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David Brooks: The American identity crisis

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For most of the past century, human dignity had a friend — the United States of America. We are a deeply flawed and error-prone nation, like any other, but America helped defeat fascism and communism and helped set the context for European peace, Asian prosperity and the spread of democracy.

Then came Iraq and Afghanistan, and America lost faith in itself and its global role — like a pitcher who has been shelled and no longer has confidence in his own stuff. On the left, many now reject the idea that America can be or is a global champion of democracy, and they find phrases like “the indispensable nation” or the “last best hope of the Earth” ridiculous. On the right the wall-building caucus has given up on the idea that the rest of the world is even worth engaging.

Many people around the world have always resisted America’s self-appointed role as democracy’s champion. But they have also been rightly appalled when America sits back and allows genocide to engulf places like Rwanda or allows dangerous regimes to threaten the world order.

The Afghans are the latest witnesses to this reality. The American bungles in Afghanistan have been well documented. We’ve spent trillions of dollars and lost thousands of our people. But the two-decade strategy of taking the fight to the terrorists, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, has meant that global terrorism is no longer seen as a major concern in daily American life. Over the past few years, a small force of U.S. troops has helped prevent some of the worst people on Earth from taking over a nation of more than 38 million — with relatively few American casualties. In 1999, no Afghan girls attended secondary school. Within four years, 6% were enrolled, and as of 2017 the figure had climbed to nearly 40%.

But America, disillusioned with itself, is now withdrawing. And there’s a strong possibility that this withdrawal will produce a strategic setback and a humanitarian disaster. The Taliban are rapidly seizing territory. It may not be too long before Afghan girls get shot in the head for trying to go to school. Intelligence agencies see the arming of ethnic militias and worry about an even more violent civil war. The agencies worry about a flood of refugees, and terrorist groups free to operate unmolested once again.

History didn’t stop just because America lost confidence in itself. As President Joe Biden correctly notes, the world finds itself enmeshed in a vast contest between democracy and different forms of autocracy. This is not just a struggle between political systems. It’s an economic, cultural, intellectual and political contest all at once — a struggle between the forces of progressive modernity and reaction.

Over the past decades America and its allies have betrayed our values and compromised with tyrants innumerable times. But at their core the liberal powers radiate a set of vital ideals — not just democracy and capitalism, but also feminism, multiculturalism, human rights, egalitarianism, LGBTQ rights and the dream of racial justice. These things are all intertwined in a progressive package that puts individual dignity at the center.

If the 21st century has taught us anything, it is that a lot of people, foreign and domestic, don’t like that package and feel existentially threatened by it. China’s leaders are not just autocrats, they think they are leading a civilization state and are willing to slaughter ethnic minorities. Vladimir Putin is not just a thug, he’s a cultural reactionary. The Taliban champion a fantasy version of the Middle Ages.

These people are not leading 20th-century liberation movements against colonialism and “American hegemony.” They are leading a 21st-century Kulturkampf against women’s rights, gay rights, minority rights, individual dignity — the whole progressive package.

You know this is a culture war and not a traditional great power rivalry because the threat to each nation is more internal than external. The greatest threat to America is that domestic autocrats, inspired by a global authoritarian movement, will again take over the U.S. government. The greatest threat to China is that internal liberals, inspired by global liberal ideals, will threaten the regime.

Each civilization is thus trying to attract believers to its own vision. It matters tremendously how we show up in the world.

We’re never going back to the Bush doctrine. But we’re probably not going to do well in battle for hearts and minds if we see ourselves abandoning our allies in places like Afghanistan. We’re probably not going to do well if our own behavior begins to resemble the realpolitik of autocrats. We probably won’t do well if we can’t look ourselves in the mirror without a twinge of shame.

I guess what befuddles me most is the behavior of the American left. I get why Donald Trump and other American authoritarians would be ambivalent about America’s role in the world. They were always suspicious of the progressive package that America has helped to promote.

But every day I see progressives defending women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and racial justice at home and yet championing a foreign policy that cedes power to the Taliban, Hamas and other reactionary forces abroad.

If we’re going to fight Trumpian authoritarianism at home, we have to fight the more venomous brands of authoritarianism that thrive around the world. That means staying on the field.

David Brooks writes a syndicated column for the New York Times.

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