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Born on the Fourth of July
Three books look to the past for clues to our nation's future.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

ARE WE ROME?

The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America

By Cullen Murphy

Houghton Mifflin 262 pp. $24

THE IDEA THAT IS AMERICA

Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World

By Anne-Marie Slaughter

Basic. 254 pp. $25.95

AMERICANISM

The Fourth Great Western Religion

By David Gelernter

Doubleday. 229 pp. $24.95

Psychologists say that we tend to become the stories we tell about ourselves. One of our country's oldest stories involves the notion of the American miracle. With roots extending to John Winthrop's 1630 admonition that we should be a city upon a hill, America's basic myth describes us as a people whom Providence selected to found a new world of liberty and hope, not just for ourselves but for the entire human race.

This legend of American exceptionalism has led to self-deception as well as moral progress. On the Fourth of July we can tell the traditional story that "all men are created equal" or the counter-story of a constitution that treated slaves as three-fifths of a person, broken treaties with native inhabitants, and a doctrine of manifest destiny used to legitimize aggression against Mexico. As Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, points out in her thoughtful, well-written book, both stories may be true.

In a nation held together by ideas rather than ethnicity, fierce debates over values "have driven our history forward. Democracy once meant suffrage only for propertied white men. At the dawn of the Revolution, liberty meant slavery for 20 percent of the population. Equality once meant segregated schools. And justice has often not been for all. Successive groups and generations of Americans have challenged the meaning and the implementation of these values -- calling on our government to make good its promises and also disputing precisely what was promised."

For David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale and regular contributor to the Weekly Standard, "most nations are based on no principles; they are based instead on shared descent or ethnicity. The United States is different. It has a religion because it must have. Without one, it is a band of displaced persons and little more."

Each generation confronts new problems, encounters new facts and tells our history somewhat differently. These three books about the past reflect the post-9/11 historical era and are really about our future role in the world.

The centrality of values in our national myths has long led to oscillation between realism and idealism in our foreign policies. Neither liberals nor conservatives are able to escape it. Hard-nosed realism in the narrow pursuit of national interest -- whether it be Teddy Roosevelt or Henry Kissinger leading the quest -- has not captured the imagination of the American people, but as these books attest, Americans disagree widely on how to combine interests with values. As Cullen Murphy, editor-at-large at Vanity Fair, argues in his fascinating comparison of America and Rome: "America isn't grasping for territory; our substitute for territory . . . is the ideology of democracy and free markets. Should we push them aggressively, even by means of pre-emptive war, hastening the world toward its destiny? Should we hold back, to conserve the tenuous gains we've made and let the impetus of history gradually have its way? Well, we don't do either with any consistency."

John Quincy Adams famously warned against going abroad in search of monsters to destroy, while Woodrow Wilson sought to make the world safe for democracy. Should we rest on the soft power of attractive ideas and example, or should we pursue a more "activist Americanism" as George W. Bush has advocated? Gelernter locates Bush in the Wilsonian tradition and argues that "Bush's activism has, predictably, split the ranks of American true believers. The split is felt in practice as a disagreement among American conservatives." Gelernter comes down firmly on the neo-conservative side. "If there is to be justice in the world," he writes, "America must create it."

Gelernter argues that America is a biblical (not secular) republic, and Americanism is a biblical (not civil) religion. The universal ideas of liberty, equality and democracy are rooted in Puritan Christianity, which in turn was shaped by the Bible. Gelernter is surely correct when he defines a "biblical republic" as one that "has the Bible on its mind," and he provides ample evidence of how political leaders have drawn upon the Bible in our history. His treatment of the Puritans is convincing, and his chapter on Lincoln (whose Gettysburg Address he calls "the best expression of the American Creed") is beautifully written.

He is less convincing, however, when he seeks to downplay the effect of Enlightenment ideas upon the Founding Fathers. He is even less sure-footed when he disposes of the past 80 years of history in 28 pages that include such oversimplifications as, "If Bill Clinton's legacy shortly after leaving office was 9/11, Reagan's was the collapse of the Soviet empire." (Less partial observers give George W. Bush part of the blame for 9/11, and give the Soviet economy and Gorbachev more of the credit for the Soviet collapse.) Nor will everyone agree with Gelernter that the public is "confused and foundering" because "the Bible has temporarily been dismissed from American public life." Some conservative realists believe just the opposite -- that it has been brought too simplistically into our foreign policy.

Slaughter has "turned back to our past to help find the way forward." She remains optimistic. "If we are serious that our greatest strength is not our army, our land, or our wealth, but is instead our values, then we must rethink a whole set of current strategies and practices to reflect those values." As examples, she cites Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, secret prisons, extraordinary renditions, detention without trial, tolerance of torture by others and even by ourselves -- which "enable our enemies to taunt us as hypocrites and our friends to doubt our sincerity." She takes the title of her book from a letter written by an army captain to Sen. John McCain in 2005: "I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is 'America.' "

Slaughter goes beyond the three universal ideas of liberty, equality and democracy that Gelernter includes in his Americanism. She adds justice, tolerance, humility and faith as key aspects of the American idea and devotes a chapter to each. Her arguments are well supported with evidence and quotations from historical figures, but the chapter on humility is less convincing than the others. It is true that John Winthrop urged the Puritans to "walk humbly with our God," and the Declaration of Independence invokes "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind," but many people do not see humility as a defining American virtue even if it should be. Franklin Roosevelt's "Good Neighbor Policy" was based on pragmatism more than humility. Nonetheless, Slaughter draws on Roosevelt's example to present an interesting argument for a global good neighbor policy.

Murphy looks even further into the past for lessons about our future. As he puts it, "To American eyes, Rome is the eagle in the mirror." The Founding Fathers made frequent references to Roman history. Descriptions of America as the new Rome are rife today, though few are as well researched and enjoyably written as Murphy's. He argues: "Rome and America are the most powerful actors in their worlds, by many orders of magnitude. Their power includes both military might and the 'soft power' of language, culture, commerce, technology and ideas." Both created global structures, were societies made up of many peoples, and open to newcomers. Both see themselves as peoples specially blessed by Providence, a "Roman exceptionalism" parallel to the American variety.

Murphy is well aware of the important differences between Rome and the United States. Our science-based technology supports a dynamic economy based on innovation rather than extracting tribute from conquered peoples. Our middle-class society(absent in Rome) has (so far) supported a republic, a form of government that failed in Rome. Our founding ideas, as discussed by Slaughter and Gelernter, have encouraged cultural evolution away from slavery and the savagery of gladiatorial circuses. But Murphy sees six interesting parallels: focus on the capital city, reliance on military instruments, privatization of public goods, parochial attitudes toward the outside world, problems with borders, and growing complexity.

He points out that Rome lasted for centuries after its apogee, was not defeated in battle, and did not suffer a sudden "fall" in the dramatic words of Edward Gibbons's famous title. Murphy argues that Rome successfully assimilated "barbarians" for centuries, just as America managed to accommodate waves of immigration. The decline occurred with the loss of assimilationist capacity in the 5th century. He draws four lessons for America today: instill greater appreciation of the wider world, stop treating government as a necessary evil, fortify the institutions that promote assimilation, and take some weight off the military. Finally, he reminds us that "America has lived through more social transformations in a few centuries than Rome did in a millennium."

All three of these well-written books make thought-provoking reading as we contemplate our role in a post-Bush world. Our greatest danger may not be from the barbarians, but from discounting our values in our response to them. As George Kennan warned at the beginning of the Cold War, the greatest danger that can befall us would be to allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping. ยท

Joseph S. Nye Jr. is University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard and author, most recently, of "Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics" and "The Power Game: A Washington Novel."

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