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