What will it take to bring America to its senses?

Liberalism in the US is dead ... and frightening right wing isolationism very much alive

by Will Hutton

The Observer October 17, 1999 Pg. 29


It began sometime in the Seventies, and has been gathering pace ever since. American conservatism is now triumphant; American liberalism the creed that dare not speak its name. The consequences have been increasingly evident; the spread of states using the death penalty, the successful campaign against abortion, the plethora of poisonous right-wing radio talk shows, even the creationist movement that in Kansas has banned the teaching of Darwin all are manifestations of the new conservative ascendancy.

For most of us, the bile, xenophobia and demagoguery have seemed marginal and unimportant, but now they have spilled over and polluted the American political process in a manner that will affect us all. American Republicans killed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty last Wednesday in a vote that can only be justified by the wildest right-wing imaginings. The collective security of the world signing up to abstain from nuclear weapon testing, so cementing US nuclear superiority, has not been good enough for the American Right; instead, they want to build up the stockpile of weapons and reserve the right to test them as the US chooses. Because the Right feared that the treaty might be evaded, it has preferred a system of no policing whatsoever; it would rather rely on the alleged deterrent effect of awesome nuclear weapons than fashion a safer world. It is the ultimate degeneration of the conservative mind.

The last treaty that the US Senate rejected so emphatically was the Treaty of Versailles setting up the League of Nations in 1919, and for very similar reasons America's interests had to come first. America's refusal to join the league was fatally disabling, but more seriously it legitimised the isolationism that is never far from the surface in the US.

Ten years later, when the Wall Street Crash came, the US's instincts were to continue to go it alone despite the weaknesses of the international system. It ratcheted up the tariffs it had been raising throughout the Twenties to protect US jobs, but which only provoked an implosion of world trade that accelerated depression. The election of Roosevelt in 1932 presaged a US that, savaged by the recession and later by world war, took the lead in asserting a liberal interventionism at home and abroad to avert the same calamities. It is a tradition that has lasted for the rest of the century, but whose heartbeat has become weaker over the last 20 years.

Last week saw its most substantial reverse yet. The straws have been in the wind for some time. The US has not ratified the land-mines treaty. It will not accept the provenance of the International Criminal Court. It has not accepted targets for the reduction of noxious emissions at either the Rio or Kyoto earth summits. It has fired cruise missiles unilaterally and with no attempt at justification in international law at targets in Afghanistan and the Sudan. It will not make common cause over tightening international financial regulation. It has become ever more hawkish over trade disputes. The Senate vote refusing to ratify the test ban treaty was but the latest and most dangerous manifestation of a trend that has been growing since the Reagan years. Presidential candidate George W. Bush wants to pull out of the anti -ballistic missile treaty. The US is turning nasty.

For many in Britain, this is hard to accept. The US has been the good guy in the West's Manichean fight, first against fascism and then communism. It has guaranteed our security, kept its markets open to our goods and set the pace for the social revolutions that have defined the age. The idea that America could put itself comprehensively on the side of wrong in its international relationships is inconceivable. These are our allies, friends and fellow English-speakers; they are an extension of ourselves.

We need urgently to revise that view. The US is a foreign country. It is also, although its own commitment to its un-imperial constitution makes it reluctant to admit it, an imperial power at the centre of a global empire. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, US military, financial, corporate and technological might has no equal; it can do precisely what it likes and on the terms it likes.

In financial policy, it took advantage of the Asia crisis to insist that US and IMF bail-out packages involved the recipient countries committing themselves to selling off their indebted companies to US corporations and further committing themselves to opening up their financial markets to US banks. In its military engagements, the US has behaved more and more unilaterally so that UN resolutions become afterthoughts rather than a framework of law to be respected.

And this has been happening under a Democrat President, albeit one whose options have been heavily circumscribed not merely by the Republicans controlling both the Senate and the House but by republicanism itself becoming hysterically anti-statist , pro-free market and ideological in its stance. Yet the liberal wing of US politics cannot be excused; if it is more solid over security, financial and environmental issues, it falls into the same imperial bullying role when it comes to trade. Under the guise of wanting 'fair' trade, the US, led by unions and Democrats, has an astonishing array of tariffs, fines and penalties; it will harass suspected companies abroad and insists they comply with US trade legislation even in their own country. An increasingly protectionist Congress passed the infamous 'Super 301' legislation in 1988 that empowers the US President unilaterally to impose trade sanctions if the US does not like any individual trade practice.

Within the US, the forces arguing that America's self-interest is not served by bullying foreigners and acting unilaterally are enfeebled. The cleverness of the conservative counter-revolution is that it has exploited the traditional components of American culture individualism, the commitment to liberty expressed in the Constitution and the morality of a fervently Christian society and bent it to its own partisan ends. Any form of regulation, taxation or commitment to international collaboration is portrayed as not just economically and politically damaging, but un-American.

Part of the problem has been what Allan Bloom has called the closing of the American mind. Conservatism has paradoxically flourished in a culture whose commitment to openness has cut it off from its roots in argument and analysis. In a world of intellectual relativism, the winning argument is the one that makes the basest appeal to prejudice, and at this the free marketeers in alliance with the moral majority and Christian fundamentalists have proved masters. The worst sobriquet is to be called a liberal.

Clinton's political approach has been to confront none of this directly; he has tried to smuggle through liberal programmes while making concessions to the Right. It has been a tactical triumph but a strategic failure, so that in the aftermath of impeachment the atmosphere in Washington is sulphurous. Bipartisanship has broken down completely; even a long-standing Republican internationalist like Richard Lugar has betrayed the beliefs of a lifetime by voting against the test ban treaty.

But that betrays the wider problem. The Conservatives may not hold the White House, but intellectually and culturally they are in the ascendant. The result is that the US is turning in on itself; increasingly, it wants to run the globe according to its own political priorities. Its allies and treaty obligations can go to hell, and only events an actual nuclear conflagration or world recession seem likely to give liberal America back its confidence and political support. It is a new political paradigm. These are dark days for liberal internationalism, and British Eurosceptics should take heed. The post -war liberal order that has brought peace and prosperity needs new guardians, and the US a check on its new propensity to play the world's bully. There is only one possible political force that can play that role. It is the European Union.

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