Ark of the Liberties

This fascinating and sometimes ambiguous book is a history of United States foreign policy told from the point of view of the ideas that motivated it — or rather, not the ideas but the ideal that motivated it: the great ideal of liberty. For Ted Widmer sees the American millennial dream as having at its heart the idea that Americans are the new chosen people, tasked by God to bring liberty to the whole world.

I say “ambiguous” because although Widmer is sincere in believing that the United States desires and will continue to desire to export freedom and democracy to all peoples everywhere — to desire always, and periodically to try, and sometimes to succeed — he is frank about the wilful ambiguity in the project itself. Thus, the South demanded the liberty to keep slaves; and the westward expansion of the 19th century was an ebullient expression of liberty in which Sioux and Cheyenne happened annoyingly to be in the way; and Texas, New Mexico, and California were liberated from their Mexican possessors, as later were the Philippines and parts of the Caribbean; and the task of bringing liberty and democracy to Iraq have necessitated the Patriot Act and torture and Guantánamo Bay.

Widmer acknowledges all this but remains optimistic, for he can still say that the United States has been and can again be an ark of liberty — “ark” in both senses: first, the container of a sacred trust, and secondly, the ship afloat on the flood of history that will bring mankind to safety on an Ararat of freedom at last. He can remain optimistic because both in intention and in fact America has more often than not held to the various things that the word “liberty” means, and done so with sincerity. He says, in conscious parody of the phrase “manifest destiny” that has inspired the best and fig-leafed the worst of American aspirations, “Despite our manifest imperfection, no nation has ever stood more clearly for freedom, and no other will soon assume that particular mantle. Certainly no one is looking to China, Russia or India as a shining beacon of freedom.” And he is right.

Widmer begins his story of the American dream of liberty even before the first colonists, but of course it is with them — escapees from religious unfreedom and strife in Old Europe — that the story properly begins. This is not only for the obvious reasons but because the biblical phraseology, the sense of engaging in the final and history-sealing Exodus — and therefore the sense of an eschatological fulfilment — that filled the hearts and mouths of the Puritan leaders, set the terms of American self-perception ever thereafter. Certainly the flights of Bible-laced oratory that take off from both hustings and pulpit in the United States, now as throughout its history, give the grand project of spreading liberty an eschatological feel: and on this point politicians and preachers have always been inclined to take themselves seriously when their speeches and sermons begin.

Widmer’s book prompts the thought that the key to understanding the United States of America could be the following conjunction: that the essence of America’s history is that it sees its “manifest destiny” as the duty to “reshape an unwilling world in America’s image” — Widmer’s words — and the fact that the United States begins anew every four or eight years, starting over again with refreshed rhetoric, new hopes, new goals and ideals. Thus it is that the ark is relaunched on a flood of rhetoric — oh, how Obama fits the mould — as biblical, millennial, Promised Land–ish in sentiment as in actual quotation, and the great dream of bringing liberty and prosperity to all mankind, making the world a fit place for Americans to live in, is dreamed again.

The heroes in Widmer’s book are Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. It is no coincidence that they are the presidents whose projection of military power resulted in definite increments of liberty for the world in history-changing ways, even if history’s usual double-edgedness tempered the gift of American lives and wealth to that cause. The focus on President Wilson is apt, because in his views he focuses, like a lens, the story Widmer seeks to tell. “I believe that God presided over the inception of this nation,” Wilson said in 1912, “I believe that God planted in us the vision of liberty; I believe?that we are chosen, and prominently chosen, to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.” That is a perfect summation of everything Wilson’s predecessors and successors believed likewise, and not only said but acted upon. He was a historian — the only U.S. president to hold a Ph.D. — and he well knew how deep in America’s veins runs the settlers’ and Founding Fathers’ conviction that the New World was meant to live up to its name.

Wilson was reelected in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war.” Well: that is the irony of politics. But it shows that how America conceived the task of spreading liberty was not invariably a military one and has sometimes even been an isolationist one; though it has in practice mainly been so. The results have as often as not been a quagmire: the Philippines in the 19th century, Vietnam in the 20th, and Iraq in the 21st have each sucked American blood year after year, pursuant to the disastrous decision to get involved in the first place. But helping to liberate Europe twice in a half century tells the other side of the story: that is the story Widmer finds truer to what American self-perception represents.

There is a burning question behind this book. Liberty is a great value, especially individual liberty, which includes privacy, freedom of expression, and security from interference and depredation by the state. As a champion of liberty in this sense the United States, before the Patriot Act, was the bastion. But is this quite what is meant by “liberty” on every occasion of its incessant use in the land of the free? In the mouths of its extollers, does it really mean liberty, or does it mean license? Does it really perhaps mean libertarianism — think “gun lobby” — and perhaps it mainly means economic libertarianism, which gives carte blanche to the ruthless, the ravenous, the profiteers, and the greedy. The world is currently threatened with recession because the already rich of the financial markets gambled recklessly — and now that things have gone wrong their banks and investment houses are bailed out by taxpayers’ money, while the little man with the unmeetable mortgage loses his house because of their irresponsibility and the libertarian lack of regulation. Is this too much part of the liberty whose scrolls lie in the ark of the American covenant?

Widmer only obliquely considers the various things that the word “liberty” is and has been made to mean by its users and abusers, because his focus is the nation’s corporate sense of mission to liberate the world. That keeps attention on foreign policy and presidential attitudes to it. But the way liberty can toxify into license in the way just described is not separable from foreign policy and foreign liberty-spreading adventure, as Iraq suggests.

Widmer describes what is happening in Iraq as the ark of the liberties beaching itself “on a rather nasty sandbar.” One has to hope it is not more than that: not a hole below the waterline, so that with the excuse of a never-ending war on the shapeless, homeless, nameless spectre of terrorism we give up our liberties altogether. Widmer says that Americans soon began to realise after the invasion of Iraq “that these attacks on our enemies, in the name of liberty, were harming our own liberties.” He sees the solution as lying in a more modest way of keeping faith with the project of defending and extending liberty, by “reject the idea of special destiny.” Given the importance to American self-perception of the resounding rhetoric about liberty in which the great nation has wrapped itself, that might be easier to say than to do. But most of the rest of the world will be entitled to hope that, in practice, America continues to believe in its destiny.