Post-American Identity for a Post-American World?

Good stuff, as usual, from Yigal Schleifer on Turkey’s struggle to find a workable post-Kemalist/post-Ottoman identity, one that balances the past century of Western-oriented secularism with the emerging “central power”/republican Islamist trend represented by the AKP. It made me think of Japan, too, as another country involved in a deep examination of how well its post-War identity fits into the shifting landscape of today’s Asia. France is another one that comes to mind, and there are probably a handful of other examples, too.

For me, that raises the obvious question of whether a similar process is taking place today in the United States. I think it’s obvious that it’s happening among foreign policy thinkers and practitioners — although the post-American order is not a universally held forecast, and differences in terms of degree and pace exist even among those who subscribe to it. It also seems clear that the Obama administration is trying, at least in terms of its discourse, to engineer such a shift in thinking, if not in practice.

But I wonder to what extent the American public is engaged in such an exercise, or even recognizes that it might be a useful one? It some ways, it might be impossible to know until the next situation that “calls for American action” arises. But unless the conversation is engaged by the political leadership now — head on and not by nibbling around the edges — it seems unlikely that the instinctive reactions will be any different the next time they are triggered. And if that’s the case, the political incentives for decision-makers won’t change either.

I don’t really have a strong opinion yet of President Barack Obama’s first-year foreign policy record. It seems too short a period to judge by, and he didn’t exactly inherit a winning hand. But if there’s one thing I will ultimately judge him on, it will be not so much whether he racked up “successes” as opposed to “failures,” but rather whether he managed to impact the way in which Americans think about their place and role in the world. That’s a tall order, and will take time. I almost wrote that it’s unlikely Obama will make the kind of bold move that will earn him a “Nixon in China” credential in his first term, either. But a quick fact-check revealed that Nixon did in fact go to China before seeking re-election. (And although the 1972 election turned out to be a blow-out, Ed Muskie finished ahead of Nixon in an August 1971 Harris poll.)

So if there’s something I’ll be watching over the next 24 months, it’s how big an effort Obama makes to position himself for a bold move that will benefit the United States’ long-term prospects in a changing global landscape. There aren’t that many “Chinas” left. Iran is the obvious candidate. But rather than changing our relations with some other country, it might be more valuable for us to change the way we see ourselves.