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Up for Grabs

BARBARIAN SENTIMENTS America in the New Century; By William Pfaff; Hill & Wang: 290 pp., $16 paper

February 04, 2001|RONALD STEEL | Ronald Steel is the author of "Temptations of a Superpower" and "In Love With Night: The American Romance With Robert Kennedy." He is professor of international relations at USC

When "Barbarian Sentiments" was first published in slightly different form a dozen years ago, the Berlin Wall still divided Germany, the Red Army dominated Eastern Europe and the Communist Party controlled a Soviet Union that seemed likely to endure indefinitely. All that has passed so quickly and so totally, William Pfaff argues, that our thinking has not been able to catch up to it. Our vocabulary has changed, he maintains, but not our attitudes.

Today the key words of our foreign policy are not defensive ones like containment. Rather they are expansive ones like enlargement, engagement and globalization.

Yet, in the view of this provocative and thoughtful analyst, we have failed to adjust to the deeper realities of the new Europe and of the wider world. The problem, according to Pfaff, is not simply one of reforming our policies but of reimagining the way we define ourselves and approach the world. This is in a real sense a radical work, for it goes to the root of our assumptions and even of our national character.

Author of several studies of American foreign policy, Pfaff has lived in Europe for most of the last three decades, interpreting Europe for his American compatriots and America for equally puzzled and concerned Europeans. From 1971-'92 his contemplative essays appeared in The New Yorker. Those were years when that journal was more concerned with issues of state than with "edge" and published, along with Pfaff, groundbreaking pieces on foreign policy issues by such writers as Frances FitzGerald, Jonathan Schell and Richard Barnet. Over the last decade, Pfaff has been writing a column for the Paris-based International Herald-Tribune--one that deserves wider exposure in American papers.

Not often are books on current affairs republished. But "Barbarian Sentiments" is an exception, for it is not geared to headlines, and its historical sweep and cultural insight make it no less timely than it was in 1989. This edition is somewhat expanded from the one that appeared earlier, but the original text remains intact. At the end of chapters, Pfaff appends a commentary updating and occasionally revising his judgment. He has also added a biting new concluding chapter in which he takes to task what he describes as the "militarization" of American foreign policy and a "naive utopianism" that inspires Americans to pursue a "benevolent form of world hegemony."

This is an unusual study of foreign policy because it is not really about policy. Pfaff offers no blueprints, plans of action or specific recommendations. Rather he is concerned with cultural, psychological and historical forces that form national character and impel nations to behave as they do. Virtually no one writes about foreign policy in this way, although more should. But few bring to the task his philosophical frame of mind, his literary skills or his profound pessimism.

As he confesses, "I remain a historical pessimist, a believer in original sin with a view of history as a chronicle of tragedies." It is hard to think of anything less representative of the American temperament. Many might find this a shortcoming, for Pfaff sometimes seems not only detached from but unsympathetic to key aspects of American life. In some ways the Europeans with whom he identifies appear more attracted to American values than he. But this very detachment is also a virtue, for in cutting against the grain, Pfaff forces us to see ourselves from the outside.

This is not a book about endless horizons and opportunities but rather about limits and inadequacies. Pfaff believes that our history and culture have ill-adapted us to the role of world leadership to which we aspire. He deplores our assumption that problems of national security necessarily have solutions, the eternal optimism that impedes us from "acknowledging the complexities and perversities of history's working" and our belief that "the world would be a safe place for America only when the world was made very much like America." Pfaff, in short, provides a powerfully argued antidote to the Wilsonian self-congratulation that inspires American thinking on world affairs. In his view, the world not only will not, but should not, be more like us.

Pfaff's long chapter on Europe--focusing on France, Britain and Germany--is particularly rewarding. These are societies that he understands well and in varying degrees admires. Through their heritage and inner dynamics he tries to show why a surface degree of "Americanization" in consumerism and business organization is not making them more like us or even more sympathetic to what we represent. His is a Europe burdened but enriched by a history of memories and cultural imperatives. America is a society that believes in ever-brighter tomorrows. To his mind, this is one of the many reasons why "European nations have less in common with the U.S. than forty years of slogans about the free world and Atlantic civilization suggest."

The "barbarian sentiments" of the title apparently refer to those held by Americans caught in the grip of what he calls a "fundamentally sentimental, megalomaniacal, and unhistorical vision of world democracy organized on the American example." This is clearly not an example he finds congenial. As a cultural pessimist, Pfaff may underestimate the powerful appeal that American optimism, energy and, above all, openness has on those in tradition-bound cultures.

This book will provoke and even antagonize many. But that is what it is intended to do, and it performs that task brilliantly. Its timely republication offers an opportunity to be challenged by a stimulating and original intelligence that ruthlessly, but with great elegance, leaves no assumption unquestioned.

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