Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Remember Berlin: America Has Lost its Heroic Face

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 17 August 2011.

This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall. I married into a proud family of West Berliners. My wife can remember French soldiers closing down their street every time their general needed to leave. The first chocolate her mother ever ate was given to her by an American soldier. They’ll tell you if it wasn’t for the Berlin Airlift, West Berliners would have starved to death in 1948. The CARE packages Americans sent over for decades showed a people that were once our enemy that we can move on.

In Berlin, the tanks of two world superpowers stared each other down on Checkpoint Charlie in 1961. West Germans shared Americans’ fear of impending nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Throughout the Cold War, Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge was used to exchange captured spies. Everyone remembers the day the wall came down in November 1989. In our cynical world today, where every action America takes is suspected of self-interest, there are Germans who can attest that what Americans did for them went well beyond that.

America positioned itself as a power that was not only strong enough to defeat the Soviet Union, but also deserved to defeat them. This wasn’t achieved through an attitude of superiority, but through exhibiting shared values and contrasting them with the opposing side. While Communists were building walls and towers, America built libraries and dancehalls. We wanted to win and Europeans wanted us to win. Our side offered carrots while the other side offered only sticks.

Today, the world feels America acts only in its own interest. When America makes a moral argument, it often comes across as moral superiority. The "with us or against us" attitude of the Bush administration and the isolationism that has infected Republican presidential candidates are examples. President Barack Obama has done a better job working with allies and partners, but making conciliatory speeches and holding more summits isn’t enough.

America’s enemies today are different. They are non-state actors in under-developed nations or developed states with ambiguous intentions, mostly in regions of the world that have different languages, cultures, and values from us. America should not apologize for itself, nor accept or adjust to conditions contrary to what it stands for. However, we do have to act like the side that is deserving of victory again.

The other side in this fight, mostly dictatorships and Islamic fascists, want to control how people live their lives. We won’t defeat them by doing the same thing. Acting only in self-interest with self-righteousness won’t get it done. We have to convince the world again that when America wins, they win. This may lead to hard choices. It means no more befriending dictatorships for energy or stability. It may mean more interventions, not less. It means remaining engaged in the world, not withdrawing from it. America is a force for good. We have to convince the world that it’s true once again.