BEIJING - Conduct a survey anywhere in the world and ask respondents to describe the United States with one word, many will surely choose the word “arrogant.” In their view, this superpower has become synonymous with conceit and a bald sense of superiority. In Lord Acton’s famous words: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Typically, such people from around the world see only American arrogance without seeing American humility. While the U.S. may seem blindly full of itself on the international stage, it somehow manages to be very humble when facing its own people. This is because of its Constitutional system, where the power of the government is extremely limited and the public’s rights are closely protected. Its heavy hand in international affairs makes a sharp contrast with its humility in domestic politics.
In fact, without the humble domestic politics, the arrogance in international affairs couldn’t exist. A country which is “Of the people, By the people, For the people…” can stimulate to the maximum the people’s identity, pride and creativity. It is its capacity to inspire its people, coupled with its unique natural situation, that makes the U.S. a strong power and its arrogance global.
Conversely, a government which is arrogant before its own people often tends to behave humbly or even menially towards the outside. This is because the conceit of the powerful stifles the public’s identity, pride, and its creativity and leads to a legitimate crisis of authority. Unstable domestic politics won’t allow a country to act arrogantly internationally. Even if it tries, its attempt is doomed to be short-lived.
The U.S. arrogance is innate. Since the Puritans built their first colony, the Americans have always believed that they are God’s chosen people, otherwise the persecuted people of Europe wouldn’t have been able to find this enormous fertile land to welcome them.
The Puritan John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon “We shall be as a City upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us” is justly famous.
After the victory in the War of Independence, there spread the belief of a Manifest Destiny that pushed the United States to expand across the continent. This belief in a Manifest Destiny includes at least two concepts. One is geographical expansionism, the other is spiritual. American exceptionalism as God’s chosen people gives the Americans unique moral qualities, convincing them that they have the duty of expanding democracy and freedom to wherever its territory leads.
The democracy and freedom, the geopolitical advantages of having an ocean on each side, abundant natural resources, and a vast land, as well as a steady stream of immigrants turned the country into a global power only a century after the founding of the United States. By the end of World War II, U.S. strength was already at its peak. The world entered into the Pax Americana.
Evolving from 13 colonies on the East coast to becoming a superpower over its 300-year history, America’s development has been absolutely smooth. In many Americans’ eye, all this is God’s plan. It is with such a sense of mission as well as superiority they defend and promote democracy and freedom all over the world. Thus there was the Cold War between the U.S. and the former USSR, as well as the wars in North Korea and Vietnam which have now left America with some scars.
It was in 1967 at the peak of the Vietnam War when William Fulbright, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time, published a book called The Arrogance of Power, in which he wrote a profound introspection on and criticism of America’s foreign policy.
He believed that the special founding background has made the Americans regard themselves often as messianic, trying to save the world.
Unfortunately, not only did American interference not bring them gratitude, but on the contrary, their actions have triggered a lot of hatred and resistance in many countries due to the superiority and religious color of American foreign policy.
Besides, Mr. Fulbright believed that the fact America was not born of a social revolution makes it a country with a strong conservative nature. Such conservativeness makes it difficult for the Americans to understand other countries’ radical changes.
Nevertheless, one should look at America’s arrogance dialectically rather than being totally negative about it. Though the arrogance of the U.S. has had disastrous consequences in places such as in Afghanistan and in Iraq, it has on the other hand saved many other countries from misery. All in all, what America contributes to the world’s peace and development is far greater than its negative impact.
Its helping post-war Germany and Japan to transform into prosperous and strong countries is enough to make the world forgive their arrogance. It is hardly necessary to mention America’s technological innovations which add to the welfare of the world.
In the anarchy of international relations, there should be a country which upholds justice. A nation without great strength can’t possibly play the role. Nor can a strong country without great appeal play the part. In today’s world, there is no other country than the U.S. that fits that description.
The saving grace
The humility of power in America can also trace back to its origins. From the signing of the Mayflower Compact in 1620 by the Separatists fleeing religious persecution until the outbreak of the War of Independence, the thirteen colonies had 100 years of autonomy.
It is solemnly proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence “All men are created equal, the Creator gave them a number of inalienable rights including the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.” For the Americans, the reason for the very existence of their government is to safeguard access to and the exercise of these sacred rights.
Adopted in 1787, the Constitution defines an institutional limit to the rights of the government to prevent it from violating the people’s rights, while the Bill of Rights adopted in 1791 made the US the world’s first country to protect an individual’s rights in the form of clear declaration in the Constitution.
In front of the sacred rights of the people, the power of the government thus loses its arrogance and become humble. America’s founding fathers were profoundly influenced by the European Enlightenment and believed that the best restriction on power is the separation of powers as well as subjecting them to checks and balances.
In a country where it is repeated that "all men are created equal," where there is a separation of the three powers, where it complies with the Bill of Rights, and where the elections are held on a regular basis, the power can only be humble before the people.
All powers come from the people. The power is bestowed by the people. In front of its masters, the power can only be humble.
The U.S. government’s humility in domestic politics and its arrogance in the international community are not at all contradictory. In fact, the former is a necessary condition of the latter. Without democracy and freedom, even if the United States has unique natural conditions, it couldn’t have been able to develop into a superpower. We do not have to imitate the arrogance of the United States in international affairs, but we should learn from the humility of the U.S. government before our people.
*Xie Tao is a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University