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AMERICA FIRST
- For the US now, tomorrow may not be better than today

Earlier this year, I spent two weeks travelling around the United States of America. Everywhere, the main topic of discussion was the upcoming presidential election. The people I met were mostly university professors, and thus mostly Democrats. They were not amused when I told them that the Indian national interest demanded that we put our eggs in the Bush basket.

I was basing my judgment on the xenophobic comments made by John Kerry during his campaign. These comments have been repeated, and indeed amplified, in Kerry’s acceptance speech at the recently concluded Democratic convention in Boston. There, he spoke of his anguish at hearing of American workers who had to watch as the factories where they worked were dismantled piece by piece, to be shipped and reassembled in a country thousands of miles away. “When I am president,” he thundered, “I will remove tax breaks to American companies who outsource their work abroad, and give them instead to American companies who create jobs at home.”

The presumptive vice-president, John Edwards, also attacked outsourcing in his speech. He said that Kerry and he would ensure that “America would always be ahead of the competition”. The last line of his speech was: “In our one America, tomorrow will always be better than today.” This was echoed by John Kerry’s insistence that America’s “best days lie ahead of us”.

Sentiments such as these might be seen — by Democratic supporters and spin doctors alike — as a welcome expression of optimism, but to this outsider they sounded more like a display of hyper-patriotism. As John Kerry’s daughter recalled, when she was growing up, her father often told her: “You are the luckiest person in the world, because you are alive, and because you are American.”

These claims are characteristic of a political ideology that we might term America First! This holds that the US shall always be the best, the noblest, the richest, and the most powerful nation in the world, and that its future shall always be better than its past. This, it must be noted, is an ideology shared and affirmed by all American politicians, whether Democratic or Republican. George W. Bush is as convinced as John Kerry that no other country can hold a candle to America in matters material, moral, or military.

In my opinion, the ideology of America First! is steeped in an unctuous hypocrisy. It is fine if Indian and Chinese jobs are taken by Americans, but not right if American jobs go to India or China. For decades, the US has been urging the third world to open up its markets to American goods and American capital. Fair and free trade, we were told, was good economics as well as moral politics. But now that Indians and Chinese can produce some goods that Americans want, as efficiently and far cheaper than Americans themselves, free trade will be given the go-by: instead, subsidies and tariff barriers will be put in place to protect domestic companies.

The hypocrisy is political as well as economic. The US maintains the right to tell other nations how to run their internal affairs or how best to contribute to international peace and stability. But no nation can ask questions of the US — even if the US shall renege on its payments to the United Nations, and not recognize institutions such as the International Criminal Court.

The economic and political hypocrisy of the US has been widely commented upon. Less noticed, perhaps, is its ecological hypocrisy. The US has 4 per cent of the world’s population but consumes some 30 per cent of the world’s resources. It contributes 22 per cent of the global emission of greenhouse gases, yet it won’t sign the Kyoto Protocol.

Years ago, the great Berkeley geographer, Carl Sauer, analysed how American economic growth depended on an ecological arrogance that viewed nature and natural resources as infinite. Writing in 1938, Sauer remarked that “the doctrine of a passing frontier of nature replaced by a permanent and sufficiently expanding frontier of technology is a contemporary and characteristic expression of occidental culture, itself a historical-geographical product”. This frontier attitude, he went on, “has the recklessness of an optimism that has become habitual, but which is residual from the brave days when north-European freebooters overran the world and put it under tribute”. Warning that the surge of growth at the expanse of nature would not last indefinitely, Sauer — speaking for his fellow Americans — noted wistfully that “we have not yet learned the difference between yield and loot. We do not like to be economic realists”.

When Sauer wrote these words, Americans still depended for the most part on the natural resources and human skills of their own continent. But the massive economic expansion which followed the Second World War was facilitated by the increasing access to the natural resources and human skills of the rest of the world. Now, 70 years later, Americans use all kinds of products from elsewhere — from cars to coffee, and from soap to software, the goods consumed daily in the cities and towns of the US are produced by those foreign workers so disdained by John Kerry and John Edwards in their acceptance speeches.

The most crucial of these foreign imports into the US is, of course, oil from west Asia. Now the first Gulf War (as a British critic remarked at the time) was undertaken to protect the American way of driving. It appears that the second Gulf War is being conducted for much the same reason. It is to John Kerry’s credit that he recognizes this. Thus his call for energy independence. “No American should be held hostage to dependence on oil from the Middle East,” he remarked. “When we come to power,” he claimed, “we shall rely on American ingenuity and innovation (to produce oil), not on the (goodwill of) the Saudi royal family.”

Brave words, but, I fear, not to be put into practice. At present American oil provides only 3 per cent of the country’s requirements. Where will John Kerry’s America find the balance' Increasing oil prices and encouraging public transport may help reduce consumption. But both measures will be hugely unpopular among voters, who have grown up to expect cheap gasoline and to drive their own private vehicles rather than ride in a bus or train.

The truth is that Americans haven’t yet learnt to be economic realists. And they still can’t distinguish between yield and loot. From 1750 to 1950, American economic development was fuelled by ingenuity and innovation, but also (and perhaps more crucially) by the possession of a vast, sparsely populated, and resource-rich continent. From 1950 to 2000, it was fuelled by ingenuity and innovation, again, but also by access to the produce and products of the entire globe. Increasingly, however, this pre-eminence is being put into question. On the one hand, you have the skill-abundant countries of western Europe and east Asia, who match American ingenuity; on the other hand, the resource-rich lands of west Asia, who resent American usurpation. And yet, Americans themselves shall not be weaned from the “reckless optimism” of the freebooter who over-ran the world.

What all this means is that, for the first time in perhaps two hundred years, there is no guarantee that, for America and Americans, tomorrow will necessarily be better than today. The US’s claims to a material superiority over the rest of the world are increasingly being challenged. So are its claims to moral superiority. What remains unquestioned, however, is its military superiority. The worry, for those of us who are not Americans, is that no leading American politician can allow himself to recognize this disjunction. Be it John Kerry or George W. Bush, America shall always come First. America must always be the best, the richest, and the most powerful country in the world. So long as this delusion persists, there will be trouble in the world, as the might of the American military seeks to safeguard the decline of America’s material supremacy and moral prestige.

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