In a neglected part of his recent and notorious "isolationism" speech, national security adviser Sandy Berger acknowledged that the United States is often seen abroad as an overbearing "hectoring hegemon." But he concluded that, given the disparity of power and influence in the world today, there is not much we can do about it.
Well, one thing we could do is keep President Clinton home and his mouth shut. Instead, he goes around the world smugly telling other people how to improve themselves. Clinton has this irresistible urge to pronounce himself on--and thus thrust the United States into--disputes that are none of our business.
This colossally flawed man makes an unlikely missionary, but he can't help himself. He has an opinion--lofty, moralistic, blissfully disinterested--on everything. He goes to Athens, for example, and decides that the Elgin Marbles rightly belong to Greece.
Now, Britain and Greece have been arguing over the Elgin Marbles--88 priceless works of Phidias taken from the Acropolis early in the 19th century--for almost 200 years. The treasures are housed in the British Museum. The Greeks want them back. But even Tony Blair's Labor government, which often vies with Clinton's in touchy-feeliness, has stated flatly that they are staying where they are.
It is a problem not easily solved. The Greeks obviously have a claim. But what about the Egyptians and the Persians, the Chinese and the Japanese, the Fijians and Pacific Islanders who find so much of their ancient patrimony sitting behind glass in museums of their erstwhile conquerors and colonizers?
Such conundrums are no problem for a man such as Clinton. Not only should the marbles be returned, he told Greek Minister of Culture Elizabeth Papazoe, but, she reports, he thinks all such items should be returned to their countries of origin.
Of course, under that principle, American museums would have to be emptied. We are, after all, a country too young to have any antiquity of our own. Where does Clinton think all that stuff inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art--the Greek and Roman statuary, the medieval art and armor, the mummies and the masks--comes from? Topeka?
Clinton's words might have been meant to curry favor with the mob that greeted his arrival in Athens. But the only real effect was to infuriate the Brits, who reacted viscerally to this gratuitous bigfooting into their private business. Clinton's pronouncements on the Elgin Marbles will not influence their ultimate disposition. They will serve only to impress upon our most loyal ally--from Monica to Kosovo, Blair has carried a lot of water for Clinton--the "hectoring hegemon" Sandy Berger warned against.
Then on to Kosovo, where Clinton touched down just long enough to instruct the Kosovar Albanians on forgiving their enemies. (Clinton is something of an expert in the field, having forgiven his enemies for impeaching him.)
The Kosovars must not be "focused on hatred and past wrongs and getting even," said the man who gave the world James Carville.
What is wrong with that sentiment? First, it is terminally naive to wade into the middle of the Balkan cauldron--where Serbs and Albanians kill each other with regularity as soon as either side gets the upper hand--and blithely preach love.
Moreover, it is arrogant for an American president to tell people--people living amid roiling nationalisms and tribal memories we can barely understand--not only what to do but what to think and feel.
This is hardly the way to deal with the "hectoring hegemon" problem. Managing hegemony is difficult enough. Historically, hegemons--great powers dominating everybody else--create resentment among weaker countries, causing them to build a coalition of opposition.
How to prevent that? First, you temper your aims--you don't run around the world determining how Haitians and Somalis and Kosovars ought to live, for example.
Second, you temper your language and ration your advice. Of course, there are times when you must assert yourself and display your power. But you save that for big things like the Gulf War or NATO expansion--and skimp on the extras. You are spare in your pronouncements. You avoid unnecessary intercessions in other peoples' disputes. And you bag the gratuitous moral instruction.
From golden arches over Tokyo to B-2 bombers over Belgrade, there are enough demonstrations of American dominance. How to deal with the result, what Berger called the "visceral reactions to our culture and status"?
"There is not much we can do about this except exercise a fair measure of humility," he said. A lesson for his boss.