The roots of American arrogance

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Peter Beinart: The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris. Harper Collins, 2010. ISBN: 9780061456466. Website

Peter Beinart: The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American HubrisGreek mythology is ripe with parables and one of its most didactic tales is the story of Icarus, a young man whose father built wings of wax and feathers to enable his son to fly.

Before he takes off, Icarus' father warns him that he should fly neither too low nor too high but at a moderate height. If he flies too near the sun, the wax will melt and his wings will disintegrate. As it happens, Icarus becomes intoxicated with the thrill of flying; as he soars towards the sun, his wings fall to pieces, plunging him to his death.

Peter Beinart's latest book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, charts the ideological and intellectual underpinnings of American foreign policy from Teddy Roosevelt to Barack Obama. What is the Icarus syndrome? Beinart argues that it has been the cyclical tendency of American foreign policy makers to fly into the sun, to become intoxicated with success and blinded to the real limits of American power.

Beinart argues provocatively that each time America has become blind to the limitations of its power, it has been wrenched back to reality by failure; it has 'gained wisdom through pain'. He builds his argument through examination of American intellectual history as well as political history: Reinhold Niebuhr figures as much as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Francis Fukuyama as much as Colin Powell.

The book divides American foreign policy in the 20th century into three manifestations of hubris: the hubris of reason, the hubris of toughness, and the hubris of dominance.

Beginning with the pre-WW1 period, personified in Woodrow Wilson, Beinart argues that America's foreign policy was guided by a vision of a rationalised world, where force was exercised rarely and where international institutions would shape inter-state interaction. Beinart calls this the 'hubris of reason' — alive in a period where American foreign policy was 'shaped by a refusal to meet the world on its own terms' and to accept that politics between nations would never match the ideals to which Americans clung.

Indeed, American ideals, says Beinart, have sometimes blinded Americans to the dark parts of America's soul; to the reality that, in the words of Niebuhr, 'reason is always, to some degree, the servant of interest'.

In Beinart's thesis, the hubris of reason continued to influence American policy through successive administrations of the inter-war period pursuing policies clouded by an attachment to that ideal of a rationalised world without power politics and war. Despite the appeals of a weakened France, desperate for security in the face of German resurgence, and despite the militaristic tendencies of Imperial Japan, the Harding, Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt administrations ignored the developing threats.

This American naiveté was, argues Beinart, in part responsible for Germany's quick early victories in WW2 and France's defeat. America had tried to act as a neutral umpire, refusing to become engaged in power alliances, but in doing so had allowed Germany to spread its armies across Europe.

In the post war years, Beinart argues, the 'hubris of reason' was replaced by a 'hubris of toughness,' a political and ideological stance founded on American fear of their Soviet competitors and of America's waning manhood. This 'hubris of toughness' was, according to Beinart, the hallmark of the Kennedy administration, with episodes such as the Bay of Pigs part of a general policy of forcefully confronting Soviet influence around the world.

The 'hubris of toughness' was even more pronounced under the Johnson administration where 'global containment', the famous theory of confronting Soviet power penned by George Kennan (and later distorted), was put into action in Vietnam. Here Beinart argues that America's leadership became fixated by the idea that communism had to be confronted on a global scale, failing to recognise that not all communists were alike or aligned.

Finally, with the end of the Cold War, a 'hubris of dominance' replaced the 'hubris of toughness'. In a world where America was ideologically triumphant and economically and militarily supreme it could set its sights higher; 'rather than merely containing evil, it could impose good'. And with military victory after military victory from the First Gulf War to Afghanistan in 2001, American confidence grew, finally morphing into the belief that America could surgically remove regimes without great cost or loss of American life.

This hubris contributed to the launching of an invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the neo-conservatives — an ideological group who differed from more traditional realists like Kennan. The operating principle of this period was, says Beinart, 'the beautiful lie': the belief that there are no limits to American power, that America can accomplish anything. Beinart asserts that America has grown so used to triumphing in the conflicts of the 1990s that 'mere stasis is [now] easily viewed as retreat'.

Throughout this book several key themes emerge. Beinart argues that American hubris in all its forms has been fostered by a lack of knowledge, which has led to American policy makers being either overly fearful or comfortably optimistic.

He points to a key tension in American foreign policy making, between ideals and realism. Throughout the 20th century, if America's ideals became intoxicating they could blind Americans to their own limits (and the limitations of others), leading to bloody consequences. But if those ideals vanished completely, eroded by resigned realism, then America could become numb to evil.

If Icarus flew too high his wings would melt, but if he flew too low his horizons would be diminished. Beinart argues persuasively that American foreign policy makers must adopt more disciplined habits of mind; that Americans 'must become short-term realists with long-term, nonrealist dreams'.

The scope of this book might make it seem like Beinart is playing Icarus himself. But Beinart's thesis is captivating and his book, while being readable, is a work of intellectual depth.


Ben ColeridgeBen Coleridge studies Arts at the University of Melbourne. 

Topic tags: Peter Beinart, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, 9780061456466

 

 

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Beinert's and Colderidge's point is all too true, I am afraid; America, and Australia too I sometimes think, is a brawny teenager capable of enormous violence but not yet particularly deft about its use and bluff of use. But, having read a great deal of English imperial history recently, I suspect hubris is an endemic imperial problem more than a particularly American one; England too, startled by its success, began to think that it could and should import its ideas and culture to the world. A grand idea, despote its eventual dissolution; and the American idea -- again in cousinship with Australia -- hasn't failed yet. On dark days I think we may lose the thread of the brave idea before wee suffer its dissolution by much of the world that isn't interested in freedom of peoples in this manner.
brian doyle | 01 October 2010


It is a safe option to be critical about the USA. In the end, the USA still remains the world’s strongest democracy. The USA has after all enabled well over 1 Billion people in the world to achieve or retain a democratic free society. Right now, the media is in frenzy over the imperfect Commonwealth games in India. I personally believe that an imperfect free system, which provides occasionally imperfect outcomes, may still be preferable to dictatorships, which provide perfect games. The worst outcome would be a USA, which returns into isolation like at the beginning of the last century. Two world wars and a devastating cold war became possible because of such isolation and non-intervention. The USA has a choice, to remain active and being constantly criticised or to become virtually neutral and let the rest of the world work out its own destiny
Beat Odermatt | 01 October 2010


Thank you for publishing Ben Coleridge's review of The Icarus Syndrome and bringing to our attention Beinart's broadbrush view of American foreign policy during the last hundred years. However I don't think many classical scholars would attribute Icarus's downfall to hubris - Greek for outrage or contempt - but rather to the exhilaration or the intoxication of flight which made him ignore the warnings of his father Daedalus. In other words Icarus doesn't have contempt for his father's advice. It just doesn't enter into his calculations.
What advice does an American president receive before he takes his country into war? Does he have the solid advice of the craftsmen like Daedalus who know the limitations of their war engines (fitted with wax wings)? Does he have people who will warn him of the dangers of the environment he is entering - the heat of the sun (public opinion, financial cost, moral standing etc)?

If he goes to war despite these warnings it is usually not because of hubris - but because he thinks he can win and in the American form of democracy everyone loves a winner. It's a combination of belief in one's physical superiority and the desire to be praised as a winner (win at the ballot box). The Goliath Syndrome might be a better analogy.
Uncle Pat | 01 October 2010


The reason of the hubris of America goes back to the heresy of "Americanism" and the Calvinistic approach to capitalism. Protestant America, with the help of some Catholic hierarchy and the heavy Jewish influence (especially in Woodrow Wilson's time as president has brought a pernicious 'naturalism' to the soul of America.

Instead of following Catholic moral teaching, they cut themselves off from a true, moral and God-fearing 'supranational' civilization and replaced God with Man and naturalism.

Hence the 'hubris'(in all its forms)of America today.


Trent | 01 October 2010


My understanding is that Colin Powell and US State Department counselled against the 2003 Iraqi invasion. In that instance, any arrogance was on the part of others, such as the un-named White house aide - widely understood to be Karl Rove - who explained the workings of the Bush White House to NYT magazine journalist Ron Suskind.

Suskind writes: “The aide said that guys like me were in what we call the reality-based community, which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious
study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works any more,’ he told Suskind. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while
you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’.

Toppling the Taliban and putting bin Laden on the run was a low-cost, high-yield, even justifiable response to terrorism.

The Americans should have stopped in Afghanistan, and the perception of power would have remained.
David Arthur | 01 October 2010


Ben, don`t forget that it was directly because of the Americans ultimately that evil Nazi and Fascist imperial Japanese power was destroyed, and they then went on to win the Cold War and destroyed the big daddy of all nasty regimes in the Soviet Union. They have certainly made mistakes, but have not a bad track-record overall and we owe them plenty!! They are still the goodies.
Eugene | 01 October 2010


I think the real problem with America is its love of money.

Essentially, it goes like this: John Calvin in the 1500s said we are Predestined to go to Heaven or Hell. The Pilgrims believed that, and settled America. Americans wanted to know if they were going to Heaven. They decided to be Blessed MATERIALLY was the sign. Therefore, they do everything they can to get rich. And destroy the planet in their mad desire to do so.

And there is no Social Security or Medicare because if you are poor, sick etc, you must be going to Hell. And we will help you get there quicker!

God help us from the Money Sickness. Let's work in love to create a better planet.
Clem Clarke | 01 October 2010


"In the end,the USA still remains the world's strongest democracy." Even the Americans cynically refer to it as the best democracy money can buy!
russell | 03 October 2010


A well developed exposition of the old theme of America's arrogance, hubris, etc etc. Please may we remember, though, the Americans who are strongly self-critical, passionately opposed to their country's extremes, deeply involved and articulate in being a 'loyal opposition' in America's internal conversations. They're part of 'America' too. It's all very well to be smug and self-righteous about other countries, especially easy targets like the US, but nothing relieves us of the duty to look for the beam in our own eyes first.
Joan Seymour | 03 October 2010


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