Monday, July 16, 2007

The Arrogance of Power

Senator J. William Fulbright, chair of the Senate Foreigh Relations Committee between 1959 and 1974, published The Arrogance of Power in 1966. In that book he attacked the justifications given for the Vietnam War, the impulses that led to it and Congress’s failure to set limits on it. Even though his arguments were in the context of the war in Southeast Asia much of what he had to say remains applicable today.

Jim Lobe provides excerpts at Common Dreams:
On False Historical Analogies: "The second great advantage of free discussion to democratic policy-makers is its bringing to light of new ideas and the supplanting of old myths with new realities. We Americans are much in need of this benefit because we are severely, if not uniquely afflicted with a habit of policy-making by analogy: North Vietnam's involvement in South Vietnam, for example, is equated with Hitler's invasion of Poland and a parley with the Viet Cong would represent 'another Munich.' The treatment of slight and superficial resemblances as if they were full-blooded analogies -- as instances, as it were, of history 'repeating itself' -- is a substitute for thinking and a misuse of history."

On the Arrogance of Power: "[P]ower tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is particularly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God's favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations - to make them richer and happier and wiser, to remake them, that is, in its own shining image. Power confuses itself with virtue and tends also to take itself for omnipotence. Once imbued with the idea of a mission, a great nation easily assumes that it has the means as well as the duty to do God's work."

"The more I puzzle over the great wars of history, the more I am inclined to the view that the causes attributed to them - territory, markets, resources, the defense or perpetuation of great principles - were not the root causes at all but rather explanations or excuses for certain unfathomable drives of human nature. For lack of a clear and precise understanding of exactly what these motives are, I refer to them as the 'arrogance of power' - as a psychological need that nations seem to have in order to prove that they are bigger, better, or stronger than other nations. Implicit in this drive is the assumption, even on the part of normally peaceful nations, that force is the ultimate proof of superiority - that when a nation shows that it has the stronger army, it is also proving that it has better people, better institutions, better principles, and, in general, a better civilization."

"[The arrogance of power is defined as] the tendency of great nations to equate power with virtue and major responsibilities with a universal mission. The dilemmas involved are pre-eminently American dilemmas, not because America has weaknesses that others do not have but because America is powerful as no nation has ever been before, and the discrepancy between her power and the power of others appears to be increasing."

On Imperial Temptations: "Despite its dangerous and unproductive consequences, the idea of being responsible for the whole world seems to be flattering to Americans and I am afraid it is turning our heads, just as the sense of universal responsibility turned the heads of ancient Romans and nineteenth-century British."

"It is a curiosity of human nature that lack of self-assurance seems to breed an exaggerated sense of power and mission. When a nation is very powerful but lacking self-confidence, it is likely to behave in a manner dangerous to itself and to others. Feeling the need to prove what is obvious to everyone else, it begins to confuse great power with unlimited power and great responsibility with total responsibility: it can admit of no error; it must win every argument, no matter how trivial. For lack of an appreciation of how truly powerful it is, the nation begins to lose wisdom and perspective and, with them, the strength and understanding that it takes to be magnanimous to smaller and weaker nations.

On Unilateralism and Support from Traditional Allies: "One detects in Europe a growing uneasiness about American policy, a feeling that the United States is becoming unreliable and that it may be better - safer, that is - to keep the Americans at a distance."

"We have become a one-issue participant in world affairs, hungering after a kind word or some token of support, for either of which we are more than willing to pay a handsome reward.

"[The United States is willing to defy allied opinion because of] ...an excess of pride born of power. Power has a way of undermining judgment, of planting delusions of grandeur in the minds of otherwise sensible people and otherwise sensible nations. As I have said earlier, the idea of being responsible for the whole world seems to have dazzled us, giving rise to what I call the arrogance of power, or what the French, perhaps more aptly, call 'le vertige de puissance,' by which they mean a kind of dizziness or giddiness inspired by the possession of great power. If then, as I suspect, there is a relationship between the self-absorption of some of our allies and the American military involvement in Vietnam, it may have more to do with American vanity than with our friends' complacency."

On International Law: "Law is the essential foundation of stability and order both within societies and in international relations. As a conservative power the United States has a vital interest in upholding and expanding the reign of law in international relations. Insofar as international law is observed, it provides us with stability and order and with a means of predicting the behavior of those with whom we have reciprocal legal obligations. When we violate the law ourselves, whatever short-term advantage may be gained, we are obviously encouraging others to violate the law; we thus encourage disorder and instability and thereby do incalculable damage to our own long-term interests."

On National Greatness: "I do not think that America's greatness is questioned in the world, and I certainly do not think that strident behavior is the best way for a nation to prove its greatness. Indeed, in nations as in individuals bellicosity is a mark of weakness and self-doubt rather than of strength and self-assurance."

"In her relations with Asian nations, as indeed in her relations with all of the revolutionary or potentially revolutionary societies of the world, America has an opportunity to perform services of which no great nation has ever before been capable. To do so we must acquire wisdom to match our power and humility to match our pride. Perhaps the single word above all others that expresses America's need is 'empathy'."

"The inconstancy of American foreign policy is not an accident but an expression of two distinct sides of the American character. Both are characterized by a kind of moralism, but one is the morality of decent instincts tempered by the knowledge of human imperfection and the other is the morality of absolute self-assurance fired by the crusading spirit. …

"After twenty-five years of world power the United States must decide which of the two sides of its national character is to predominate - the humanism of Lincoln or the arrogance of those who would make America the world's policeman."
Thanks to David Shorr at Democracy Arsenal for the tip and who also provides the following quote from George Kennan who testified before Fulbright’s committee:
There is more respect to be won in the opinion of the world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than in the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives.

1 comment:

Jim Hoeft said...

This is great. Thanks for sharing...I want to read it.

To me, though, I found this to be a particularly telling quote:

On the Arrogance of Power: "[P]ower tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is particularly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God's favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations - to make them richer and happier and wiser, to remake them, that is, in its own shining image. Power confuses itself with virtue and tends also to take itself for omnipotence. Once imbued with the idea of a mission, a great nation easily assumes that it has the means as well as the duty to do God's work."

We are, indeed, the shining city on the hill, but only if we act like it. Unfortunately, through zealotry, power, and corruption, the piper is being paid. Until we revolutionize our thought process back to even the most basic precepts of the golden rule -- even when dealing with foreign adversarial powers -- I think we run a great risk to our future as a great country.