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After the Cold War, Who Are We?


The Cold War's end has left a sense of loss of purpose in many areas of American life. Without an enemy to struggle against, many seem to be questioning what exactly it is that Americans -- and America -- are supposed to be doing.

The problem is obvious among military professionals and in the defense industries, but is also easily addressed there, requiring scaling-down and a redirection of effort toward the classical patterns of peacetime military preparation and planning. This is hard in practice. A nation which before the Second World War was hostile to the very idea of a standing army finds itself at the finish of the Cold War with nearly 400 foreign military installations and a half-million troops overseas. But remaking American security policy nonetheless presents a solvable set of problems.

Unless Patrick Buchanan is elected president -- which one may reasonably doubt -- there will be no precipitate rush homeward ++ of these troops. Most will eventually come home, but there is no reason for this to happen in a destructive way, undermining alliances and regional balances of power. Thus U.S. allies may look to the future with a certain assurance.

The mere entropy of military-political commitment and deployment says that the U.S. withdrawal from its pan-global commitments will happen in a way that does not jeopardize basic allied or American interests. I am convinced, however, that troop withdrawal will come about. The American public displays no real ambition today to affirm global hegemony in the guise of a "new world order."

There are grave difficulties in the reform of the nation's overall foreign policy and strategy, dominated for more than 40 years by the rivalry with the Soviet Union. Yet that too is a professional problem, and an intellectual challenge. It can be done -- which is not, of course, to say that it will be done well.

We are in another dimension, however, when people can say -- as does the distinguished psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton -- that individual Americans "no longer know how to view the world or how to understand our own national problems." To a remarkable degree, the personal lives of Americans have been shaped by the conflict with communism. This always is true in a war, of course. But when other wars have ended, Americans have been left in no doubt about who they are, what they should do, or what the nation's purpose really is.

Today those doubts exist. It is as if the quality of America itself has in these 40 years been stripped down, so as to cause people to believe that winning the Cold War was all that the United States was about. Certainly there was always official and unofficial proclamation of ambitions beyond that single goal -- calling for global liberty, humanity's well-being and prosperity, etc. -- but since the 1940s these calls have always had an implicit link to the Cold War. To state such goals was part of that struggle.

They were expressions of the old progressive American conception of foreign policy which had found its most influential expression in Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, and in the Versailles settlement after World War I and creation of the League of Nations (and later, of the United Nations). However, this progressive notion of foreign policy, aimed at global reform, has been under critical attack in the United States for many years, and President Bush's tentative reformulation of it last year as an American mission to create a "new world order" -- fell rather flat after it proved that not even Iraq had been given a new order: only the reinforcement of the tyrannical old order.

A practical reorientation of American government, and even of American politics, away from the Cold War, seems to me painful, but feasible, indeed, inevitable. Some fear that new enemies will be named -- or imagined -- to take the place of an Evil Empire overcome by Good. That possibility cannot be excluded.

Some think Washington will look for new enemies to smite in the Third World -- Libya again, or new Panamas or Grenadas. I suppose that is possible, assuming an elevated level of unscrupulousness in the White House. I cannot, however, see such policies as really popular with the American public. Some promote the idea of a new religious war between the West and a radicalized Islam. Ideological and moral conflict may certainly come about, and more terrorism -- but surely not war. War for what?

In practical matters of policy and national realignment, it seems to me that one is justified in taking an unexcited view of the effects of the Cold War's end on American life and institutions. But a deeper question remains. I believe that the end of the Cold War has laid bare a very deep crisis in what may be called the American identity -- the American's sense not only of national purpose but of what he or she really is, or wishes to become. That seems to me worth further discussion.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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