U.S. Intellectual History Blog

America in the ’90s: Unipolar, Indispensable, Amoral


I am at work on a chapter that looks at war and civil religion in the 1990s. In the process of wading through literature related to this admittedly ambiguous subject, I read Mark Danner’s essay from the Fall 1997 issue of World Policy Journal, entitled “Marooned in the Cold War.” It is a powerful essay on the congruence of the war in Bosnia and the proposed expansion of NATO–a moment Danner observed acidly that arrived in full irony when he looked skyward and saw America F-16s “tracing their way elegantly through the bright blue sky” over a scene of carnage in a Sarajevo market.

That moment captured for Danner the abdication of American moral authority. Had we not remembered the century that was coming to an end–the world wars, the cold war, the “plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness.” Danner used that line from a letter Henry James wrote in 1914 to reflect on the irony of American impotence at a time when it seemed possible to move beyond “all that.” And yet, “We sat in our living rooms and watched all of them…gunners shelling, the children shrieking on the operating table, the battered faces of emaciated men staring dully out from behind barbed wire…as they enacted the drama before our eyes, clearly, undeniably day in and day out. And while we watched, 100,000 people died.”
Danner’s point in writing the essay was not merely to question such vile spectatorship, or the impotence of NATO, but to ask how American moral authority would be understood and exercised in an age of irony, when American power was undisputed, and yet American idealism was in shambles. The problem Danner pointed out was not the inability of America to act, but an unwillingness to act because of failures of the past. “American leaders have shown themselves fearful of political retribution from a suspicious public. They proved unwilling even to try to make a vigorous case to Americans that their country’s interests were involved abroad: not in Haiti, not in Somalia, not even in the former Yugoslavia.” During the Cold War, American leaders had persuaded and engaged the public by “blending national security and moral mission,” embodied in public declarations such as the Truman Doctrine.
The Truman Doctrine?! What made Danner wistful for that particular bygone era? He observed that when the grand strategy of the early cold war emerged in policies like containment or in documents such as NSC-68, at least there was a touchstone for debate and action existed. In a post-cold war world without the existential threat of communism, the need to live under cold war foreign policies seemed ludicrous. And so, by the 1990s, the United States had indeed achieved its ultimate cold war aim of possessing a preponderance of power (if only because its enemy fell apart) and being utterly indispensable to its allies in Europe (if only because it footed their collective defense bill). But the United States had also demonstrated through its actions–and inaction–to be amoral. The decade of ’90s could have been a time of debate over what it meant to exercise moral authority, but instead, according to Danner, American leaders avoided such debate because they were unable to imagine a discussion about war and its consequences outside the outdated cold war tropes. It was easier to calibrate the old national security state to crises of wildly varying degrees than to discuss the responsibility that state had to the world and its own people–whatever that might be.
Did that amoral moment lead to our present state of moral bankruptcy? When I read about pledges to pull troops out of Afghanistan in 2012 or 2014 or whenever, I feel the same sense of frustration that Danner so vividly captured in 1997. Sure, I want the troops out, but as much as that, I want a discussion about when it is right to send troops abroad. After two wars of choice, are we any closer to understanding American responsibility in the world? Or have we just spent another decade drifting in the same philosophical morass that we entered in 1989?

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ray,

    I am becoming most intrigued by this book. I’m pleased that it will be offering up another partial draft of 1990s history. My own work on steps lightly into that decade.

    You have uttered a most poignant line: “vile spectatorship.” We seem to relish in sad spectacles here in the United States. It’s perhaps the worst consequence of the TV age; the daily dis-empowerment of the nightly news. I fear it’s made us a country filled with some of the worst kind of citizens imaginable.

    I also loved this observation about 1990s political leadership: “American power was undisputed, and yet American idealism was in shambles.” Wow. And an irony (unintended?) in relation to the personal potency of President Clinton?

    I know this is getting beyond the 1990s, but it seems to me that the Bush Doctrine (intervene for freedom—unilaterally) was merely a more intrusive form of the Truman Doctrine. So maybe Danner got his wish, in a sick and twisted way?

    – TL

  2. Does a corporation or government have a moral sense? Neither are individuals nor do their actions reflect a consensus of the individuals who compose them.

    The actions of the US after 1989 reflect the chaos of the times. Which individuals are responsible for the decisions and were they amoral or was the apparent amorality of the decisions the result of a thousand moral choices that randomly cancel each other out?

  3. Thanks to you both for your comments.

    Tim: I think you’re right that frustration with American foreign policy in the 1990s among both liberal internationalists and neocons came roaring back after 9/11 in the form of delusions that the US could reshape the Middle East starting with Iraq. The call for “vision” was as far as the conversation went. And this irony goes to the point CaliFury makes.

    CaliFury: Yes, indeed, it would be delusional to imagine that nations or corporations could act as moral beings. That delusion would accurately describe the posture the US assumed after 9/11. But I think what Danner asked was not for a nation that believed itself to be moral but for a debate over what kind of actions are just or right. For Danner, Bosnia should have forced a debate over issues of commitment, war, sacrifice, and American power. The fact that it didn’t struck him as a moment when the United States avoided having discussions that a democracy is not only capable of having but must cultivate. Otherwise the nation is doomed to the kind of irony that Tim points out in his comments. Danner’s call to debate war became, instead, a decade of war without debate, and in this way, avoiding debate in the 1990s led to actions that had dire and (I think one could argue) immoral consequences for the following decade.

  4. A fascinating and important post and discussion!

    I have to admit, however, that, like Tim, my reaction to Ray’s account of Danner was to think of events in the intervening years: the Bush administration was deeply committed to using American power to remake the world….how’d _that_work out?

    And the more general point is that any serious debate about what actions are just or right needs to take into account the very real limits on what can be accomplished with military power. A war can be just–as I believe the invasion of Afghanistan was (at least in its early stages)–and still be a mistake.

  5. An absence of public moral debate about government action can come from so many places.

    As an alternative to, “American leaders avoided such debate…” because they didn’t have the imagination to frame the world in a different way, I suggest that American leaders were collectively suffering from PTSD after 40 years of existential danger. As a consequence, they were unable to act rationally (with proportion to reality) now that they had the freedom to act.

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