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Friday, June 17

Americans, who are you?

At 3.79 million square miles (9.83 million km2) and with over 310 million people, the United States is the third or fourth largest country by total area, and the third largest both by land area and population. (Wikipedia)

The following is from a discussion I wrote for the comment section at Zenpundit blog, which had linked to my post "Hollowed out” Mexico and hollowed-out USA.

Visit the comment section at the Zenpundit post for background on my discussion, which was to reply to blogger Joseph Fouche's critical views on how Americans act toward others and to elaborate on what I had meant by "hollowed-out America."

I'll add here that in a response to my discussion another blogger, Madhu, made the telling observation that Americans don’t understand Europe very well so they turn to 'experts' for guidance when talking about themselves. (Zenpundit is a 'blogger's blog.' I'd say many if not most of the best bloggers in the American diplo-defense part of the blogosphere read Zenpundit.)

I agree with Madhu; outside Washington and the international trade/finance sectors many Americans don't know much about European politics and know virtually nothing about European Union policies. So they don't recognize the profound impact that EU policies are having on Washington's policies -- a point I made in my recent post about "Euism," and which I've made many times over the years on this blog.


[B]y ‘hollowing out’ of American society I was referring to what we’ve done to ourselves rather than how we’ve ’operated’ on those outside our shores. But there is one aspect of Washington’s interactions with peoples who are unfamiliar with American history that can’t be emphasized enough: Yes, Washington thinks "they’re just like us" EXCEPT when it comes to assuming they’re human.

Thus, Americans in Afghanistan can go on at great length to a Pashtun tribal leader about the need for rout out corruption in government but they can’t describe the Battle of Trenton or the Battle of Valley Forge. Yet they’re dealing with people whose lives are circumscribed by battles to maintain their independence — battles going back thousands of years and which they can describe in great detail.

And Americans can talk endlessly about the importance of democracy, but they never thought to explain to the chiefs why they came back to Afghanistan. They arrived with suitcases full of cash to buy help – but they never told the chiefs that they were there because the way al Qaeda attacked the US on 9/11 meant that many Americans couldn’t find so much as a fingernail of their massacred relatives to bury because the bodies were ground to dust.

Not to be able to bury one’s dead or even a piece of one’s dead — knowing THAT would have meant a great deal to the chiefs and those in their tribes. But the Americans never explained, never even cried, never showed emotion. THEY NEVER ACTED HUMAN; they never interacted with the Afghans in ways that are the same for all — not only all humans but all mammalian creatures. In other words, they displayed not a whit of common sense.

What do you talk about when you first sit down with a man whose life has been circumscribed by war and who knows nothing about you and your tribe? The answer is you tell me of your battles, I’ll tell you of mine and in this way we establish a commonality of experience.

You transform the rug or patch of sand you’re sitting on into the terrain of the battle, and you use sticks and stones or teacups as place markers for the troops to show how the battle was fought. In this way, you demonstrate that the battle is truly in your heart, that it means enough to you that you can bring it alive for another.

If you don’t show what’s in your heart, then you haven’t established a basis for developing a mutual understanding, so then there is no way to move off the dime. Only when you’ve demonstrated by your stories of war that your tribe also shed much blood for independence, can you move on to explaining stuff about government. You can explain that you were losing too many of your sons in battle so you devised a type of government that would help defend your freedoms and with less bloodshed. And so on.

But the history of America is one that shows a great willingness to do battle if there seemed no other option to defend Americans’ freedom. So actually Americans do have much in common with the Afghans – and it’s a key commonality. Yet it’s one we never revealed to them.

Well, I see I’ve gone on at some length and not yet gotten to the part about hollowing out. So in brief: All of Europe can fit 2-1/2 times into the continental United States. Yet one wouldn’t know that from listening to American foreign policy experts, who view the USA as if it’s a Mittel European country than can be traversed by car in an hour. Heck, one can’t even drive across Texas in a day.

America is a giant dreaming it’s a midget — and here I’m speaking of land mass and population size, not ‘civilization.’ Of course Americans owe a great deal to European civilization, but two world wars and Nato, along with a huge influx of Europeans to American universities and Washington after WW1, meant that U.S. defense/foreign policy began to reflect the strategies and tactics of the middle child in a large family — which is how small European nations have had to survive each other.

The upshot is that we have not created a distinctly American defense/foreign policy. For a generation we had a Natoist policy, but once the European Union rose up, we became a minority of one (the Canadians had the Commonwealth) at Nato despite our superior military power and wealth. So then the thinking of U.S. policymakers came to reflect the views of the European Union, which is where we are today.

I made a pass at discussing what I term ‘Euism’ [as in "EU"] in a recent post but the point is that when Americans talk of "we" in relation to the rest of the world — how can we do that, when we don’t know who we are?

Who we are has been hollowed out — not by the Europeans or any other external factor but by our own thinking, by our refusal to see ourselves as we actually are. This, despite all our talk of American exceptionalism.

The best explanation of American exceptionalism I ever heard came from a Japanese. He asked for a leave of absence from work after he was picked to manage a plant in the USA. He’d been raised on American movies but had never been to America; he wanted to see for himself what the country was like so he could better interact with his American employees. So he rented a car and drove the length and breadth of the continental USA.

He returned to Japan in a state of shock. All he could say for days was, "America is so big. It’s so big."

Yeah. But don’t tell that to Fareed Zakaria, who ended a segment on his recent CNN show about how to stimulate innovation in America by saying, 'In the next part we’ll see how America measures up to other countries in terms of innovation.'

It’s unfair to other countries to measure America against them. That’s because we’re so big. Even on our knees, we’re such a giant that if we sneeze the rest of the world catches a cold.

We’re a giant not only in terms of land mass but also population size. Americans are one of the very few peoples in the world who could maintain a good standard of living if we only traded with each other. That’s a little secret that Brussels and Whitehall would rather the American bumpkins didn’t know. That’s because it works to their advantage to have a giant dreaming it’s a midget at their beck and call.

But the "you gotta have a gang" mentality that led to Washington creating the United Nations and other multilateral institutions that came back to bite us was never necessary for the United States. That’s because we’re so big we’re a gang unto ourselves.

And it’s from that exceptional fact of our lives that we should conduct our foreign relations and build our defense policy. And we should lead the world by example, not by forming gangs of nations. [The more polite if somewhat dated term is 'multilateral approaches' which has morphed into the 'consensus of the international community.']

At the end of WW2 the vast majority of peoples in the world saw Americans in the role of The Perfect Son, not the role of The Boss [or Leader of the Pack]. Since then we’ve done everything to spurn the role we were given — a role, I might add, that is the highest honor that can be bestowed by men; it’s saying, ‘I am so proud of you, I see you as my son.’

Yet wisdom in foreign relations, as in one’s personal life, is knowing one’s role and playing it to the hilt.

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