Monday, August 16, 2010

An American Ideal

(This was written in April of 2005)

In his essay On Cosmopolitanism, Derrida largely ignores the role of the State, but in a brief passage, he identifies the State as being “the foremost guarantor against the violence which forces refugees or exiles to flee.”[1] But while Derrida may have given up hope in the State, it is the international actor to whom we must look to enforce out ideals, for all others, such as the U.N., lack power. As one of those foremost guarantors, the United States uses its power to spread freedom and democracy throughout the world.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaving the United States as the lone super-power, there has been a rekindling of the liberal tradition of spreading freedom and democracy. No longer content with containing threats, the U.S. now engages them through the promotion of freedom and democracy – both as ideal and action. Beginning with Wilson and the abandonment of isolationism, the United States takes the offensive against tyranny and oppression – then in the form of the German Kaiser. Following the Cold War, the liberal standard is again held aloft as the Clinton and Bush administrations advance against the new forces of oppression throughout the world. Using its military might, the United States seeks to act as a moral agent for creating a freer, more democratic world.

In 1916, the United States left the comfort of neutrality to aid their allies against the German menace. For Wilson, the reasons for going to war were quite clear – freedom, justice, and self-government throughout the world.[2] As Charles Seymour notes, “The recurrent leitmotiv of Wilson’s policy lay in his ideal of freedom, whether of the individual or of the national group.”[3] Ultimately, Wilson’s project collapsed, but the power of his ideals continued to affect American foreign policy.

More recently, these ideals could be seen in the Clinton administration’s foreign policy. One of the key principles of their foreign policy was the worldwide promotion of democracy. “The emphasis on democracy was embraced not only to espouse American values, but also as a mechanism to achieve a more peaceful world,” writes James M. McCormick.[4] The Clinton administration made forays into the world to promote their ideals, often with little success, as in Bosnia and Somalia. Yet as the result of a globalism which does not include all nations, the promotion of freedom and democracy was ignored in other parts of the world, such as Rwanda, Chechnya, and other countries on the outskirts of the developed world.

When the United States was attacked by terrorists, the Bush administration expanded the push for freedom and democracy to that world, specifically, the Middle East. Through military force, the United States has toppled two oppressive regimes – the Taliban and Saddam Hussein – and is attempting to shape those states into liberal democracies. The U.S. National Security Strategy of 2002 stresses the promotion of democracy to fight terrorism and promote peace.[5] In his 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush spoke of America’s “special responsibility” to “extend and protect freedom.”[6] Throughout previous administrations and the War on Terror, appeals have been made to the ideals of freedom and democracy as the United States acts against regimes.

It is these appeals to the ideals of freedom and democracy to which we want to focus our attention. In the essay On Forgiveness, Derrida writes that the actions of nation-states are conducted out of self-interest.[7] U.S. leaders make appeals to the pure ideals of democracy and freedom, but acting on these ideals – how and where democracy is spread – is purely conditional. For example, our commitment to the spread of these ideal to Eastern Europe, while ignoring Africa and S. America, during the Clinton administration. The threat of terrorism has lead to the spread of these ideals to the Middle East, but the underlying motive is the safety and preservation of U.S. interests. How the United States engages other nation-states in the quest for universal democracy and freedom occurs through preemptive war, foreign aid, and international institutions only further demonstrates the self-interested nature of U.S. foreign policy, which is the inevitable corruption of ideals.

Through action, the ideals of freedom and democracy become an economic exchange. The other nation-states reject tyranny and oppression, and the United States’ is further secured against threats and another trading partner is gained. According to Derrida, a just foreign policy would be less of an economic exchange, less conditional – spreading freedom and democracy globally without regard to self-interest.



[1] Derrida, Jacques. On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. trans. Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes (London: Routlege, 2001). 

[2] Seymour, Charles “Woodrow Wilson in Perspective” The Philosophy and Politics of Woodrow Wilson, ed. Earl Latham (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 180

[3] Ibid., 181

[4] McCormick, James M. “Clinton and Foreign Policy” The Postmodern Presidency, ed. Steven E. Schier (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000), 63

[5] Snyder, Jack “One World, Rival Theories” Foreign Policy. (November/December 2004)

[6] Carnes, Tony “The Bush Doctrine” Christianity Today, Vol. 47, No. 5 (May 2003), 38

[7] Derrida, Jacques. On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness.

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