripe anti-Americanism was exacerbated and abated as the result of over 60 military operations conducted by the U.S. Armed Forces between 1949 and 1989. Gore Vidal cites this fact in his missive entitled Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to Be So Hated, but there is no doubt that at the fall of the Berlin Wall international good will for America was at an all-time high that was more or less maintained through the month of September, 2001.
This result was the hard-earned effort very much in keeping with the vision of Earth described by the very un-neocon James Baker: “I was of a generation that embraced wholeheartedly the concept of Pax Americana, an America engaged as a force for creative and constructive change around the world…. In my mind, this has always simply been a given.” The key feature of Baker’s outlook — like that of Woodrow Wilson, in an irony of its own — is the ingrained desire that American intervention be a tool for peace, undertaken by peaceful means, with violence only as a last resort: that is, after the war had already started. The profundity of the war in Iraq is precisely the sharpness of its break in American policy from that venerable principle.
AND SURE ENOUGH the war in Iraq has brought on a current crisis that will shape American politics for, at a minimum, the next four years. Regardless of one’s opinion on that war, and on those who support and oppose it, the feeling of doom and gloom that prevails when the conversation turns to Iran and our options ought to be held at some kind of bay. The consolation of history lends a perspective of its own which ought to encourage not only prudence but steadfastness. Earth has been more lost to us than this. The Herculean task of American foreign policy is to eliminate our enemies faster than, in the process of elimination, we can create them. In the process, it’s is good to know, and to know how, we squared the circle in even darker times.