America has had a fairly inscrutable history. Haven to the oppressed in the European continent, its early settlers, while relishing the fruits of freedom, pretty much exterminated its indigenous inhabitants. At the same time, as a reaction to absolutist monarchies elsewhere in the world it created pluralist institutions. In this ‘New World’ God did not supposedly anoint Kings with divine rights, but imparted them directly to the people through the Constitution. While leaders penned and pronounced praises to liberty in the Federalist Papers written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, for instance, notions of equality were not extended to their black African slaves. While they were explicit in expressions of their new world coming to the aid of the old, their entry into the two World Wars of the twentieth century was only after their interests were directly threatened. They initiated the use of nuclear weapons of mass destruction in warfare, only to champion their elimination when others, particularly not of their liking, sought to acquire them. While their intelligence agents relentlessly worked towards regime-changes in other countries, they themselves reacted adversely when others allegedly sought to do the same in theirs. So, how did America, such a bundle of contradictions, project itself as a beacon of values-based morality on the international scene over such a sustained period of time?
The answer perhaps lies in what Americans have always excelled in – effective marketing. In 1775 Thomas Paine published ‘Common Sense’, which historian Gordon Wood saw as “the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire revolutionary era”. It marshalled arguments for the fight for liberty of the 13 American colonies against the British. The fact that the American Revolution almost coincided with its French counterpart helped, and Viscount de Tocqueville in his two works, Democracy in America (in the 1830s) and The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856) extolled American values, viewing them as a healthy relationship between the market and the State. Soon America was being self-projected as the ‘City on the Shining Hill’, with a manifest destiny to expand territorially and ideologically. Eventually a political culture evolved that stressed America’s exceptionalism.
American support to allies helped defeat German Nazism and Japanese imperial might. The establishment of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions on American soil aided the perception of America as the leader of the free world. USA saw itself charged with the responsibility of ‘containment’, a term coined by its diplomat George Kennan, of Soviet expansionism and communism. When Karl Marx’s theories were turned on its head and instead of capitalism it was communism that collapsed due to its inner contradictions, America emerged as the unchallenged superpower. With this came hubris. Its ultimate evidence was the 2003 invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush. Bush understandably made no claims to higher enlightenment but his administration was moved by others who did. They were neo-conservatives like Paul Wolfowitz, Charles Krauthammer, and Douglas Feith, disciples of Professor Leo Strauss, a German-American thinker deeply influenced by the Greek philosopher Plato.
Plato believed only a handful of individuals truly understood the essence of what was great and good, calling them philosopher kings. He lauded empiricism over abstraction, characterised by the most famous apologue in philosophy, the allegory of the cave. Ancient sources are often distorted to justify current unsavoury acts. Even as the neo-cons were pushing their interpretation of Platonism, they contrasted with the founding fathers who derived inspiration from Plato’s student, Aristotle. Aristotle had famously said “Amicus Plato sed magis amica veritas” “dear is Plato but dearer still is the truth.”
The supposed leadership role of America came with a heavy price. America was made to play the very role that traditionally the founding fathers had been wary of. While USA won the Cold War because of implosion within the adversary camp, they either drew or lost many fights like Korea or Vietnam, or became mired in an unending conflict like Afghanistan. They were the strongest power in the world, but that situation meant little because their power derived from weapons that they could never use. Others fuelled their ego of leadership of the free world, and in the words of President Donald Trump, ripped them off in trade and commerce. Newer powers were emerging, some with nuclear-weapon retaliatory capacity. China was rising, not just militarily, but also economically. In the contemporary digital world, it was catching up in Artificial Intelligence, with capacity to feed the machine more mass-data, and algorithms to improve products and services and invent new ones. A Thucydides Syndrome was in the making – the historian had observed that when Athens grew strong there was great fear in Sparta. History is replete with rising powers challenging established ones.
Trump represents the viewpoint that a so-called leadership role with its high price is not worthwhile. To him, the United States should be like any other nation that should act only in pursuance of its narrow self-interest. Values of the founding fathers are rarely, if ever, spoken of. At the United Nations, Trump rejected globalism and embraced patriotism. Many, like the Europeans, may think patriotism delinked from multilateralism leads to nationalism; in the past it has resulted in war. But Trump’s thinking may be germane to contemporary American ethos.
So has the time come for the containment of America by others in a reversal of history? The Emperor, in this case represented by the power of America, may not be wearing the clothes of the fairy tale which the clever tailor had claimed were too fine for the human eye to see, but it is only because he has chosen not to.