Errant European

This is my answer – which first appeared in The Hegemonist – to the question: “What is the biggest foreign policy challenge the U.S. faces?”

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Others will say it’s brokering a Middle East Peace, solving climate change and resolving energy dependence, or defeating obscurantist terrorist groups. All these are important, vitally so. But I say the biggest challenge is self-perception, which conditions American responses to all other challenges, whether foreign or domestic. Is the United States “the indispensable nation” as Madeleine Albright (and President Clinton) liked to say, or the Reagan/Winthrop “shining city on the hill?”

While I think it’s good to aspire to shining images and to try to be as indispensable as possible, what I think the U.S. needs is a dose of humility. Not the kind that George W. Bush preached and didn’t practice: “If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us; if we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us,” said he during the 2000 campaign. Sounded like Field of Dreams.

More like Field of Nightmares, but we’re rid of him, if not his legacy. So if he gave humility a bad rep, how can we describe what is a worthy stance for a great country suffering from a case of post-Bush reality?

How about “normal country?” Hey U.S. – be normal! Normal countries have ups and downs, and we’re dealing with the downs right now. But like manic-depressives, Americans should be wary of going from a self-perception of shining indispensability to morose has-been-ness in the space of a couple of months.

Other countries will still call for “US Leadership,” and the United States should be happy to oblige, as long as it’s not just a more polite version of “with us or against us.” You can lead by example, and probably should. There’s nothing worse than “do as I say…”

From my days at NATO in the mid-nineties (and it really hasn’t changed), I knew that everyone knows that the US was the first among consensual equals. The US pays the most into the Alliance common budgets, and the US defense establishment dwarfs all the others combined. But it was bad form to ever remind Allies of that. It was a given. I remember a Big Four (US, UK, France, Germany) ambassador reminding a smaller country’s ambassador of their relatively meager contribution to the Alliance’s budgets. Boy did that go over badly. No need to rub things in, or to play “my GDP, my population” is bigger than…

So a little dose of normality – or accepting that the US, while big, rich, and powerful, does not have all the solutions – is a bigger challenge than might seem evident. It means admitting that others might have better approaches, for example. Learning from other countries’ experience in everything from micro-finance (how about a Grameen Bank approach to sub-prime repossessions in Florida?) to alternative energy (Germany and Denmark could teach Americans a thing or two about wind power).

Normalcy – hasn’t sounded good since Warren Harding mangled the word “normality” – but it might be a way for the U.S. to navigate what is a very abnormal situation in the world.

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P.S. To readers whose second (or nth) language is English: please don’t use the term “normalcy,” though it is in Webster’s Dictionary. You’ll sound like Warren Harding, who, until George W. Bush usurped his place, had always ranked as the worst ever American President.

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