In, Out, and Down: Games Nations Play with America

Tuesday, October 30, 2001

The joke often heard back in Cold War days was "What is the purpose of NATO?" The reply: "To keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down." Cynical perhaps, but as Sigmund Freud taught us, most jokes have a ring of truth to them.

Today the question might be rephrased: "What is the purpose of international affairs?" and the answer: "To keep the Americans in, the Americans out, and the Americans down." The United States, as the world’s only superpower, provides the only game in town. How a nation plays this new game depends on what it needs most and wants most.

Keeping the Americans In

The Middle East, ever since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, has shown a pattern of nations trying to enlist the aid of outside powers. For Israel, American involvement was indispensable, first as a source of arms to guarantee its survival, then as the mediator uniquely able to create a "peace process" of negotiations with its Arab adversaries, and in the 1980s, through the quiet pressure of Secretary of State George Shultz, a guide for ridding itself of much of its socialistic economic system. When the collapse of the Soviet Union left the Palestinians without a patron, the Israelis and Palestinians decided to go it alone in the "Oslo process" aimed at a final peace agreement. When that effort went awry, President Clinton roared back into the Arab-Israeli scene, and then not only "Oslo" but the peace process itself jumped the tracks. Now the "keep America in" pressure comes from the Arab side and is working well for it through a "cease-fire" created by former senator George Mitchell. The Palestinians have now drawn the United States into an approach that expects Israel to make concessions that would endanger its security, focuses on Jewish settlements in a way certain to split the Israeli government, and has Europeans charging not only the Israeli prime minister but ordinary Israeli officials as war crimes violators. "Keeping the Americans in" continues to be a popular Middle East game.

Keeping the Americans Out

The People’s Republic of China, in contrast, continues to elbow the Americans out. It wants American companies to invest and locate and manufacture in China. But the licenses, permissions, rules, and terms it imposes are designed to deeply involve—and thereby train—local engineers and managers and to require technology sharing so as to hasten the day when China can say good-bye to the foreign presence and largely go it alone.

Strategically, China’s military capabilities and activities reveal an intention to turn the waters between mainland Asia and maritime Asia (the Korean peninsula, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia) into Chinese-dominated seas. The PRC claims as a matter of law that its national border runs in a great bulbous line to the southeast, just a few miles off the coasts of Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Chinese naval practices already have done much to incorporate the Taiwan Strait and, should Taiwan become part of the PRC, the aim of taking the farthest western Pacific waters would be virtually achieved. A recipe for confrontation with the United States now exists: what China regards as its domestic territory the rest of the world regards as international high seas and airspace. The United States Navy, as the EP-3 incident of June 2001 revealed, will be on the leading edge of this confrontation. And the danger increases as the Beijing regime’s propagandizing is strengthening the perception of its own people that defending China’s territorial integrity (as the Chinese define it) is the test of the leadership’s legitimacy.

Politically, the most successful method for keeping the Americans out has been a theory promulgated by American administration officials and academic analysts themselves: that China’s economic prosperity will inevitably bring democracy and human rights in its wake. If the attainment of freedom for the Chinese people will come automatically when GDP per capita reaches $6,000 to $8,000 sometime between, say, 2015 and 2020, then we needn’t worry much or intervene now if we see freedom suppressed. So China has fended off the United States as it continues to deny religious freedom to the Falun Gong or proceeds with its long-established ritual of acquiring a stockpile of arrested dissidents or "spies" from which to release a few whenever a high American official is about to visit.

Keeping the Americans Down

The new European game is "keep the Americans down" by pressing the United States to think and act like just one more European country: socially massive, militarily modest, and morally imperial. This game is particularly enjoyable because so many Americans of the commentator class support these ideas.

President George W. Bush’s first trip to Europe brought out the full European bill of particulars on the transgressions of America. If you paid close attention, you might notice that the charges fall into two main categories.

First are matters involving expansion of the reach of law. The Bush administration is being excoriated for its dissatisfaction with one international treaty agreement after another, from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the proposed International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Treaty on the global climate, the Biological Weapons Agreement, and more. To the Europeanist, any skepticism toward these texts is bad per se; Americans who point out the legal dangers in the drafts are sneered at.

The other cause of Europeans’ dismay with America involves issues of right and wrong, and the American administration is wrong all down the line: on the death penalty, abortion, euthanasia, health care, gender issues, and the way American officials have conducted our foreign and defense policy. The recent assault on former secretary of state Henry Kissinger launched by the British polemicist Christopher Hitchens was a spurious farrago that failed to take hold in the mainstream American media but has caught the attention of European magistrates.

These two groups of complaints might be labeled "law" and "religion," categories that define America’s differences from Europe. When the great historian Perry Miller wrote his Pulitzer Prize–winning work, The Life of the Mind in America, some three decades ago, he argued that the distinctive legal and religious mentality of a people is central to understanding them. Religion in particular would seem to most powerfully account for what the British writer A. N. Wilson noted as "the widening difference between Europe and the United States." America remains a country in which religions are a major force, while for Europeans, God is "an unnecessary hypothesis." The American theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles, a recent recipient of the red hat, pointed out that religious countries tend to regard the death penalty as just, while godless nations see no greater good than life.

America is a country of preachers and lawyers, and no citizen thinks that he or she need be ordained or admitted to the bar to act like one or both. As long as this remains the case, the United States won’t become just one more European country.

None of the above adds up to a set of guidelines for foreign policy. But then America really has not had a foreign policy since the Cold War ended a decade ago. Henry Kissinger has just published a tract entitled Does America Need a Foreign Policy? in the rather forlorn hope of convincing our citizens that the answer is yes. Rather than lead the way, we have tended to react to foreign ideas and events. As long as we continue to do so, we at least should be alert to the fact that some want us in, some want us out, and some just wish we would come down to their level.