At Home Abroad

Of course, with the White House provoking waves of anxiety abroad, it does make sense to be especially concerned right now about how the world perceives us. And Jedediah Purdy is among the worried. In Being America: Liberty, Commerce, and Violence in an American World, he sets out to trace our influence into every nook and cranny of the globe. If containment sought to dam Soviet communism, the new American credo, as Purdy and many others see it, is expansionism. Purdy, a fellow at the New America Foundation, has written a brilliant if uneven book in which vivid insights (nationalist movements are “not the enemies of the future. Instead, they are contenders for it”) jostle uneasily with banal platitudes (“The United States should approach a gray world knowing the limits of our power”). Drawing on Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, among others, Purdy hopes to provide a meditation on the causes and consequences of American might and prosperity abroad. He has also done a good bit of legwork, visiting activists and workers everywhere from Cairo to Jakarta, to report–and reflect–upon perceptions of America.

To Purdy, American power and influence are self-evident. “Once again,” he opens, “America is a prophetic nation.” By this, he means that America represents the world’s image of the future, that it is the first modern nation, and that all societies, however tenaciously they cling to their own customs, are heading toward individualism, mobility, and instant communication. Thomas Friedman and a host of other exponents of globalization have, of course, made similar claims. But in his chapter on economics, Purdy offers a striking examination of the unresolved tension between the promise of prosperity and the sweatshops that underlie it. Like Marx, Purdy sees capitalism as a gigantic wrecking force that upends societies. “Markets sweep across the land like a natural disaster,” Purdy writes, “driving whole populations before them.”

But where Marx worshipped what the Austrian conservative Joseph Schumpeter later called “creative destruction,” Purdy views it with distinct unease. Is the market a liberating force or does it simply allow prosperous Western countries to loot the Third World? In a bold stroke, he turns to Adam Smith, emphasizing that the Scottish economist, while convinced that liberty entailed freedom of the market, worried about the consequences. Smith, Purdy reminds us, used the example of slavery to demonstrate that wealth and liberty do not automatically consign brutal servitude to the dustbin of history. On the contrary, it may heighten the temptations for one class to dominate another. The richer a slave-owning class becomes, the less likely it is to abolish such subjugation. According to Purdy, “Political choice decides whether freedom or domination, dignity or humiliation, will become the ruling temper of the economy, and how great will be the gap in experience between the most fortunate and the least powerful.” Purdy does not offer a convincing answer to such problems, but he sets them up deftly.

The real problems with Purdy’s book start when he conducts his interviews. The tone becomes tentative, the descriptions vague, the prose lifeless, almost as if his mind is wandering. Interviewing a young Egyptian professional, he quotes her as remarking that Osama bin Laden “should have attacked the White House. Then, no one could have said it was murder.” Purdy writes, “I let that go unremarked.” But why? Had he challenged the ludicrous statement, he might have been able to elicit something interesting about the way Egyptians, or a certain class of Egyptians, see the world. Instead, throughout the book he remains curiously passive. What’s more, Purdy does not use these encounters to buttress the larger conclusions that he seeks to draw about the United States being the model of modernity for all other societies.

Here I want to do something slightly unfair and quote from one of Adam Smith’s contemporaries, who easily carried off the kind of leap from idiosyncratic detail to broad generalization to which Purdy aspires. Upon visiting Scotland, this Englishman was surprised that Scottish windows could not be readily opened. As a result, the houses stank. His conclusion: “These diminutive observations seem to take away something from the dignity of writing, and therefore are never communicated but with hesitation,” he wrote, “and a little fear of abasement and contempt. But it must be remembered, that life consists not of a series of illustrious actions, or elegant enjoyments … The true state of every nation is the state of common life.”

Of course, Purdy is no Samuel Johnson, but his prose leaves no doubt that he hopes to attain the same exalted moral sentiments and lessons–“American power takes a tortuous path and does not always work as we intend. Peoples, like individuals, make their own decisions … When the United States is a source of hope–which it is for individuals everywhere–there is also hope in the future.” In short, he tends toward preachiness without the acuity and insight that enabled Johnson to write from the heart. One wishes that Purdy would loosen up. He should think less about what he’s writing and write more what he thinks.

Perhaps Purdy’s greatest weakness is the cursory attention he pays to American foreign policy. Does he believe that America would not stir antagonism abroad if it withdrew militarily? Should it rely on the United Nations? Is the Bush administration running roughshod over internationalist principles, or is it giving them a new lease on life? Does American military power subvert or enhance America’s political influence abroad? Purdy never says. Instead, he retreats into abstractions: “The wrong kind of greatness, built on pride and reckless optimism, could make us history’s signal failure.” Sounds right, but what does Purdy think a less reckless optimism would consist of? Once again, he never says.

Above all, Purdy does not distinguish sufficiently between the broader liberal principles that he invokes about liberty and specific American ones. Europeans resent the United States because it claims to have a patent on Western ideals. Had Purdy taken some of the countries he visited on their own terms and not assumed that we live in “an American world,” he might have produced more insights about what makes them tick. Purdy seeks to transcend narrow national categories, but in focusing relentlessly on the United States, he never escapes them.

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Jacob Heilbrunn

Jacob Heilbrunn, a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly, is the editor of the National Interest and the author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.