Monday, May 08, 2006

Beacon No. 85: Peter Beinart and “Rehabilitation of the Cold War Liberal”


A week ago the New Republic’s Peter Beinart wrote an excellent essay in the New York Times Magazine, “The Rehabilitation of the Cold War Liberal” (it’s already banished to TimesSelect, so check out the more permanent citation here). Beinart starts with the standard lament that Democrats have no unifying message on foreign policy, but proceeds quickly to describing what it looked like the last time they did:

In the late 1940's and 1950's, intellectuals like Reinhold Niebuhr and policymakers like George F. Kennan described America's cold-war struggle differently from their conservative counterparts: as a struggle not merely for democracy but for economic opportunity as well, in the belief that the former required the latter to survive. Even more important, they described America itself differently. Americans may fight evil, they argued, but that does not make us inherently good. And paradoxically, that very recognition makes national greatness possible. Knowing that we, too, can be corrupted by power, we seek the constraints that empires refuse. And knowing that democracy is something we pursue rather than something we embody, we advance it not merely by exhorting others but by battling the evil in ourselves. The irony of American exceptionalism is that by acknowledging our common fallibility, we inspire the world.

Today’s GOP tends to couch its domestic messages in morally categorical language, which has a mighty appeal for domestic voters striving to lead morally categorical lives. Unfortunately, the president and his party tend to describe the rest of the world’s struggles in these terms as well, while most of that world considers itself to be a more complex, morally greyer place. The United States could profit, as others including Beinart have said, by including itself in the category of nations that struggle to better themselves and acknowledging this publicly from time to time.

I believe this more humble approach would resonate with people in other countries, particularly since a kind of humility is rooted in some of the world’s great religions. To take Christianity for example—and this line of thought might appeal to conservative Christians in the U.S.—the idea that Jesus was sent by God to redeem humanity is interesting, if terrifying; but the idea that Jesus was divine yet had very real, very human struggles with good and evil makes him one of history’s most compelling and aspirational figures.

While the writing of anyone who cautions against moral certitude yet titles his book The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again should be taken with a grain of salt, Beinart’s essay is most concise introduction to public diplomacy that I’ve seen, and should be required reading public diplomats.

After reading it, I’ve relaxed a bit about some of the recent debates I’ve witnessed in public diplomacy circles—USIA model or networked model? better policies or better propaganda? is it the messenger or the message?—because they are secondary to having the right PD philosophy. Once you get the philosophy right, questions about programs and policies recede toward their appropriate places as second- or third-order problems.

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