Can the “American dream” belong also to the world? (Richard Rorty, 2007-06-10, Open Democracy)
The thought that America is a place where values and institutions are being nurtured that could eventually transform the world crystallised in the middle of the 19th century. Those were the days of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. These two men played an important role in the formation of the American Dream. Whitman’s Democratic Vistas is the ancestor of Henry Luce’s musings on the American Century.
When he wrote that “(the) Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature”, Whitman meant that Americans were more inclined than most to dream of a better world – a world at peace, in which social justice was reconciled with individual freedom. He encouraged them to believe that their country would help bring that world into existence. Whitman and Luce both hoped that the American dream would become (in your words) “the world’s dream”.
That dream has been kept alive by all those American intellectuals and politicians who have tried to convince their fellow-citizens that the important thing about their country is not that it is rich and powerful, but rather that its history embodies (again in your words) “a persistent faith in the values of democratic individualism as the indispensable guardians of personal dignity and individual opportunity”. These men and women established a tradition of idealistic internationalism. Ever since Whitman’s day, they have struggled both against the imperialists, who wanted to use American wealth and power to establish a global hegemony, and also against the isolationists, who wanted the United States to mind its own business and not meddle in world affairs.
The hidden agenda of the internationalists (one that they still cannot put forward explicitly, for fear of a chauvinist reaction from the voters) is to bring into existence what Tennyson called “The Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World”. They want to do for the almost two hundred sovereign nation-states what the American Founding Fathers did for the thirteen original American colonies.
The internationalists dream of a world government that will bind Iranians, Chinese, Germans, Brazilians and Americans together in a single political community. For they think that only such a government, able to deploy an international police force, can ensure world peace. They share the hopes of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Harry Truman (who always carried those lines from Tennyson in his wallet). These American presidents all took for granted, as had Emerson and Whitman, that it is America’s destiny to bring peace and justice to the world.
Because the imperialists have recently wrenched control of American foreign policy from the internationalists, it has become more difficult for non-Americans to remember that the US is a country of idealistic dreamers as well as of chauvinist militarists. […]
Even if the internationalists should regain control, however, it may be too late in the day for their dreams to be realised. For even if the Americans did elect a president willing to dilute United States sovereignty by signing binding international agreements, it still might be impossible to persuade Russia and China, and the growing list of lesser nuclear powers, to go along.
…it’s worth noting the really basic absurdities here. In the first place, we have the hilarious notion that those who believe in liberating the peoples of the world from tyrants are imperialists, while those who would impose a centralized world government on them are not. Then we have the bizarre formulation that those who would use a transnational state and police force to impose our values are idealists, while those who believe that the liberated peoples will freely choose to organize their own countries around our universalist values are chauvinists. Even from the beyond he’s pegging the nonsense meter here.