Thursday, February 14, 2013

Fulbright - The Arrogance of Power

Dean Wilcox of Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies commented in the Preface of The Arrogance of Power (Fulbright, 1966), “He (Senator Fulbright) rightly points out that many great empires in the past have collapsed because their leaders did not have the wisdom and the good judgment to use their power wisely and well.” (p. ix) Further, “We have now reached that historical point, however, ‘at which a great nation is in danger of losing its perspective on what exactly is within the realm of its power and what is beyond it.’” (p. x)

Fulbright made many points in The Arrogance of Power that fascinated me, especially considering the foreign affairs dynamics the world now faces. One of the points he raised was about revolution – how it occurred and how we might expect to experience revolutions today. Fulbright suggested that having not experienced true revolution since the original American Revolution and later the Civil War, Americans didn’t really understand the sequence of conditions that brought revolution. He identified the historical pattern that revolutions tended “to be preceded by the demoralization of traditional ruling classes…, whose very moderation makes them unable to cope with the violence which they themselves may have unleashed, then by the rule of extremists, whose extremism degenerates into terror and who then are displaced by more practical men who bring the society back to normalcy and routine.” (p. 74) Understanding this sequence may help to explain, and even console, those who are wary of 21st century revolutions.

The corollary between the dynamics of the U.S.A. being involved around the world (Caribbean, East Asia, Berlin) in 1966 to defend against the encroachment of communism is prophetic of 2013 with the U.S.A. being involved in Iraq, Afghanistan, and throughout the Middle East in order to defend against Islamic fundamentalism. Both reflect an ongoing pattern among American politicians and military of labeling an ideology as threatening to democracy and then attacking it. Using Fulbright’s description of communism, substitute “ Islam” to explore the dynamics we possibly see today - “Far from being unified in a design for world conquest, the communist countries are deeply divided among themselves, with widely varying foreign policies and widely varying concepts of their own national interests. .. If we accept the premise that it is aggression rather than communism which endangers us, then it follows that the existence of a strong communist state which poses a barrier to the expansion of an aggressive communist power may be more desirable from the viewpoint of American interests than a weak non-communist state whose very weakness forms a vacuum which invites conquest or subversion.” (p. 81) Fulbright’s point was that at the time the U.S.A. feared anything related to communism and mistakenly fought everything that suggested a communist influence when it would likely have been better to accept various diverse communist states that were independent and held control against the potential of a more enveloping communist global power.

How America slipped into being the world’s policeman is described in the example of Viet Nam and other military interventions from the mid-20th century. Fulbright’s analysis was that America teetered ambivalently in its politics and it demonstrated a lack of confidence and security in its own goodness. He repeatedly called forth the images of Lincoln and Roosevelt (Theodore) as the respective examples of humanism and puritanism that characterized the swings of America’s engagement in the world saying, “America is a great and powerful and fundamentally decent nation; we know it – or ought to – and the world knows it. At times, however, we act as though we did not believe in our own greatness; we act as though our prestige as a great nation were constantly at issue, constantly in danger of being irretrievably lost, as if our greatness were something that had endlessly to be repurchased, requiring unending exertions to prove to the world that we are indeed an important and powerful nation.” (p. 198) In his closing paragraph, Fulbright called forth the advice of John Quincy Adams that America should be “the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all” but “the champion and vindicator only of her own.” (p. 258)