Arrogance is a natural accompaniment to power. The ability to control others encourages a sense of superiority. It exalts prowess. It arouses the impulse to dictate, to direct and to take liberties. For these reasons, the stronger always is inclined to bully the weaker. Especially so in international relations where the bonds of social solidarity are weak and common identity lacking. And especially when the source of power is physical might - rather than moral authority or recognized status.
The United States is prone to arrogance along with everyone else. That tendency is reinforced by the conviction that America was born under a Providential star - singled out to lead the world, whether by example or action, down the path of enlightenment. Being born in a state of "original virtue" in a break from history and tradition, Americans from the Republic's first days saw their land as exceptional. What applied to ordinary nations and peoples did not apply in the same way to the United States. Morality and the compulsions of realism in a world of sovereign states could be reconciled in a manner that no one else could achieve or even imagine. The country's exceptionalism was long acknowledged by many others who recognized in it the embodiment of traits that they aspired to - democracy, civic integrity, humanism, prosperity.
That craving for a living model led to a disposition to concentrate on the positive in the American experience while slighting the negative - whether that negative was visible at home or out in the world. There was enough truth to this positive image, punctuated as it was by American role in the twentieth century's two world wars and its shunning of the conventional empire building temptation after each, as to give the United States an unprecedented standing. Much of that standing was retained even as the United States learned the game of raw power politics over the long years of the Cold War.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire had the effect of re-crowning the United States as the paladin of international life - particularly in the eyes of Americans who experienced it as a confirmation of the premises at the heart of national self-identity. The seeming triumph of liberal democracy, along with liberal economics, was misleading. On a number of counts. First, the United States was no longer the exclusive model of modern democracy. Western Europe, and a substantial slice of the developed world generally, had equal appeal and equal claim to be representative of what was best practice. Second, the balance between elements of tangible power and elements of moral cum philosophical power in the equation of American strength had shifted in the direction of the former. So, the United States was predominant but less of a beacon of virtue for many in the world *Esatern Europe being the exception). Third, the tolerance for an assertive leader's arrogation to itself of prerogatives to influence the policies of other states and to shape the affairs of the world was declining. That change stemmed from the lessened need by those states for the military security that Washington had provided. In addition, the multilateral institutions fashioned after WW II under American auspices were now self-sustaining. Therefore, there developed a growing tendency to dispute the American claim of superior wisdom and superior virtue as integral to its superior power.
Then came 9/11. America panicked and America-over reacted. Its all-embracing Global War On Terror has been at once a demonstration of American physical strength (however qualified and limited it has turned out to be) and a demonstration of flawed judgment that called into question the American premises of its singular probity and leadership skills. The United States' "hard power" has been on daily display. Its "smart power" has been most distinguished by its absence.
As a result, American "soft power" is now in steep decline. Above all, the country's moral authority has been shredded by Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, "collateral" killings, drones and indiscriminate spying on all and sundry. Iraq, Afghanistan - to a lesser extent, and the compulsively vengeful hunt world-wide for anyone and everyone who may wish to do the United States harm has created the impression of a relentless juggernaut on automatic pilot. Moreover, the original course bearings were dangerously off - launching the country into the vast and unhospitable reaches of diplomatic outer space.
American audacity in presuming to transform Iraq into a Western style country modeling liberal democracy for the rest of the Middle East was the logical extremity of strategy by grandiose fantasy. The resulting fiasco has damaged national interests - in addition to imposing immense harm on the Iraqis whom we used as Guinea pigs in this amateurish experiment. Yet, in the face of abject failure, the nation's political elites have lacked the humility to acknowledge error - much less to repent by reappraising the conceit that enabled the adventure. Then to put on a repeat performance in Afghanistan circa 2004-present evinces an exalted sense of self, impervious to experience, that has become a manifest national liability.
The United States' leaders, and Americans themselves, show little awareness of these developments. On occasion after occasion, from place to place, the implicit belief that we are masters of the universe with a right, indeed an obligation, to judge all and take whatever action America deems appropriate is as strong as it ever has been. If anything, the trauma of 9/11 has reinvigorated the righteous streak in the American outlook on the world that feeds the sense of privilege. That belief is seen in our inflated strategic vision and our day-to-day behavior both. The latter category has been swollen in recent months by a veritable plethora of revealing anecdotes. There was Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland's escapade in Kiev where she presumptuously tried to dictate the country's future to all local factions, to the European Union, Russia and whomever else was in hearing range of her "charming" salted language. No correction or honest apology followed. An attitude that sees the world as a Play Station to which only Americans have access leaves us shocked and uncomprehending when the Russians act as they have done in Ukraine.
Washington leaders denounce Russia's incursion into the Crimea as a violation of international law and a clear act of aggression. They seem oblivious to the implications of United States' own rogue behavior in invading/occupying Iraq without a legal mandate and without a cassis belli. However one might judge the particulars of the cases, there is a double standard here that a reasonable, responsible government should address. The failure to recognize that logical connection speaks volumes about American self-determined exceptionialism. To take as a birthright privileges denied others is to strike the high Cs of an exalted Americanism
Elsewhere, there was John Kerry's ad hominum condemnation of the duly elected Venezuelan government, slandered as rigging the election without citation of any evidence and declared an evil tyranny based on little more than our favoritism for the defeated candidate and the wealthier segments of Venezuelan society led by the oligarch Leopoldo Lopez, the country's richest man.
This line corresponds to what has become systematic interference in the domestic politics of Latin American countries wherever reformist elements who do not automatically curtsey to Washington win elections: Honduras, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Venezuela. We are demonstrably unhappy with Argentina and Brazil as well.
This is a throwback to the Cold War days when Washington operated on the crude premise that if you weren't manifestly "with us," you were to be treated as an accomplice of the Communist enemy. That approach was blinkered and self-defeating at the time. Nowadays, in the absence of any wider strategic considerations, such an attitude conveys two messages. First, the United States automatically will stand at the side of vested economic interests as a matter of course; most especially where there are American corporate interests engaged. Second, and more important, that Washington reserves for itself the right to decide which regimes pursuing which domestic policies are acceptable or "unacceptable" - to use Secretary Kerry's word. The same superior attitude in incorporated in the State Department's annual score sheet of other countries' human rights record. This ritual, also a Cold War holdover, today does little more than make the United States the object of ridicule. Our own abuses of human rights around the world, including the illegal invasion of Iraq, have cut the ground from under the shining "City on a Hill." The curtailing of Americans' own civil liberties in the name of "security" further blemishes the pristine image of America.
Washington's insistence that captured capo of the Sinaloa drug cartel, El Chapo, be extradited to the United States for trial shows the full extent to which we grant ourselves dominion powers extraterritorially. He is a Mexican citizen, already convicted for crimes in Mexico (he escaped from prison some years ago), would be indicted for additional crimes committed in Mexico against Mexicans. Yet, the Obama administration aggressively demands that its legal claims on him take precedence. The justification is that drug trafficking has done harm to American consumers of drugs which he is responsible for exporting to the U.S. Implicit is the notion that he, and other Mexicans, are responsible for Americans' abuse of drugs - rather than accepting the simple truth is that the causes lie in those features of American life that produce millions who crave addictive substances.
What much of the world sees is a once exceptional nation whose deviant behavior opens a yawning gap between its presumption and its reality. In short, Hypocrisy.
The starburst of revelations about the United States' program of systematic spying is eroding what remains of America's moral standing. It is now manifestly obvious to everyone outside the United States that its security agencies have set themselves the goal of accessing every electronic communication on the face of the earth - as clearly stated in a NSA memo of March 2012 exposed by Edward Snowden. Everyone is a "target," as the term is used. Foreign heads of government (friend, ally, neutral as well as "enemy"), their deputies, the Vatican, the United Nations Secretariat, the IMF, foreign delegations to the Global Warming Conference, a law firm in New York representing Indonesia in a trade dispute, etc., etc. The omnivorous appetite of our electronic spymasters makes a mockery of the repeated claim that all of this is done to keep Americans safe. It is the hubris of power that is at work.
That arrogance is most clearly affirmed by the failure of the President or his administration to apologize for these transgressions. Even the loud protests of Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dilma Rousseff are met with a limp pro forma statement from the White House that he is not recording their conversations and tracking their movements "now." Moreover, the administration has issued a string of outright lies about the nature and scope of its electronic surveillance. These, too, are brushed aside with a "boys will be boys" smirk. This goes over in Washington where even members of Congress long accepted passively the admission by intelligence services that their communications were being intercepted. Even Senator Feinstein's startling condemnation of CIA hacking into Senate Intelligence Committee computers now looks like a 48 hour news blip.
Washington, though, is not the world. So insulated are our leaders from what others think, so cossetted are they in the cocoon of their own self-regard, so immune are they to any sort of self-awareness, so self-righteous, that they continue to act in blissful confidence that the United States they lead indeed was born under a Providential star - one that blesses everything they do, however they do it, with whatever consequences. That is the epitome of arrogance. To question the received Truth is to make oneself persona non grata in policy circles. One is shunned anywhere in or near the corridors of power. More distressing, we sense that there are few if any that do the questioning in solitude or, if they do, are not tempted to confront those who mask the reality from themselves and from the country.
At no time since the pre-Civil War era has the United States experienced the scope and depth of policy failure, of power abused, of authority transgressed at home and abroad as we have during the past fifteen years. At no time, surely, has so sorry a record been met with a near universal nod of lazy acquiescence.