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
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
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.