In the early months of George Bush’s Presidency, before his reassuringly innocuous pronouncements and prudent compromises at the Nato summit had allowed the American media to discover prophetic qualities in him, editorial pages were much occupied by pundits clashing over what Bush, during the electoral campaign, had plaintively labelled ‘the vision thing’. Despite the country’s considerable domestic difficulties – some of which are on daily display in violent, drug-drenched streets within jogging distance of the White House – the President’s critics were aroused primarily by an alleged absence of vision about an exterior world whose familiar contours were melting into odd and unsettling forms.
United in demanding vision, they were divided over its substance. The militant right, which often sounds distressingly like Alcestis Dubois’s definition of fascism – ‘bayonets in search of an idea’ – indicted the President for failing to insulate the West from the narcotic of Gorbachev. Declarations, however hedged, implying that the Cold War is over were seen as evidence of a deepening addiction. The most benign consequence of collective stupefaction, it was implied, would be a lost opportunity to bury the Soviet threat. A less optimistic scenario had the Soviets achieving, at a time of maximum weakness, their greatest triumph: the collapse or emasculation of Nato.
Critics from the left also bewailed the prospective loss of opportunity. The one to which they referred, however, was the democratisation of Soviet politics and a concomitant negotiated settlement of the Cold War. But it was not only rosy visions that fuelled their antagonism to Bush’s deliberate pace and prose. Like those establishment figures, epitomised by Henry Kissinger, who are the self-conscious heirs of the Anglo-European conservative tradition in foreign policy, with its emphasis on balance and order, liberal commentators were moved by a sensation of danger impending from a massive convulsion within the Kremlin’s sphere of influence or the Soviet Union itself.
At no point evincing signs of a reflective bent, Bush has found success in public life by propitiating right-wing icons and plodding inconspicuously behind the brute force of events. But let us assume for the sake of argument that the grinding shift of plates beneath the surface of the post-war world moves the President to envisage bold departures in national policy – towards reconciliation with the Soviet Union, and an intensified collaboration with traditional allies. Could he act on the basis of such an epiphany, or would he be confined by electoral constraints rooted in the national character?
Investigating the American character is a line of work extending back at least to de Tocqueville. Rupert Wilkinson’s book, The Pursuit of the American Character,[*] is one of its more useful contemporary products. The book aims to give a fresh perspective on the tensions between individualism, community and conformity. It focuses on ‘four historic American fears that have surrounded the dual attraction of Americans to individualism and “getting together”: the fear of being owned (including fears of dependence and of being controlled and shaped by others); the fear of falling apart (a fear of anarchy and isolation); the fear of winding down (losing energy, dynamism, forward motion); and the fear of falling away from a past virtue and promise’. Only occasionally, Wilkinson concludes, can public policy be reduced to a confluence of these fears. This is so for two reasons. First, the fears often pull against each other: policies apparently responsive to one will aggravate concerns generated by another. Secondly, the practical implications of each fear are in most cases sufficiently ambiguous to permit its invocation on behalf of inconsistent policies. But at all times they infest the symbolic environment in which policy is formed. Hence, on all occasions, an American attempting to marshal support for a policy, or a foreigner attempting to influence American policy process, must employ language that pays them homage. At rare moments, rather than simply providing broad parameters and a distinctive language for discourse about foreign policy, they can coalesce to dictate its content.
The end of the 1970s was such a moment. Ronald Reagan, a man with few peers at personifying and manipulating the key symbols of American political life, seized on it. For fifteen years history had been conspiring to give him the chance. Fear of falling apart? Only a Pangloss could have lived through the social convulsions and assassinations of the Vietnam War years, and the longer-running disintegration of social mores, without beginning to doubt that the centre could hold. Fear of winding down? The prolonged humiliation of the Tehran hostage crisis, following so quickly the utter defeat of American purposes in Vietnam and experienced against the backdrop of apparently successful Soviet interventions in the Third World, signalled a stunning plunge from the apogee of world power. Fear of falling away? The tens of thousands of our Vietnamese collaborators rotting in Hanoi’s re-education camps and drowning in their efforts to escape, the killing fields assembled by the Khmer Rouge in the wake of our withdrawal from Cambodia, the sudden multiplication of Marxist regimes in all parts of the Third World – many Americans could not witness these events without the sense of a failed mission to save the world for freedom. And when, on top of military defeat, the collapse of client regimes, and the evident loss of industrial supremacy, the Soviet Union appeared to acquire, through the relentless deployment of additional weapons and the invasion of Afghanistan, the means to strike at the Persian Gulf and to neutralise our strategic deterrent, the fear of being owned was ripe for arousing.
Reagan was swept to power by a rip tide of strategic pessimism. For a moment, it seemed capable of dragging American foreign policy into the sort of perilous waters that would normally be chanced only by a profoundly dissatisfied or ideologically crazed country. The US was hardly the latter, and being pre-eminent in influence (despite the decline in its relative power), affluent, cohesive, and more dependent than ever on the pacific environment requisite for a smoothly functioning global economy, it had ample reason for satisfaction with the fundamental norms of international Order. That may well be the main reason why the moment passed without producing disaster. I suppose, however, that one should not altogether discount the reassuring Reagan persona, the tranquillising effect of a few hundred billion additional dollars spent on defence, the suppression of inflation, the renewal of economic buoyancy (albeit floating on a sea of debt), and the non-appearance, despite avid predictions to the contrary, of a Soviet challenge in the Gulf, in Europe, or anywhere else.
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[*] Harper and Row, 166 pp., £10.95, September 1988. 0 06 438876 X