Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Quotable: Robert Samuelson on American confidence in growth and prosperity

Tuesday, November 24th 2015
Meeting and speaking with people in other countries, Public Diplomacy officers characteristically rely on certain American mental frameworks. Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson examined one key American premise in his November 22, 2015, op-ed, “The Achilles’ heel of American foreign policy.”  “Significant blocs of humanity ignore or repudiate our faith in the power of shared prosperity,” he cautioned.

  • Ever since World War II, our foreign policy has rested on an oft-silent presumption that shared prosperity is a powerful and benevolent force for social stability, peace and (often) democracy.

  • All the emphasis on free trade and globalization is ultimately not a celebration of economic growth for its own sake. It’s a means to larger ends of social cohesion and political pluralism.

  • In this, we have mostly projected our own domestic experience onto the world at large. Americans’ obsession with material progress — which seems excessive and even vulgar to many — is largely what has enabled us to be a multiethnic, multicultural, multiracial and multireligious society. Everyone can strive to get ahead. There’s a large common denominator.

  • In the era of Pax Americana, history texts have emphasized diplomatic dramas and military conflicts. The more obscure reality is that military might has often been used to buy time for the economic logic of shared prosperity to work.

  • But this approach to foreign policy has long suffered from two potentially crippling defects.

  • One is unrealistic expectations that, when disappointed, backfire in popular discontent and, sometimes, protectionism.

  • The second defect is more unnerving and dangerous. It is the true Achilles’ heel of American foreign policy: Significant blocs of humanity ignore or repudiate our faith in the power of shared prosperity. They put other values and goals first.

  • Nationalism is one obvious alternative — Putin’s Russia being a good example. The case of China is more complicated. Although it is obsessed with economic growth, it’s also indulging a nationalistic urge to reassert itself on the global stage.

  • Less ambiguous is radical Islam, whether the Islamic State or other variations. We don’t speak the same language or, at any level, share the same goals. Radical Islamists deny the legitimacy of the secular state and seem willing to do almost anything to weaken or destroy it.

  • Their moral code is completely disconnected from ours. They are creatures of rigid religious dogma, fervor and fanaticism. We are the secular state — creatures of messy modern democracies with their (at times) seemingly elastic moral standards.

  • What’s happening is completely at variance with our post-World War II experience. Even at the height of the Cold War . . . there was . . . a common understanding of the terms of the contest. There was an acknowledged competition between capitalism and communism.

  • What makes the present struggle so threatening is that it’s not being waged on familiar grounds that play to our strengths — our ability to outproduce our opponents. The battlefield has been selected by them, and it’s what makes today’s predicament so disorienting.

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