July 31, 2014 | Rome, Italy | Partly Cloudy 26°C

Eyes cast downward

Picasso's "Guernica" was an artistic admonishment against fascism.
By Christopher P. Winner
Published: 2014-06-08

n a masterfully argued essay published in May by The New Republic, political scientist Robert Kagan argues that the United States may be inviting woe by choosing to forgo the responsibilities of global policing it created in the wake of World War II.

For Kagan, America's growing desire to be a "more normal kind of nation," more parochial and less idealistic, may soon bring it to harm as Russia and China seek to outwit a superpower that has apparently forsaken intervention as a way to protect the liberal world order.

Kagan's assessment focuses on a retreat into "irresponsible innocence," a phrase first coined by Reinhold Neibuhr. America's "constant and pervasive forward involvement in the affairs of the world" is being undone by weariness in the wake of terrorism and war and marked a "desire to shed burdens." By reining in its take-charge approach, "America has perhaps returned to the mood of the 1920s," when business nationalism predominated. What, Kagan wonders rhetorically, will the world "as is" really be like if America entirely abandons its "abnormal and unusual role of preserver and defender of a liberal world order." World disorder is the reply, with Ukraine and Syria and Iran as kryptonite in the making.

But what are the moving parts of this early century unburdening? In what way, for example, has digital life unconsciously fortified Neibuhr's "irresponsible innocence" by placing the pursuit of happiness at the impatient and combative heart of all debate (whether the fight regards sexual orientation, ethnic pride, environmental responsibility or just staying healthy)? What role has the proliferation of online choice played in watering down the narrow but intense idealism that once sustained both Manifest Destiny and the (selective) championing of democratic causes? With all manner of indirect but self-centered communication on the rise, just where does informed international concern fit in? In studying America's evolution from idealism to enlightened self-interest to Kagan's sense of the burden-shedding present, is it not also necessary weigh the possibility that we might be the backhanded architects of our own hold-button aloofness.

Teddy Roosevelt sent his "Great White Fleet" around the world for two years (1907-09) to remind pretender states of U.S. power.

Americans are world-weary to be sure, but they're also profoundly in the thrall of culture of metrics and measurement, of instantaneity and instant solution, which while helpful on a daily basis tends to make "right-wrong" a personal matter. Dependence on "smart usage" has distanced Americans from idealistically thinking since idealism is intuitive and nearer to collective self-esteem than to the science of artificial intelligence.

Cumulative distraction has grown weed-like since 2001. Communication is passionate but not idealistic. Online presence is cathartic but seemingly without cost (literal payment is deferred). Assisted thinking and communication are bulwarks of a knee-jerk, caricature-dependent realm that revels its own vastness, whether measured in friends or hits, but has little affinity with the personal sacrifice that once gave meaning to hardier commitments (Kagan cites the anti-Fascism that took root slowly but intensely in the 1930s and set aside more gossipy ideology in favor of open resistance, first by small groups and then by U.S. itself.) Today's barbaric Syrian civil war might once have qualified for American intervention, since it violates most civilized rules of engagement. As it is, crises come and go, largely oversimplified for the length of their mass media duration.

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