Woodrow Wilson justified it all by recasting “America’s strategic and political interests as moral imperatives, and its foreign interventions as necessary acts of international responsibility.” American muscle-flexing around the world — from World War I through the Cold War — was justified in terms of the global good, with “national exceptionalism” transformed into an “unimpeachably noble” crusade for democracy. The moralistic self-justification became even more inflated after 1989, with elites throughout the West coming to believe that the expansion of the capitalist marketplace around the world was not only universally beneficial but perhaps also inevitable. This self-certainty has left these elites ill prepared to understand the discontents feeding the populist backlash today.
There’s enough truth in Mishra’s alternative history for it to stand as a useful corrective to the Grand Narrative that still maintains a firm grip on the imagination of many in the West. But that doesn’t mean Mishra’s counternarrative is anything close to sufficient. Instead of a theodicy of liberalism or a pitch-black tale of the West’s rapacious moral hypocrisy, it’s possible to tell a third kind of story — this one focused on power and interest quite apart from the ways it gets morally justified.
In this alternative account, the United States ruthlessly conquers the Indigenous peoples of North America and brutally exploits slave labor, but it also enunciates high-minded principles of liberation to which oppressed people at home and abroad regularly appeal in order to demand reform. The country also builds a formidable economy that attracts immigrants from around the world, powering a rapid ascent on the global stage.
In the course of defeating an alliance of tyrannical states in World War II, America ends up a major world power but soon finds itself confronting a new totalitarian adversary while still responsible for the defense of war-ravaged Western Europe and Japan. The ensuing superpower rivalry with the Soviet Union increases the military and economic might of the United States still further. By the time the Cold War comes to an end with the implosion of Communism in 1989, America and its allies are capable of projecting military and economic power into every corner of the globe.
The advantage of treating history as a drama of power and interest rather than a morality play is that it forces us to contemplate the concrete choices and trade-offs faced by people in positions of political responsibility. Mishra detests liberalism and capitalism. That much is obvious from his unremittingly polemical prose. What is much less clear is what, specifically, he thinks would be preferable.
Would Mishra like to see the United States withdraw entirely from the Muslim Middle East, allowing Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran to determine its fate? Does he think life would measurably improve in his native India if America drew down its military presence in South and East Asia, allowing China to dominate the region unimpeded? Can he really believe that the world’s poor would be better off if the norms, expectations and constraints of the American-led rule-based international order were scrapped?
As a goad to liberal self-criticism, Mishra is well worth reading. But when it comes to a positive program, he has little to offer beyond airy talk of the need for greater justice and equality — and the unpersuasive insinuation that he and his ideological compatriots can achieve everything they desire merely by encouraging their opponents to slit their own throats in a fit of self-loathing.
Resisting the temptation of naïve self-congratulation is apparently harder than it seems.