Paris. -- A new and critical view of the United States is held by its allies, reflecting political changes since the Cold War's end, but also increasingly a judgment on the economic and social developments that have taken place in the United States in recent years.
It is a matter of national introspection too, since the people of the allied countries have in part seen themselves in terms of their relationship not only to American foreign and security policies but to the powerful influence abroad of American civilization itself. This influence was in the past widely accepted as positive. This is not true today.
Sir Michael Howard is one of the most influential figures in what may be called the allies' intellectual relations. He is a distinguished military historian who has taught at Yale as well as in Britain, and he was a founder of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. This group has for years fostered a dialogue on security issues and international affairs among officials, scholars, independent analysts and churchmen in Europe, the United States and Asia.
Sir Michael recently told members of the French Institute of International Relations that the close alliance of Europe with America now "will be difficult to sustain."
He said that the American people's primary interest in the European countries "was as allies in the Cold War. Now that is gone. There is no longer any overriding issue to unite the Americans behind a single foreign policy, and there are many to divide them. Their internal problems are quite literally terrifying. Their elites may continue to urge on them the responsibilities of world leadership, but they themselves are divided over the direction in which to lead, and their electorates show no enthusiasm about following."
The key sentence in that comment is the one which says that America's "internal problems are quite literally terrifying." It is a reference to the appalling problems of race and underclass in the United States, certainly, but may be given a larger interpretation, as does a Brussels-based analyst, Philippe Grasset. Mr. Grasset argues that the United States now is gripped by a solipsistic individualism in society and economy that is deeply subversive of America's own social and economic stability, while threatening others.
This analysis has nothing to do with the sterile categories of American conservatism and liberalism. It may be attacked as a novel and sophisticated variant of established anti-American themes, but differs in its concern that America's own moral community has been torn apart by the country's institutionalization of an ethic of anarchic individual self-interest, destructive of family, moral codes, "elite values," corporate social obligation and the notion of community interest.
This American ethic of the primacy of self-interest is spread abroad, among other ways by the worldwide promotion of the doctrine that societies everywhere must subordinate themselves to market forces, and by America's aggressive and government-sponsored marketing of commercialized lowest-common-denominator popular entertainment, marked by violence and obscenity.
Another British critic, Martin Walker, notes (in the summer issue of World Policy Journal) that one result of American-sponsored economic globalization is that the government has itself lost control of the principal forces at work.
"The global currency markets now trade over $1.1 trillion a day. Each week they shift wealth equal to the gross domestic product of the United States. Every five hours they trade the equivalent of this year's U.S. defense budget. Against such financial tsunamis, it is increasingly difficult to argue sensibly that any elected government, American or other, can elaborate and deploy an independent national economic policy."
Criticism of the United States in Japan and the lesser Asian economic "tigers" has a basis in trade issues but is increasingly expressed as a condemnation of American values. "Asian values," which emphasize common interest and national discipline over individual interest, and in the economic sphere tend to be protectionist, are held both to be superior in themselves and responsible for these countries' economic growth and relative social stability.
In Europe, the most urgent internal debate today concerns unemployment and the other social consequences of national fiscal policies dictated by the global market. Last year's GATT negotiations famously featured a French-led attack on unrestricted American audiovisual imports, in a controversy which still continues.
There is a significant turning away from the United States by its allies, which rests on a conviction that the United States has put itself on a dangerous and destructive course. America's aggressive trade policies and the vagaries of Clinton-administration foreign policy -- or its lack of a coherent policy -- are secondary factors in this alienation.
It is taken for granted abroad that, as Sir Michael Howard said, the American people need to be concerned with the country's internal condition. It is understood that among the consequences of that inward-turning are unilateralist forays in trade policy and emotional single-issue foreign-policy initiatives, nearly all driven by domestic electoral concerns. What is new is the negative judgment made on American civilization.
Americans in the past have always seen the American condition as the world's best future. Today the United States is widely perceived by friends abroad as having, in important respects, set itself upon a dangerous new course which it does not itself fully understand. Others find this disquieting, even rather frightening. The American condition now is seen by them as a threat rather than a promise.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.