William Pfaff is the author of The Irony of Manifest Destiny, published in June 2010 by Walker and Company (New York) -- his tenth and culminating work on international politics and the American destiny. He describes the neglected sources and unforeseen consequences of the tragedy towards which the nation's current effort to remake the world to fit America's measure is leading. His previous books and his articles in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and his syndicated newspaper column, featured for a quarter century in the globally read International Herald Tribune, have made him one of America's most respected and internationally influential interpreters of world affairs.   [Read more...]
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Special Articles : A Challenge to the Church
on 2013/5/13 13:20:00 (8740 reads)

MAY 9-22, 2013

Why Priests: A Failed Tradition
by Garry Wills
Viking, 302p.

Garry Wills’s latest book on Catholicism coincides with a crisis in the church that has been developing since Pius IX (1792–1878) set the course of Peter’s barque against the winds of Enlightenment and revolution. Driven from Rome by the rioting of 1848, the pope returned under the protection of Napoleon III and retreated to the Vatican, refusing to recognize the new Italian kingdom (recognition did not come until the Lateran Treaty in 1929, signed by Pius XI and Mussolini).
From his self-imposed “prison” Pius IX issued his sweeping condemnation of “modernism” in 1864 with the encyclical Quanta Cura, including “The Syllabus of Errors,”1 which remained an embarrassment to many if not most of the church’s scholarly and intellectual members for the next ninety-eight years, until John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council. Donald Attwater’s authoritative and orthodox A Catholic Dictionary (Nihil Obstat plus Imprimatur!), first published in 1931, cautiously concludes its article on the Syllabus and Pius IX’s subsequent self-declared infallibility when speaking ex cathedra with the world’s bishops (a doctrine opposed by Cardinal Newman, Lord Acton, Baron von Hügel, and other prominent Catholic intellectuals of the period) by saying of the Syllabus, “it is not certain that every proposition is condemned infallibly and therefore irreformably.” (With such equivocations did Catholics live before John XXIII.)
Wills has been a critic before of his church, into which he was born in 1934 (half-born into it, so to speak, as his mother was Irish Catholic—and a southerner, from Georgia). His father, whose own parents were an agnostic and a Christian Scientist, did eventually become a Catholic, but he was not one while Wills was young. By Wills’s own account the greater influences on him were his mother’s family and the Catholic grade school in Adrian, Michigan, where he was raised (the school was taught by an extraordinary community of Dominican nuns), and the Jesuit boarding school he attended in Wisconsin, both of exceptional quality. (At the time, Catholic primary and secondary education—disciplined instruction in grammar and rhetoric in primary school, with much memorization, and introduction to the classics in high school—was in the Midwest at least generally superior to public schools.)

Special Articles : SPECIAL ARTICLE: Iran and Nuclear Weapons
on 2012/9/17 15:50:00 (23104 reads)

This article originally was published in the current issue of The American Review, a publication of the United States Studies Centre of the University of Sydney, Australia.)

PARIS — Why should Iran not have nuclear weapons? Israel has them. India and Pakistan have them. Europe is full of them, most of them (but not all) American, tucked away by the U.S. and NATO in inconspicuous corners in case they might be needed; some of them in locations probably forgotten (“Sergeant! Where did we file those maps we used to have showing all of the tactical nuke caches?” “Dunno, Sir. That was before my time”). Russia and China have plenty of them.

The point of asking the question is that all these nuclear weapons are useless. They have no conceivable practical use. They are like chess kings: eminently symbolic, blockading and rendering the king nul as the object of the game, but of no practical use on the action of the game.

The Iranians are conventionally accused of wanting nuclear weapons in order to attack and destroy Israel — to finish off Hitler’s work, people say with a shudder. Why? They don’t hate Jews; there used to be millions of them in Iran. Those Iranians who believe their country needs nuclear weapons, whether they are in or out of government, undoubtedly do so because they fear Israel — and the United States — and they are right to do so.

Special Articles : SPECIAL ARTICLE: How Much Progress Have We Made?
on 2011/11/10 16:58:02 (10223 reads)

How Much ‘Progress’ Have We Made?
NOVEMBER 24, 2011

by William Pfaff

The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution
by Francis Fukuyama
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 585 pp., $35.00

It is natural to assume that we were meant to become what we are, and that human existence has an intelligible significance, purpose, or conclusion. Francis Fukuyama has long since apologized for his declaration in 1992 that

what we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such…and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
Man had made his way from primeval slime through bands, tribes, states, and their variations, until arriving at the democratic state and liberal capitalist economy presided over by George H.W. Bush. This progression was what it had been all about from the start, and now it was over, with only boredom ahead, so Fukuyama warned at the time.

Being a reasonable man, Fukuyama soon acknowledged that it was not really all over, and that we certainly were not doomed to perpetual boredom.1 Au contraire, as not only the French would say. In 2006, in America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy, he wrote that he had newly concluded that

neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, [had] evolved into something that I can no longer support…[having been used during the 1990s] to justify an American foreign policy that overemphasized the use of force and led logically to the Iraq war.
That 2006 book was a straightforward foreign policy essay rejecting a Bush administration foreign policy that rested on “concepts like regime change, benevolent hegemony, unipolarity, preemption, and American exceptionalism.” It dealt with how a different American policy intended to “democratize” the Middle East might employ “soft” power to obtain the reform of international institutions, with the aim of establishing a global order of democratic accountability, based on sovereign states.

on 2011/7/4 13:30:00 (7919 reads)

Wise Men Against the Grain
June 9, 2011
William Pfaff

Through the History of the Cold War: The Correspondence of George F. Kennan and John Lukacs
edited by John Lukacs
University of Pennsylvania Press, 276 pp., $39.95

George F. Kennan and the Origins of Containment, 1944–1946: The Kennan–Lukacs Correspondence
with an introduction by John Lukacs
University of Missouri Press, 85 pp., $24.95; $14.95 (paper)

One’s relations with one’s country, like the relations among intimates, are always complicated; but I conceive myself to have loved my own…. I am now inclined to see my country much the way that I see Russia (in the historical sense): namely, as a politically unsuccessful and tragic country, but one capable of producing out of its midst, from time to time, remarkable literary, artistic, and musical intelligence, politically helpless and always vulnerable to abuse and harassment at the hands of the dominant forces of the moment.

—George Kennan, letter to John Lukacs, July 8, 1984

The diplomat and historian George Frost Kennan (1904–2005) and the historian and historical philosopher John Lukacs (born Lukács János Adalbert in 1924) are American contemporaries who shared a tradition of humane thought and scholarship that in the late twentieth century has exercised diminishing influence on the political discourse and policy of the United States. The unlikely friendship between the two, initiated by what amounted to a fan letter, continued for almost fifty-two years, in a learned correspondence of observation and commentary on the international and national affairs of the cold war, but increasingly on the condition of men and women, above all Americans, in what Lukacs, the historian, characterized as the final stage in a modern age that began in the West during the Renaissance.

on 2010/10/26 15:00:00 (6670 reads)

Book Review of The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy
Published in Strategy, London,The International Institute for Strategic Studies


It would be comforting to believe that truly great nations save themselves from the consequences of their periodic follies thanks to an outsized capacity for enlightened self-criticism. If so, there may be hope still for America. Not since Vietnam have American critics from all sides held up national policies and institutions to such a searching and pitiless examination. In this universe, Bill Pfaff has long occupied a special place. He is a particular American specialty: the learned and cultivated expatriate who knows his country all the better for living outside it. By now, Pfaff has been trying to talk sense to his countrymen for a long time.

His latest book pulls together a lifetime of moral and philosophical reflection on the world, its peoples and nations, and applies it to America’s own path through history and the increasingly unpromising vista that appears to lie ahead. Pfaff sees today’s America as an offspring of the Enlightenment, which substituted the active pursuit of secular goals in this world for an otherworldly pursuit of religious goals in the next. In other words, Western powers began trying to create Heaven on Earth. This redirection of religious fervour into the pursuit of worldly power explains, Pfaff argues, the West’s creativity and dynamism.

But abandoning otherworldly religious restraint also made the West’s pursuit of earthly power extremely dangerous. Hence, the terrible violence and ruthless aggrandisement that characterise Western history. To try to control their violence, the Western powers invented the Westphalian balance of power. To control the world, they built the various European empires. The First and Second World Wars marked the breakdown of both structures – the European balance and the Western empires. With the final defeat of European imperialism in the Second World War, a Wilsonian goal pursued by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Americans foresaw a new and less exploitative global order in which the United States would take charge of history. The Cold War challenged and delayed American hopes. Nevertheless, a new system of independent but often unstable states was struggling to emerge from the old empires, and the United States did grow increasingly engaged in trying to bring order to this new global system.

With the Soviet collapse, American elites felt entitled by history to impose their secular vision of global order on the rest of the world. America’s continental Manifest Destiny went global as Washington embarked upon its quest to manage the world. Americans convinced themselves that the triumph of their values was foreordained and anyway represented the best outcome for mankind. Pfaff writes eloquently of the natural reaction of other cultures against this American assault. Imposing American values on the rest of the world, often by the reckless use of American military power, exacts a terrible cost from hapless populations caught up in the process. Pfaff discourses at length on the particular reasons for the violent resistance of Islamic countries. Recent centuries have not been so kind to Islamic civilisation, Arabs in particular. Pfaff warns of the hopelessness and danger of the path the United States has been following in the Middle East. He also notes how America’s hegemonic vocation impoverishes and brutalises American life. He speaks at length of the bounding growth of American militarism, deplores the huge role the military has come to play in the American government and denounces what he sees as the largely baseless manipulation of ‘terrorism’ to justify an unconscionable build-up of military force.

Pfaff’s book is a treasure chest of intelligent commentary on a great swathe of history and on a broad range of current issues. Unsurprisingly, much is controversial, and some specific arguments seem strained and rather didactic. While the book is assiduously free of cheap anti-Americanism, it may be argued that it lacks sympathy for the American predicament. A great many people in the West and elsewhere believe it is American power that conserves what little order still prevails in the world. But for too long these hegemonic arguments have had an intellectual free pass. They are not the future. They need the vigorous challenge that Pfaff provides. The United States is lucky to have so honourable, powerful and loyal a critic.

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