Convocation Addresses

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.

Idealism and Education

By Timothy J. O’Keefe

This article is based on a talk given by Timothy O’Keefe at the Honors Convocation in June 1990. It appeared in Santa Clara Magazine in Spring 1991.

Although my topic is idealism in education, I would like to let you know I am no unrealistic visionary. As the father of four teenage children, I can’t be. I know there are real, pragmatic, down to earth benefits from college education, not just for the young woman or man, but for parents. I remember my 20th college reunion and the old men, my classmates, whom I didn’t recognize: heavy, bald, gray-haired. By contrast, the 30th reunion group, with whom we shared the celebration, was a better-looking group: hair-grown-back, trim, athletic. My wife reminded me that, by that time, their children had left home. I am convinced a university is that magical place where humanity is restored to adolescents, a place that develops maturity, responsibility, and liberation-for students and parents.

As you may know, I am a historian and, like most historians, I am most comfortable when using history to illustrate a point. So, I want to begin with a story drawn from my own special area of interest, the history of Ireland, although I do so with a certain amount of trepidation. I am reminded of the dedication page of a very good and provocative book on the Irish land issue of the 19th century. These dedications are usually ritual acts of piety in which one thanks one’s husband or wife for unflagging and cheerful support, and one’s children for refraining from making unnecessary noise around the house for two or three years. In this particular book, however, the author had the honesty to say what she thought. Singling out her husband, she thanked him for his “monumental indifference” to the subject of her book.

Well, at the risk of your “monumental indifference” to anything to do with Ireland, I am still going to start with a reference to the history of that most interesting of countries. Irish history is extraordinary in Europe because it is the history of a people who were subject to colonial domination for nearly 800 years. During that period, they were subjected to political, economic, and religious persecution. The persecution was also cultural. Irish traditions, dress, social structure, law, and customs were systemically destroyed. Even the native language was prohibited and scorned as primitive. So pervasive and insidious was the colonial influence that the Irish themselves often rejected their own traditions. Many became ashamed of their own culture and their own past. Gaelic-speaking parents punished their children for lapsing into Gaelic, rather than speaking the English of the schoolroom. This pattern lasted until, at the end of the 19th century, some young intellectuals began to instruct the nation in its own past, to study its native language, to respect its customs and traditions, and to restore the self-respect of the Irish people.

Perhaps the most famous of these was the writer William Butler Yeats. He wrote poetry and plays that stirred the soul of young and old alike. Unable to write in Gaelic, he wrote a number of works that reached into Celtic mythology for their themes. It wasn’t very many years later that a few hundred young men and women, university students, teachers, clerks-a number of them addicted to writing not very good verse-did, in fact, take up the struggle to free Ireland from the English.

The 1916 Easter revolution was led by the romantic young principal of a boys’ school, Patrick Pearse, and several like-minded visionaries, who dreamed of a homeland that was a free and independent republic, no longer controlled by strangers. The project seemed doomed from the start as the young rebels marched ostentatiously into the center of Dublin, and Pearse read the proclamation of the Irish republic in front of the post office building. It was a daring and foolish piece of bravado. Pearse stood theatrically posed against the ionic portico of the post office, a giant proscenium for the coming drama. Led by “three bad poets,” as Pearse called himself and his two closest colleagues, these young idealists tried to take on the might of the entire British empire, the greatest and most resourceful colonial power the world had ever known.

For six days, Dublin became a battleground. Much of the center of the city was destroyed. And, of course, the poets, the schoolmasters, and the visionaries lost. Many of the leaders, those who weren’t killed in the fighting, were executed before a firing squad. The modest schoolmen, the lovers of the old language and literature, the weavers of poems based on the ancient myths, the playwrights-these were the architects of revolution. And, as it turned out, they also became the architects of an independent nation, for it was only a matter of months before other young men and women again tried to grasp the elusive ideal of liberty and national independence. The seemingly hopeless struggle was resumed, and so powerful were these ideals that an autonomous Irish state finally became a reality. It was no coincidence that in the new state Yeats became a senator and the poet and folklorist Douglas Hyde became the first president. And the premier political leader of the country, Eamon de Valera, who guided its destinies for three decades, was a mathematician and schoolteacher.

The moral of the story is fairly obvious. It was the men and women of ideals, and their ideas, profoundly believed in, that shaped the history of a nation. Certainly, the parallels to our own times are manifest. This past year has been almost incredible in its dramatic manifestations of the power of ideas and the dedication and sacrifice of those who hold them so fervently. In countries far larger than Ireland and in struggles even more desperate, idealists and dreamers have risked their lives for their beliefs, giving the most vivid testimony to the power of that idealism. None of us can forget that most passionate and eloquent statement of belief in individual freedom against arbitrary power by the Chinese students in Tiananmen Square. Throughout Eastern Europe-in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, Eastern Germany, and, most recently, the Baltic Republics-those who have articulated the highest aspirations of their people, those who have become the leading figures within the newly autonomous nations are those who live in a world of ideas: schoolteachers, journalists, musicians, playwrights, scientists.

Obviously, there is an enormous distance between Santa Clara and revolutionary Dublin or contemporary Warsaw, Beijing, Bucharest, or Berlin. Luckily, it is unlikely we will be faced with occasions for the heroic display of idealism that these women and men have shown us. If anything, we live in a society that seems, at least by contrast with the rest of the world, to be surfeited with comfort, security, and apathy. One could go further: While the rest of the world is inspired by the magic of the words democracy, freedom, independence, liberty, Americans seem still lost in the pervasive cult of material accumulation, of “me first,” of success at any price, which were the hallmarks of the past decade. There are all too many indications of problems in our own society: the recent racial outrage in New York City; incidents of racism and sexism on college campuses, not excluding our own; flagrant disregard of standards of honesty among some of the highest ranking figures in business; and, recently, the dissimulation and dishonesty of some public officials and military officers.

These could make an observer conclude we are out of step with the rest of the world. Indeed, one is again tempted to cite one of the most often-quoted, but most despairing passages from the poems of W. B. Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” (“The Second Coming,” 1920-21). But the best can’t lack conviction, if our society is to endure. Today we are honoring our best. You are our idealists, the students who have demonstrated your belief in, and commitment to, the life of the mind. You are the ones who are willing to discipline yourselves to the hard labor of study: to laboratory experimentation, library research, field observation, data analysis, and dreaded senior theses. And you are the women and men who have the ability to set standards, to promote change, and to improve our society. In a selfish, institutional sense, we at Santa Clara have a vested interest in you: You represent the best of a Santa Clara education. If we fail with you, we fail as an institution, for you will be Santa Clara University’s presence in the world. In addition to pursuing learning as valuable in itself, the Jesuit ideal has always been to use education and the power of knowledge for the good of others: to be active in society; to become involved in problems of poverty, inequality, racism, illiteracy, hunger, disease.

We are certainly not alone in that goal, but I hope we are more consciously grounded in the values that are integral to the larger purposes of human existence. President Donald Kennedy, the head of a small, neighboring institution in Palo Alto, offered some good advice in a recent address. When problems look too big to solve, “choose some little nearby corner of the problem and get to work on it, patiently and alone.” Certainly, Santa Clara students, educated in the Jesuit tradition, could agree with that simple methodology. You, especially you being honored here, can make a difference in society. But also, by using the gifts God has given you, which you have worked so hard to develop, you are making a difference in yourselves. This was stated eloquently by a student who graduated from Santa Clara a couple years ago. I would like to quote from a letter he wrote from Oxford where he is continuing his studies: “I believe that the more one gets to know something, the more she or he becomes like it. The more a man or woman spends time consorting with trivial thoughts, the more such triviality constitutes his or her personality, and whatever in that man or woman that had the promise of human greatness gradually dies. Furthermore, the society of such people is condemned to the same fate. On the other hand, whoever lives in contact with human greatness gradually grows into his or her own humanity.” I hope each of you continues to grow into that humanity, that you continue to find pleasure in what you study, that you enrich society with your gifts, and that you keep in a corner of your heart a place for your highest ideals.

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