The Paradox of a Global USA

Bruce Mazlish, Nayan Chanda and Kenneth Weisbrode
Stanford University Press
Chapter 10: Conclusion Pages 173-176

Globalization tends to produce a global society. The form of that society is, however, a matter of chance and contestation. As indicated in the introduction, as a concept globalization can function as an ideal, or vision, possibly leading to what its supporters call a global civil society. Such a society has among its aims justice, peace, and economic well-being for all, to be achieved by institutions that transcend national boundaries. Among them might be numbered the United Nations, various international courts, all sorts of nongovernmental structures, and manifold global treaties and accords, for example, those on global warming, land mines, and so forth.

Reality, however, is messy, and even at its best the institutions of global civil society generally fall far short of their ideals. Moreover, many countries and polities are hostile to the very concept of global civil society. Instead of supporting the initiatives that favor such a development, they seek to hinder it or, just as frequently, to substitute their own version of what a global society should look like. Often, this is not “civil.” Instead, it may be in the image of a religion, for example, Christian or Islamic, with universal pretensions. Or it may be pursuing a more “national” ideal.

Is this what the United States is aiming for? The United States, in the first decades after the end of World War II, bolstered this movement toward a new world order in the context of an international system based on nation-states and moving to a global order, however vague its nature. It lent support to the Nuremberg trials and its extension of war crimes to crimes against humanity, to the founding of the UN, to the Declaration of Human Rights, to global treaties in regard to the environment and to other such “global” initiatives. (1)

Then, sometime in the late sixties, possibly in relation to the Vietnam War, the United States turned away from the ideal of a global civil society and pursued another path, mostly unilateral actions to protect its own national sovereignty and security. September 11, 2001, seemed to accelerate this turn. Was this, as many of our chapters show, mere appearance, with the United States a reluctant and highly ambivalent “citizen” of the world from its beginnings and on into the present?

That question restates the paradox at the core of this book. To put it another way, it appears that the United States has contributed powerfully to globalizing the world, thus changing the nature of society on the international level but without a comparable change in the country’s consciousness. It can be argued that, though marked by ambivalence and contradictions, the American reaction to globalization is basically hostile unless that globalization is on its terms and perceived as being in its interests (defined in narrow, nationalistic terms). Putting this thesis in the most hyperbolic terms, American empire can consequently be viewed as implementing the particular vision of a global society being pursued by the hegemonic power of our times. Other versions, especially that of global civil society, are then seen as the “enemy.”

Are there any other contenders besides the United States and some aspects of Islam who wish to give global form to their own image? The European Union is preoccupied with its own expansion and the concomitant effort to hold together and achieve its own identity. When it has time and resources, it seems to favor some version of global civil society. Japan has been and is a major force in the globalization process and, despite a rising nationalism, generally supportive of moves toward global civil society. But it obviously has little aspiration to throw its weight around politically outside of Asia or to dominate global society. In the eyes of some, China has global aspirations. These may be achieved in some future time, but the evidence runs against China’s ascension in the present. Though China is on its way to being an economic powerhouse whose shadow casts itself across the globe, nothing in its ideology or history suggests a desire to establish a global China, with bases and forces scattered abroad adequate to such a mission.

At this point, the fight seems to be between an emerging global civil society and global America. The issue, of course, is more complicated than this Manichean division, and further research and thought should be addressed to the possibilities, aside from Islamic radicalism, of serious rivals to the United States as the global hegemon. This situation suggests that the potential for de-railing some sort of global civil society, which attempts to address global problems, lies very much in the hands of the United States. (2) An incipient global civil society, developing in a painful, inadequate, and stumbling fashion, may be wiped out by the direction taken by the American behemoth.

Accepting the centrality of the United States in its paradoxical relation to global society, we are led to inquire into the conditions that shape America’s behavior-a task attempted in the volume as a whole-and then to speculate about the possibilities of change in these conditions that would favor the country’s becoming a better global citizen. Consequently, this project may be said to entail certain policy implications. Needless to say, both the notion of a global civil society and the politics to which this notion leads are controversial.

With this notion in mind, let us examine what changes in America might come to favor a continuing movement toward a realistically envisioned global civil society. Such a society is certainly not a teleology and definitely not an aim shared by all the contributors to this volume, but it does seem to be in tune with the thrust of globalization itself. It accords with the fact that globalization is not the result simply of economic forces but of a human desire for a better, more humane world based on values such as peace, justice, freedom, and locally based democracy. In becoming more integrated and interdependent than ever before, human beings are moving consciously to such a world-and not in pie-in-the-sky terms but as grounded in day-to-day events of the globalization process. There appears to be much continuity in American attitudes, values, interests, and commitments over its entire history. Though their expression and intensity vary over time, they seem to persist even in the midst of change. Although the same might be said of all countries, an American claim to uniqueness and a sense of exceptionalism stand in back of much of its actions. This claim finds expression in its pulsating sense of mission, frequently in the form of Christian evangelism, which shades imperceptibly into the patriotic view of America as the beacon to the world and the carrier of freedom and democracy. What may seem like hypocrisy in this regard to others in the world is a matter of conviction in the United States. It then follows that if one is unique and exceptional, one is implicitly detached from the rest of humanity and ought not to be subjected to its laws-for example, an international criminal court-nor to its needs-for example, a common and farsighted energy policy. (3)

How might one change this situation? How to bring home the fact that the United States is subject to the “laws” of both history and humanity and not exceptional in their regard? How to break through the barriers of amnesia as to past actions and willful ignorance regarding how one’s acts are perceived by others? These traits reflect natural human tendencies and are found in many other countries, but they take on special significance in the globalizing world and America’s paradoxical role in relation to it. To effect change here means to change the consciousness of a people, and that is an extremely difficult task to achieve without cataclysmic occurrences.

The Manichean tendency is strong in the United States. Can the search for an enemy be diverted in a useful direction? One possibility is finding an enemy in, say, environmental threats. This is a major feature in today’s globalization, caused increasingly by its economics of production, made more evident by satellites conveying information about the transnational effects, and combated more and more on a global scale. However, many American institutions, especially political and military ones, prefer to target other countries as the “enemy.” This is obviously a more traditional way of choosing an enemy. It is less impersonal than finding one in the environment or in other global challenges. It is also in accord with “national” needs and serves the self-interested forces that defend the country against these traditional threats.

All of these attitudes and interests find expression in politics, which, as the cliche has it, are always local. In a representational democracy, politicians are there to respond to their constituencies’ demands, which generally tend not to be global. To go further on this topic, however, is to engage in all the problems as to how representative the American political system is. Obviously, the rich get more representation than the poor. The fight over campaign reform, gerrymandering, and such is never ending and all too frequently not successful: how to get the guardians to reform themselves? There are the structural problems such as an electoral college that tilts the field. There are the media influences, mostly under the control of multinational giants with a conservative and national agenda.

One major effect, as the Pearson and Simpson Khullar chapter confirms, is a reinforcement of the parochialism that shuts off Americans from the globalization to which they are otherwise contributing.

(1) Cf. William Korey. NGOs and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “A Curious Grapevine” (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998).

(2) Subsequent to the conference that served as the background for this present volume, Richard Haass published his book, The Opportunity: America’s Moment to Alter History’s Course (New York: Public Affairs, 2006), which takes a similar position.

(3) In an incisive analysis, Jason Ralph, in “Between Cosmopolitan and American Democracy: Understanding US Opposition to the International Court,” International Relations, 17 (2003), pp 195-212, illustrates how the commitment to democracy of the US works to justify its opposition to the International Criminal Court while allowing America to claim the role of being the moral arbitrator of the world.

Copyright 2007 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. All rights reserved. By permission of the publisher, No further use, distribution or reproduction of the material is allowed without the prior written permission of the publisher.