In the past few weeks, Johns Hopkins’ International Studies Department has provided its students with opportunities to attend several prominent events, Two of which stand out: the commissioning ceremony for the US Navy’s latest destroyer, the USS Zumwalt, on the 15th of October; and a subsequent talk by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at the Baltimore Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on the 25th.
For the first event, it was certainly fitting that the birthplace of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, a city known for its illustrious military and naval tradition, hosted the commissioning ceremony for the US Navy’s latest and most advanced surface combatant. The speeches by Commander of the US Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus exhibited the usual strong-spirited patriotic rhetoric that earned them rapturous applause from the audience. Indeed, the significance of this event was brought home by the many aged military veterans present; who, despite their age, responded no less enthusiastically than their younger, uniformed, serving counterparts.
Subsequently, in former Israeli PM Barak’s talk, the speaker’s years of experience from decorated military and political careers were reflected in his keen awareness of the players and motivations in the Middle East, and the larger international arena. His wealth of experience also lent an added credibility to his speech. Elucidating the Israeli and HaAvoda perspective, together with his own personal convictions, former PM Barak decisively listed several bold predictions on the state of Syria, Israel’s role in the Middle East, and the realities of Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution. In particular, he came across as a strong proponent of realpolitik, and an objective, realist perspective of the international order. This realism, combined with his unique blend of humour (from food analogies to religious jibes) and direct, down-to-earth speech, endeared him to an appreciative audience.
From these two events that this writer had the privilege of attending, a coherent message about America’s present and future global position stands out. Despite the present milieu of dynamic, rapidly evolving threat paradigms that face the United States, the foundational elements of the existing liberal international order remain unchanged. The USS Zumwalt is merely the latest iteration of various combat platforms and technologies that cement America’s dominant military role in the world both now and for the foreseeable future. America has arrived at this penultimate position through its exceptionalist narrative, with a unique political set-up that, combined with zealously safeguarded individual freedoms, has produced (and will continue producing) a blend of pluralism, diversity, and innovation. As former PM Barak contributed, China’s People’s Liberation Army, well aware of its technological and doctrinal weaknesses, has never cherished the goal of matching America’s global military prowess; this was a view reinforced by his extensive personal experience with China’s military.
Nonetheless, this very same exceptionalism that helped America emerge victorious in WWII and the Cold War has not necessarily entrenched an American triumphalist narrative in the decades since, contrary to the exultant predictions of Fukuyama and Krauthammer. On the contrary, America has been hamstrung by the demands of a ‘global policeman’, a self-bestowed role borne of its unparalleled global superiority in the 90s, and more importantly, a desire to export its unique brand of freedom and democracy. This ‘missionary’ approach to democratization in a global constituency has often proven antithetical to cold, calculated, national interest, with negative results. Under the Obama Presidency, the results of these divergent post-Cold War American foreign policy actions and priorities have coalesced into a simple instinctive rule (coined by President Obama): “Don’t do stupid stuff”. Conversely, the staying power of other motivating factors such as national pride, materialistic pursuits, and authoritarian nostalgia, are reflected in the present-day political and economic success of various hybrid regimes, including a resurgent Russia.
Looking towards the future, the US faces a long tightrope walk between national self-interest and the practice of an ethical foreign policy. Ultimately, in his use of Churchill’s quote that “the pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity, while the optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty”, I believe that former PM Barak has hit the nail on its head. America will have to navigate various challenges in the immediate future (many which are of its own making, such as the entrenched Russian position in Syria); however, these rapid developments also present opportunities for a renewed American engagement with the rest of the world.
In sum, the US has not lost the core tenets of its exceptionalist narrative, namely democracy, equality, and freedom. The maintenance of this moral leadership will serve as the bedrock of America’s continued engagement with the rest of the world, and can potentially reinforce its global strength, if used in a prudent, judicial manner.
Amidst the voguish discussions on America’s waning global influence, or the explosion of antagonism towards American interference globally, it is easy to forget that America maintains a large reservoir of goodwill in some constituencies. As personally witnessed on this writer’s travels, the citizens of Kosovo remain deeply grateful for American intervention during the Kosovo War; two of the capital Pristina’s main streets are named after Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
This writer opines that alternating periods of defeatist attitudes and triumphalist rhetoric are a characteristic of America’s global position. If anything, they are a reflection of the stability of the American social, political, and economic system; its ability to bounce back from foreign policy quagmires is a direct result of America’s dynamism, encapsulated in its aforementioned pluralism, diversity, and innovation.
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