THE IRONY OF MANIFEST DESTINY: The Tragedy of American Foreign Policy, New York, Walker and Company, 2010.
William Pfaff’s latest book is an interpretation of the cultural origins of an American outlook that since the Second World War has inspired a series of generally unsuccessful American military interventions into non-western countries, the most dramatic of them the defeat in Vietnam. These culminated in the 2001-2003 invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, neither of them successfully settled (or indeed “won”) at the time of this book’s publication, in June 2010 – when Washington was also contemplating the possibility of a military intervention into Iran to destroy that country’s nuclear industry.
THE IRONY OF MANIFEST DESTINY contends that the United States’ geographical distance and cultural isolation from the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment and its consequences permanently influenced Americans’ view of the world, and of their own society. The radicalism of the French Revolution greatly disturbed Americans. The Napoleonic Wars, the revolutionary events of 1848, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the Paris Commune were to Americans remote and threatening events.
Yet proclamation of a united German Empire in Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors in 1871, and the establishment of the French Third Republic, created the twentieth-century European world and the two great “world” wars into which the United States eventually was swept.
America’s long national isolation, and the isolationist popular political attitudes accompanying it, spared the United States from Europe’s revolutionary conversion from the religious beliefs and expectations of the Western past to the “Modern Paganism” of the Enlightenment, whose progressive beliefs and aggressive secular utopianism subsequently dominated European thought. These were eventually implicated in the creation of the twentieth century’s totalitarian regimes and wars. The United States shared this experience only as it ended in Europe, when America could assume the role of the saviour nation from abroad, the leading world power, and global reformer.
From this, and from the disastrous mutual misconceptions of the supposed “clash of civilizations” with Islam, there emerged the new American ideology of universal democratization and global military domination, which now, Pfaff argues, is approaching its climax -- and its failure.
Benjamin R. Barber writes: “William Pfaff [is] the thoughtful and original American heir to George Kennan’s sober Niebuhrian realism. Now, in his brilliant new essay on American foreign policy, he has applied his prudent realist vision to deconstructing the ‘tragedy’ of America’s global interventionism…and why President Obama is caught up in overseas policies likely to fail. This is a book by an American looking from the outside in that needs to be read by every political leader and thinker caught on the inside looking out – most of all by President Obama.”
David Rieff writes: “[Pfaff’s] lucid, dismayed commentary on the follies of [American] triumphalism has been an island of reason in the imperial sea….Pfaff’s clarity and rigor at least offer posterity a way of understanding what actually happened and why the United States became both a danger to the world and to itself.”
Andrew J. Bacevich writes: “In an age of charlatans and poseurs, William Pfaff has long stood for realism and sobriety. With its penetrating critique of the secular utopianism that perverts American statecraft, The Irony of Manifest Destiny affirms his standing as our wisest critic of U.S. foreign policy.”
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