The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Author: William Pfaff

Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Walker & Company; 1 edition (May 25, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0802716997
ISBN-13: 978-0802716996

Product Description

William Pfaff’s latest book is an interpretation of the cultural origins of an American outlook that since the Second World War has inspired a series of generally unsuccessful American military interventions into non-Western countries, the most dramatic of them the defeat in Vietnam. These culminated in the 2001-2003 invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, neither of them successfully settled (or indeed “won”) at the time of this book’s publication, in June 2010 – when Washington was also contemplating the possibility of a military intervention into Iran to destroy that country’s nuclear industry.

THE IRONY OF MANIFEST DESTINY contends that the United States’ geographical distance and cultural isolation from the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment and its consequences permanently influenced Americans’ view of the world, and of their own society. The radicalism of the French Revolution greatly disturbed Americans. The Napoleonic Wars, the revolutionary events of 1848, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the Paris Commune were to Americans remote and threatening events.

Yet proclamation of a united German Empire in Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors in 1871, and the establishment of the French Third Republic, created the twentieth-century European world and the two great “world” wars into which the United States eventually was swept.

America’s long national isolation, and the isolationist popular political attitudes accompanying it, spared the United States from Europe’s revolutionary conversion from the religious beliefs and expectations of the Western past to the “Modern Paganism” of the Enlightenment, whose progressive beliefs and aggressive secular utopianism subsequently dominated European thought. These were eventually implicated in the creation of the twentieth century’s totalitarian regimes and wars. The United States shared this experience only as it ended in Europe, when America could assume the role of the saviour nation from abroad, the leading world power, and global reformer.

From this, and from the disastrous mutual misconceptions of the supposed “clash of civilizations” with Islam, there emerged the new American ideology of universal democratization and global military domination, which now, Pfaff argues, is approaching its climax -- and its failure.

Editorial Reviews

"In an age of charlatans and poseurs, William Pfaff has long stood for realism and sobriety. With its penetrating critique of the secular utopianism that perverts American statecraft, The Irony of Manifest Destiny affirms his standing as our wisest critic of U.S. foreign policy."--Andrew J. Bacevich, author of The Limits of Power and Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War

"Eleanor Roosevelt once said that wishful thinking was America's 'besetting sin.' In an era of seemingly permanent war, when the doctrine of American exceptionalism and the manifest destiny of the United States reigns virtually unchallenged in Washington, William Pfaff's lucid, dismayed commentary on the follies of such triumphalism has been an island of reason in the imperial sea. If his prescriptions, which hearken back to the America of foreign policy commonsense--that is, to George Kennan rather than George W. Bush, and, alas Barack Obama too--had been followed, the United States and the world would be in a far, far better situation. As things stand, though, Pfaff's clarity and rigor at least offer posterity a way of understanding what actually happened, and why, when national power and national blindness combined to lead the United States down the path of utopian nationalism and in the process become both a danger to the world and to itself."--David Rieff, author of At The Point of a Gun

"Anyone fortunate enough to have read the International Herald Tribune over the last several decades knows William Pfaff as the thoughtful and original American heir to George Kennan's sober Niebuhurian realism. Now, in his brilliant new essay on American foreign policy, Pfaff has applied his prudent realist vision to deconstructing the "tragedy" of America's global interventionism. In the name of what he calls "secular utopianism," Pfaff sees in America's increasingly imperialist foreign policy a residue of Enlightenment exceptionalism - America as a beacon of liberty and democracy's global "keeper." He shows persuasively why al Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism are less perilous than we think, why our interventions in Iraq, Iran and Pakistan are successors to the futility of Vietnam, and why - despite his new spirit of multilateralism - President Obama is caught up in overseas policies likely to fail. This is a book by an American looking from the outside in that needs to be read by every political leader and thinker caught on the inside looking out - most of all by President Obama, who celebrates Niebuhr in theory but seems caught up in the insidious practices of Dick Cheney and George Bush, Jr."--Benjamin R. Barber, Distinguished Senior Fellow, Demos, author, Consumed and Jihad vs. McWorld

Special Article

Book Review of The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy

Published in Strategy, London,The International Institute for Strategic Studies


It would be comforting to believe that truly great nations save themselves from the consequences of their periodic follies thanks to an outsized capacity for enlightened self-criticism. If so, there may be hope still for America. Not since Vietnam have American critics from all sides held up national policies and institutions to such a searching and pitiless examination. In this universe, Bill Pfaff has long occupied a special place. He is a particular American specialty: the learned and cultivated expatriate who knows his country all the better for living outside it. By now, Pfaff has been trying to talk sense to his countrymen for a long time.

His latest book pulls together a lifetime of moral and philosophical reflection on the world, its peoples and nations, and applies it to America’s own path through history and the increasingly unpromising vista that appears to lie ahead. Pfaff sees today’s America as an offspring of the Enlightenment, which substituted the active pursuit of secular goals in this world for an otherworldly pursuit of religious goals in the next. In other words, Western powers began trying to create Heaven on Earth. This redirection of religious fervour into the pursuit of worldly power explains, Pfaff argues, the West’s creativity and dynamism.

But abandoning otherworldly religious restraint also made the West’s pursuit of earthly power extremely dangerous. Hence, the terrible violence and ruthless aggrandisement that characterise Western history. To try to control their violence, the Western powers invented the Westphalian balance of power. To control the world, they built the various European empires. The First and Second World Wars marked the breakdown of both structures – the European balance and the Western empires. With the final defeat of European imperialism in the Second World War, a Wilsonian goal pursued by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Americans foresaw a new and less exploitative global order in which the United States would take charge of history. The Cold War challenged and delayed American hopes. Nevertheless, a new system of independent but often unstable states was struggling to emerge from the old empires, and the United States did grow increasingly engaged in trying to bring order to this new global system.

With the Soviet collapse, American elites felt entitled by history to impose their secular vision of global order on the rest of the world. America’s continental Manifest Destiny went global as Washington embarked upon its quest to manage the world. Americans convinced themselves that the triumph of their values was foreordained and anyway represented the best outcome for mankind. Pfaff writes eloquently of the natural reaction of other cultures against this American assault. Imposing American values on the rest of the world, often by the reckless use of American military power, exacts a terrible cost from hapless populations caught up in the process. Pfaff discourses at length on the particular reasons for the violent resistance of Islamic countries. Recent centuries have not been so kind to Islamic civilisation, Arabs in particular. Pfaff warns of the hopelessness and danger of the path the United States has been following in the Middle East. He also notes how America’s hegemonic vocation impoverishes and brutalises American life. He speaks at length of the bounding growth of American militarism, deplores the huge role the military has come to play in the American government and denounces what he sees as the largely baseless manipulation of ‘terrorism’ to justify an unconscionable build-up of military force.

Pfaff’s book is a treasure chest of intelligent commentary on a great swathe of history and on a broad range of current issues. Unsurprisingly, much is controversial, and some specific arguments seem strained and rather didactic. While the book is assiduously free of cheap anti-Americanism, it may be argued that it lacks sympathy for the American predicament. A great many people in the West and elsewhere believe it is American power that conserves what little order still prevails in the world. But for too long these hegemonic arguments have had an intellectual free pass. They are not the future. They need the vigorous challenge that Pfaff provides. The United States is lucky to have so honourable, powerful and loyal a critic.

About the Author

William Pfaff (born in December 1928) is an American author, op-ed columnist for the International Herald Tribune and frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books. He was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and is of German, English, and Irish origin. He currently resides in Paris.

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