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Fear and the American Psyche : Advice to U.S. Allies in a Unipolar World
16 December 2003 ,
Dr Robert Crane,
Arrogance, to paraphrase a popular French expression, is what is most evenly divided among peoples. Thus, when beginning a discussion of the Bush administration in the United States, one may naturally think of Charles DeGaulle. One of the French general’s favorite theories, later borne out by events in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere, was that nations, like people, have personalities or characters and that these characters determine a nation’s behavior and vision over the long term.
As a result, DeGaulle saw the Soviet Union as eternal Mother Russia with her historical, literary, and cultural heritage. Certainly, Mother Russia has re-emerged since the demise of the USSR. Even young nations like the United States possess traits which, taken together, define a certain character. DeGaulle often had to deal with the American character, generally from a position of weakness. His intransigence toward his British and American allies often infuriated them, but did not allow them to ignore him, nor France.
Today, as at the conclusion of the Second World War, the United States stands astride the world as the sole super power. While the relative power of the U.S. remains similar in 1945 and in 2004, the perception of the nation from abroad is radically different. Yet, as DeGaulle pointed out, there is a consistency in the characters of nations. How can we describe the long term U.S. mentality and what might explain the change in perception of it by its allies, particularly in Europe?
The American mind is a curious thing, full of contradictions. It tends to see the world in stark black and white contrast, rather than shades of gray . This vision of extremes is evident in many aspects of American life, from the movies (black hats and white hats in the westerns), to religion (no place for Purgatory in American Protestantism), to military thinking (a soldier must identify his enemy and disable or kill him). The same dichotomy applies, depending on the administration, to geopolitical strategy.
Quickly, one’s mind flashes back to the “Evil Empire” of Ronald Reagan - who earlier had played black and white hats in Hollywood movies. However, Reagan’s phrase led to little concrete action and will be left aside here. Of course, the Reagan theme was later adopted by George Bush in his “Axis of Evil” speech. Finally, Senator Eugene McCarthy in the 1950s painted many people in a bright shade of red, labeling them “communists” and ruining their careers and lives.
What elements are similar in these incidents of Manichean attitudes and behaviors? Of course, a Democrat would immediately point out that all three men were Republicans - not necessarily an indictment of the GOP as the party of warriors. A feminist might just as well highlight the fact they the three were indeed men, and not women. More seriously, there are fundamental psychological factors at work in the national psyche in each case which help explain the attitudes and behaviors generated.
The first of these factors, and the most important by far, is fear. It is easy for Europeans to forget that fear is a fundamental aspect of the American psyche. Fear of hunger and religious persecution drove the colonists to leave Europe for America. Fear of Red Indians or Native Americans led them to band together in tightly defended communities, and later to carry out the greatest genocide in world history to eliminate the perceived threat. In the American mind, fear is often a step toward violence. In fact, fear and violence, to paraphrase yet another popular quote, are as American as apple pie.
What were the fears rampant during the two periods under discussion - the 1950s and 2001-2004? They were really very similar. In the first case, as mentioned, the United States had emerged from World War Two not only victorious, but in a position of military, economic, and even moral world domination. The Marshall Plan was an action worthy of a great nation. However, by the 1950s, the U.S. was being actively challenged by a Soviet Union newly in possession of thermonuclear weapons. Moreover, the American people felt betrayed by spies within the U.S. itself who had given the bomb to the USSR. Spurred by the genius of Senator McCarthy, a national witch hunt began which sent the nation through a period of intense, introspective hysteria. Ultimately, the country emerged from its self-induced trauma, rid itself of the Senator, and rejoined the global community under the steadying hand of President Eisenhower. In the meantime, damage had been done to the functioning of the American republic, to many individuals, and to relations with allies which could only deplore such actions as the execution of the Rosenbergs. In summary, the McCarthy hysteria was derived from an exaggerated fear of danger from abroad, that is the USSR, and of its agents within the United States.
What are American fears today? They are very nearly the same as during the McCarthy era, intensified by the first ever strike at the financial heart of the country, New York. Again, the United States feels challenged and threatened, this time by an amorphous enemy, global terrorism. Again, the U.S. has sacrificed a part of the fabric of its fundamental civil rights and values to defend itself against this nefarious foe. However, this time the United States is led by those who fuel the hysteria. The Bush administration has stoked the fears of the nation rather than allaying them. Where Senator McCarthy could be isolated and eliminated, those currently in power are unlikely to curb their own handling of the mood of the American people. Thanks to the fear of common American citizens, the Bush administration has had a free hand to ride rough shod over multilateral agreements and to ignore the counsel of his allies and of the United Nations.
What lesson might America’s allies draw from the current mindset of their long time friend? Perhaps the best bit of advice an observer of the United States and its foreign policy might give to them is that this too shall pass. The pendular swings of U.S. foreign policy are longer and more dangerous than those of older nations. However, the pendulum does swing back. The United States is a vast nation. For the nation to change its mind takes time. Fortunately, the nation is changing its mind now. Will the shift of vision away from visceral, fear-based reactions to the perceived threat of terrorism be large enough to sway the results of the presidential election in November, 2004? No one knows.
Nonetheless, the pendulum of U.S. politics is again swinging back to the center. U.S. allies may take heart. The nation will emerge from its self-focused fear. The United States will reassume its role of stable world leadership. Charles DeGaulle was right: nations have specific characters which come to the fore over time.
Robert Crane, Ph.D.
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