The not-so-new world order
George F. Giacomini Jr.
June 5, 1994
Delivered to Santa Clara University students participating in the Honors Program, George Giacomini’s address from 1994 brings a historian’s eye to bear on then-recent world events to put them in perspective. One of the assessments then in vogue was that, with the end of the Cold War, liberal democracy and market capitalism had triumphed; political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s argument that this marked, in effect, the end of history was much-cited. Giacomini saw – and sees – things a bit differeintly. With the end of the Cold War, he saw the United States as positioned in an older, familiar situation. And this was not necessarily a good thing.
Father President, members of the faculty and administration, honorees, ladies and gentlemen.
Let me begin by adding my congratulations to the others for your accomplishments and achievements. You can all be proud of yourselves for representing the highest of academic standards.
There is an old phrase about being hoist on your own petard, that is, being caught in your own trap. And that’s me. Some years ago when I suggested that the Brutocao Teaching Award winner give the address to this Honors Convocation, I did not think that I would be in that position. My career as a faculty member at Santa Clara has been somewhat unusual. All I ever wanted to do was teach, and I have always done so. Yet when I calculate the number of years that I have taught full time, I find that it amounts to only 11 of my 32 years here. Thus you can see why I did not expect to receive the Brutocao Award.
Since I am a diplomatic historian, I thought I would share with you this afternoon some of my thoughts and historical perspectives about the singularly uncertain world of diplomacy and foreign policy in which we find ourselves today.
The mood of the country today is something like its mood in 1946-47. The allies had defeated the Axis powers, and the United States (by its own admission) was the greatest power on earth. Yet there was little time to savor the victory and a high degree of frustration developed. The hot war, almost over night, had turned into a Cold War; old allies had become new adversaries; and the nation embarked on a 45-year effort to contain the spread of Communism. And then we won again and the Cold War was over.
With the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union we stopped talking about the Cold War and began talking about “The New World Order” – an upbeat, progressive sounding term implying to Americans of 1990, a world that is essentially peaceful and more and more becoming like us – that is more democratic and more capitalistic.
And yet as we tick off the trouble spots of today, that optimistic promise of a new world order of just a few years ago, has vanished and there is increasing frustration at the apparent impotence of the United States.
I have two major points: The first is to suggest that, if history is to serve as a guide from which we can learn, then the American foreign policy experience is not a good teacher. And secondly, this “new world order” in which we as a nation must now operate, is really not very new – in fact we might call it the “not-so-new” New World Order. It is a world order that in many ways is reminiscent of the 19th century – replete with national and economic rivalries – and in which no one nation exercised unquestioned leadership. It is important to note, that was a world in which the United States was not a significant international player. It was a world from which we derive little “experience.” Let’s look for a bit at each of these points.
The United States, from its beginning (even before it was the United States) has been a conscious rejection of things European. America was new, Europe old; America was republican, Europe monarchical; Americans were free (tell that to the African-American slaves), Europeans were enslaved. Europeans themselves recognized the differences. In the 18th century the Frenchman Crevecouer asked: “What then is this American, this new man?” In the 19th century, Goethe wrote: “Amerika, du hast es besser.” (“America, you have it better.”) Better than what? Better than Europe.
The rejection of Europe and European ways was possible in the 19th century, when the United States began to come of age as a nation, because we developed, buffered by two great oceans and unimpeded by threatening neighbors. The United States was able to spend much of the 19th century looking westward, away from Europe, and filling out its continental borders and developing its resources.
This geographic isolation permitted the United States to develop a somewhat skewed, or at least I think unrealistic, view of the world and that view has influenced its policies down to the present.
In the 19th century we were not part of the great power structure, and what we saw of it we didn’t like. We formed our ideas in that context. Sheltered by nature/geography, we could not understand why the Europeans were always involved in petty squabbles and seemingly constant warfare. We were above this. This view of the world helped to shape our policies and, in our own mind, define our responsibilities. It was not enough simply to identify and act upon “national interests.” That is what the decadent Europeans did and look where it got them.
Rather, we would follow policies that reflected our experience, a most providential one. We saw ourselves as a covenanted people, God’s instruments in spreading liberty to those less fortunate. And anyone who interfered with our mission, our Manifest Destiny, would be seen for what they were – obstacles to God’s plan who needed to be removed. We rejected the notion that strife between nations was normal, rejected power politics and balances of powers that seemed inherent to the European way.
Instead, we embraced the idea that over and above the interests of individual states there were greater unifying interests: All nations wanted peace, all wanted justice among nations, all wanted the advancement of the welfare of mankind. And, as we saw the collapse of the old 19th century order in the Great War of 1914, it was clear to most Americans that all nations would also want to cooperate with others in international organizations that would eliminate war and power politics. This is the Wilsonian vision that dominated so much of American diplomacy in the 20th century – Wilson with his League of Nations and FDR his United Nations.
The Cold War of the last 45 or 50 years hasn’t helped sharpen our vision much. It simply perpetuated our tendency to see the world in rather simple terms. In the ruin of the Second World War, for many years there was only a bi-polar world and we were seduced by its simplicity. It meant that allies did what they were told (the United States had allies, the Soviet Union had satellites). It meant that national interests became cloaked in ideology, again the simplistic contest of democracy vs. totalitarianism.
The ironic fact is that the policy we followed during the Cold War, the policy of “containment” of the Soviet Union, was just an updated version of the traditional balance of power approach which we publicly rejected. So, in order to gain public support, the rhetoric of that policy had to be put in universalist crusader terms – culminating in the notion of the United States as the defender of freedom against the evil empire. It is only in recent years, but I think well before the Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed, that we began to see that the bi-polar world of the 1950s had become a multi-polar one. And we began to realize that it is much more difficult to deal with the many than the one. The challenge to the United States today is to learn how to adjust to a very complex world with which we have never really had to deal. It is not the 20th century world of one on one; but the 19th century world of which we were not a part. It is a world in which our interests are not always clear. It is a world not of contrasts but of shadings; not of black and white but varieties of grey. It is a world that calls upon the United States to cooperate with others, as individual states and within the United Nations; it is a world that calls for us to adapt to a modified balance of power approach to international relations. It is not a Wilsonian world but a Bismarckian one. And the danger is that we will approach this 19th century world with our 20th century experience.
I see this experience as the new Isolationism, which has been a powerful force in our history. There is the tendency for Americans to see it as a solution to current complexities. I don’t mean the isolation of the 19th century – both a physical and an emotional separateness – that is no longer possible, but the isolation of the 20th century, the isolation that comes from being the greatest of the great powers, the isolation of the Lone Ranger, of the big brother upon whom rests all the responsibility for what happens. That mentality, I think, is a real danger. It appeals, of course, to our sense of individualism and even our vanity – if you want something done right, do it yourself. It is the sentiment of the 1890s Secretary of State Richard Olney who told the British that “Our fiat is law” in the Western Hemisphere. It is the sentiment of John F. Kennedy who told us and the world that we would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardships, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” It is what a British historian described as “The Illusion of American Omnipotence.” If our cause is just, if our end is good, then it must be do-able – for Americans the desirable is always the possible. Into the complexities of the new world order of the 21st century, I do not believe that thinking will serve us well.
On the other hand, we will, I believe, be able to play a more balanced and effective role in this new world if we follow the more limited advice of other Americans. Some 20 years ago, Richard Nixon anticipated this new world when he said:
“The time has passed when America will make every other nation’s conflict our own, or make every other nations’ future our responsibility or presume to tell the people of other nations how to manage their own affairs.” (1973)
In different words he was echoing the advice of an earlier president, John Quincy Adams, who in 1821 as secretary of state, laid down this approach for the United States. Adams said:
“Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will be America’s heart, her benedictions, and her prayers. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. ”
He concluded that were the United States to become involved in other nations’ business, even for the noblest of motives, “The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force … She might become the dictatress of the world. She would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit.”
This I think is the policy the Clinton administration is trying to follow. Early last year, the number three man in the State Department, Peter Tarnoff, made a speech to reporters and told them that the United States could not solve all the world’s problems, and even if it wanted to, it could not afford to do so. There was an outcry that the Clinton administration was giving up America’s world leadership, and Secretary of State Christopher made the rounds on Capitol Hill reassuring people that we would remain the major player in world affairs. Yet I think the policies followed in Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia, and elsewhere, much criticized for their apparent indecisiveness, reflect that, in fact, America’s priorities were being reordered and the United States would take the point role only in cases where our national interest was directly and immediately involved.
It means that we will no longer investigate every political mugging or ideological fight on the block. Above all it should mean an end to our trying to fashion other nations into our image and to export our brand of democracy to places which cannot use it and to peoples who may not want it.
This month we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the landings in Normandy during World War II, and next year we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of that great struggle – which some have called the last “good” or the last “clean” war. I would prefer to call it the last “simple” war, because even today, it is still seen in simple terms of freedom vs. slavery, good vs. evil, heroes vs. villains. These are the kind of stark contrasts, the Hollywood approach, that Americans like so much but which so infrequently exist except in our imaginations. They certainly do not exist in the New World Order.
Thus it seems to me that we are in for a very long period of adjustment to a new world in which, Henry Kissinger says: “the fulfillment of American ideals will have to be sought in the patient accumulation of partial successes.” That is not a very satisfying projection for most Americans, it is not very dramatic, and its not very clear cut. But one of the things we, as an impatient, action-oriented people, have learned during the long twilight struggle of the Cold War is that patience can pay off. And so, we must get used to a multi-polar world; an interdependent transnational economic system; and a shifting of focus away from Europe to a more global world-view. We must get used to a world without simple answers to complex questions; without quick fixes to problems either at home or around the world. And especially we should remember, despite our very real idealism and deep missionary impulses as a nation – that we should “go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
Perhaps this has been more of a history lesson than you wanted this afternoon, but I hope that some of the things I have said have given you food for thought and I will be happy to try to answer any questions you might have.