Imperial Happiness

James flags this portentous Times story that identifies “a darkening of the country’s mood and, in the eyes of many, a fraying of America’s very sense of itself.” Such a gloomy diagnosis sounds reasonable enough, given the current state of economic affairs and the fact that we’re muddling through another no-win war of occupation overseas, but directly linking America’s global status to the mood on the street is a dangerous confusion of ends and means.

The article strains to connect domestic anxiety to world-historical trends, specifically History’s failure to end on schedule in the 1990’s and the shock of 9/11:

As the candidates fan out to New York and California and here to the heartland, they are confronting an electorate that is deeply unsettled about the United States’ place in the world and its ability to control its own destiny.

Since World War II, the assumption of American hegemony has never been much in doubt. That it now is, at least for some people, has given this campaign a sense of urgency that was not always felt in 2000, despite the dramatic outcome of that race.

Our status as global superpower indeed delivers certain goods in terms of prosperity and security. Cooperative security in Europe, stabilizing rivalries in East Asia, ensuring oil transit at sea; all these things overlap, to one extent or another, our own material interests, and it’s possible to make a reasoned case for each of them and defend it politically. The world economic order, the argument goes, depends on U.S. predominance abroad, since our hegemony prevents the rise of destabilizing military rivalries. As long as we remain the sole superpower, our strategic posture delivers two goods considered vital to domestic happiness: security and prosperity.

Depending on your own moral and prudential calculations, you will either agree with this judgement or not. Once you complicate matters by introducing liberty, and if your notion of liberty encompasses more than just personal autonomy and material comfort, you should be especially suspicious. This article, like a Lockheed Martin ad or a jingo stump speech, takes a short cut straight from global hegemony to happiness without bothering to work through safety, prosperity, or liberty along the way:

Several writers and historians remarked on the psychological impact of such a jarring end to the Pax Americana, just as it seemed that victory in the cold war might usher in prolonged prosperity and relative peace (save the occasional mop-up operation). Its confluence with an era of unparalleled technological innovation had only heightened the nation’s sense of post-millennial possibility.

Now, Americans feel a loss of autonomy, in their own lives and in the nation.

Now, loss of international prestige can be a genuine civic bummer. There are more than enough ways in which overseas setbacks turn into material hardship at home. But “America’s very sense of itself” should be less invested in our superpower status as such and more invested in our actual safety and prosperity, not to mention our political liberty, which should be resilient enough to endure shortages of either. Our global commitments should serve specific subsidiary purposes — they are not intended to directly provide Americans with “autonomy, in their own lives and in the nation.” In this article, the New York Times has compounded its own version of the right’s “freedom,” an all-purpose term meant to describe the end product of security, prosperity, and political liberty, but which usually serves as shorthand for the feeling of being on top.

If just the feeling of hegemony can keep the wolf of malaise from the door, then superpower status becomes an end in itself, and we foreclose discussion on the actual goals of foreign policy. Instead, we simply ask our security apparatus to keep us feeling like we did (or, rather, like we imagine we felt) in 1948 or 1998. If after sixty years we are still hooked on the emotional payoff of victory in World War II, maybe it’s because our global commitments no longer match our interests and we’ve settled for enjoying power for its own sake.