Today's date:
FALL 2001


The End of American Exceptionalism

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA is the author of The End of History And the Last Man.

Washington-As with individuals, adversity can have many positive effects. Enduring national character is shaped by shared trauma, as in the case of postwar Japanese pacifism or German monetary orthodoxy. The modern European state was forged under pressure of war and conflict, and conflict was critical to state-building in the United States as well. The Civil War created for the first time a centralized federal government, while the second world war finally thrust the US into an international role.

Peace and prosperity, by contrast, encourage preoccupation with one's own petty affairs and allow people to forget that they are parts of larger communities. The long economic boom of the Clinton years and America's easy dominance of world politics has allowed Americans to wallow in such self-indulgent behavior as political scandal or identity politics, or partisanship that has grown more strident as the underlying issues have narrowed. Many Americans lost interest in public affairs, and in the larger world beyond America's borders; others expressed growing contempt for government.

This was nowhere more true than in the world of high-tech and finance, where a kind of techno-libertarianism took hold in the 1990s. The government, by this view, contributed nothing useful and stood in the way of the true "value-creators." The nation state was said to be obsolete; technology and capital were inherently borderless and could evade efforts by national jurisdictions to tie them down. The apostles of the New Economy declared the irrelevance of everything invented before the Internet, and of any skills other than their own. I was shocked when a portfolio-manager friend told me a while back that he was seriously considering renouncing his American citizenship and moving to the Bahamas to avoid paying US taxes.

In this respect, the attacks on Wall Street were a salutary lesson.

The weightlessness of the new economy will not protect you from falling concrete; your hope in this kind of crisis is the heroism of firefighters and policemen (several hundred of whom were killed during the attack). Microsoft or Goldman Sachs will not send aircraft carriers and f16s to the Gulf to track down Osama bin Laden; only the military will. The 1990s saw the social and economic gulf widen between the Harvard- and Stanford-educated investment bankers, lawyers, and software engineers who worked in those twin towers, and the blue-collar types who went to their rescue.

This shared victimization powerfully reminds Americans that they are all in the end mutually dependent members of the same community. The World Trade Center attack will also lead to salutary changes in America's relationship to the outside world.

Over the past decade, both Republicans and Democrats have flirted with isolationism: with the former it takes the form of a rejection of global engagement; with the latter it is a matter of economic protectionism and an unwillingness to fund defense.

Now and for the foreseeable future, isolationism is off the table. No one should underestimate how angry Americans are, and what lengths they will go to see that their attackers are punished.

Before Tuesday, there was a big argument over whether the US could fund a paltry $18 billion increase in defense spending; now, much larger sums are in store whether or not a budget surplus exists. Priorities will change as well: missile defense will remain an objective, but will likely fall in priority relative to requirements for better intelligence, power projection, and capabilities to deal with so-called "asymmetric" threats.

But the bigger change will be psychological. Not since Pearl Harbor has an enemy been able to kill Americans on American soil, and that was in far-off Hawaii; Washington DC has been inviolable since the British burned the White House in the war of 1812.

This has laid the ground for a certain kind of exceptionalism in American foreign policy: US territory was always a safe haven; the US typically considered the pros and cons of intervention in foreign countries, but never had to contend with foreign countries intervening in the US. The consequences entailed by past US intervention were borne either by American allies, or by US interests abroad, and never directly by US citizens. The Gulf war and Kosovo were utterly antiseptic in this regard, and set up unrealistic expectations that the US could shape events without cost in American lives. This has now changed.

What is today labeled "asymmetrical" warfare has actually become symmetrical in the sense that America's enemies have for the first time developed the capability to reach out and touch Americans directly in response to US actions. This means, of course, that isolationism is not an option. But it also sets up a kind of deterrence, in which the US for the first time will have to consider the direct costs of its actions. This will not ultimately constrain the US from acting, but it will force on it a certain kind of realism as it interacts with the world.

A war against terrorism means defeating your enemy militarily, which may require striking preemptively against those who threaten you, as the Israelis have done, and going after the states that support your enemies. An operation of this sort cannot be accomplished with pinprick cruise missile strikes carried out from the sanctuary of the US homeland, but will require sustained military operations in distant parts of the world.

The US, for all its power, cannot do this alone. If the objective turns out to be Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, then the US will need the help of, at a minimum, Russia, Pakistan, and perhaps China to provide a base of operations. It will need the political co-operation of moderate Arab states for intelligence sharing, and military help from its European allies. It will, in short, need to create a coalition, and cut deals to make the coalition work.

This is a formula not for unilateralism, but for co-operative engagement. The US is likely to emerge from the attacks a different country, more unified, less self-absorbed, and much more in need of the help of its friends to carry out what will become a new national project of defeating terrorism. And it may also become a more ordinary country in the sense of having concrete interests and real vulnerabilities, rather than thinking itself able unilaterally to define the nature of the world it lives in.

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