An excerpt from the conclusion of The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, forthcoming by Peter Beinart, about learning from American history that America can live safely and profitably in the world without dominating it.
What America needs today is a jubilant undertaker, someone—like Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan—who can bury the hubris of the past while convincing Americans that we are witnessing a wedding, not a funeral. The hubris of dominance, like the hubris of reason and the hubris of toughness before it, has crashed against reality’s shoals. Woodrow Wilson could not make politics between nations resemble politics between Americans. Lyndon Johnson could not halt every communist advance. And we cannot make ourselves master of every important region on earth. We have learned that there are prices we cannot pay and burdens we cannot bear, and our adversaries have learned it too. We must ruthlessly accommodate ourselves to a world that has shown, once again, that it is not putty in our hands.
Franklin Roosevelt did not wage World War II so America could be the world’s sole superpower, or even Europe’s.
For starters, that means remembering that we did not always believe we needed to dominate the world in order to live safely and profitably in it. In the decade and a half after the Soviet empire fell, dominance came so easily that we began to see it as the normal order of things. We expanded NATO into East Germany, then into Eastern Europe, then onto former Soviet soil, while at the same time encircling Russia with military bases in a host of Central Asian countries that once flew the Hammer and Sickle. We established a virtual Monroe Doctrine in the Middle East, shutting out all outside military powers, and the Bush administration set about enforcing a Roosevelt Corollary too, granting itself the right to take down unfriendly local regimes. In East Asia, we waited expectantly for China to democratize or implode, and thus follow Russia down the path to ideological and strategic submission. And we stopped thinking about Latin America much at all since we took it as a virtual fact of nature that no foreign power would ever again interfere in our backyard.
Living in the North American "bed" beside the global Leviathan that is the U.S. has never been easy. Canadians have written that when America gets a cold, we catch it. Canada is not only a geographic "siamese" joined at the 49th parallel; we have a history of documented "rhythms" dependent on the U.S. response to our policy.
Mutual wars, reciprocity in trade, fossil energy, and soon...water.
When America gets just a little more thirsty from the drying up of some of her endangered sources of water (The Colorado River is the latest river to be placed on the endangered rivers list!) she will come to Canada for her "life-drink," water.
While we have only 3% of the world's fresh water, that is like a gallon to a man dying of thirst. And America's hubris, and her history of dominance will still enter the room with Canadian negotiators when they come to "buy" our most precious natural resource.
And the question hanging in the atmosphere above those meetings is, "Will Canada sell off, in favour of a quick jump in our balance of payments account, the nation's fresh water?
It is and has been for more than a single year, the cause of the Council of Canadians, led by Maude Barlow, to get Canadians to support a policy that, like air, water is a human right. We heartily endorse such a policy.
However, to the Americans, every thing is another commodity, including, by the way, human DNA for which they are now issuing patents to private and also to not-for-profit companies. Everything is FOR SALE in America.
And with bottled water, or potentially another huge pipeline sucking the Great Lakes ever dryer to fed the thirst of the southwest U.S., Canadians will have to make a decision that is in the best interest of all Canadians....
And, as citizens both of the country and the world, that seems to fall nicely into the "NOT FOR SALE" file, for many Canadians including this one.
One has to wonder just how humble the Americans will be when those inevitable meetings take place. And, at the same time, one has to wonder just how "global, ethical, visionary and assertive" the Canadians sitting at the table will be.