America, Land of Extremes An Enigmatic Country Elects a New President

Some find America fascinating, others abhor it, but virtually no one feels indifferent about the superpower. For months, the question of who will become the next president has riveted people around the globe. He will inherit responsibility for a country whose global reputation is battered.

America is a wonderful country, with jaw-dropping wilderness and wide open spaces that seem as far removed from New York or Los Angeles as the moon. America has the best universities with the most brilliant scientists who win a host of Nobel Prizes year after year.

This is also home to the world's leading think tanks, where highly impressive studies are conducted on topics like the future of world politics, religion and capitalism. These institutions produce works written in a readily understandable language based on a firm belief in the power of reasoning, rather than ivory tower musings with no connection to reality.

In all cultural spheres, from classical to trash, this is where the avant-garde emerges, time and again. Capitalism is regularly reinvented in America before it sets out again to conquer the world. America still attracts immigrants from countries around the globe. And, of course, from a historical perspective, it remains a uniquely superior power.

This country believes that it has a predetermined role in the history of mankind -- a manifest destiny.

America? A horrendous country that betrays its own values every few years, thus forfeiting its moral right to lead the Western world. It elects presidents who know nothing about the world, and have no interest in learning more, which explains why they readily succumb to errors and illusions, only to reveal their utter amazement when they finally -- and usually too late -- admit their mistakes. Since 1945, America has been fighting wars in countries that it knows very little about, and under premises that have almost nothing to do with reality.

America is a superpower around the globe, but a Third World country at home, with an infrastructure that defies description. There are collapsing bridges, power failures along the entire East Coast, and homes in places like Florida, North Carolina and Texas are regularly destroyed every year by hurricanes that flatten houses as if they were beach bungalows in Haiti.

There is also the obscene contrast between rich and poor, which has hardy interested or shocked any administration since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. What is even more obscene is the ignorance of a government that allows millions of people, in the richest country in the world, to live without health insurance. This is a government that stands by idly as the (primarily black) city of New Orleans disappears under floodwaters. Yes, the most obscene aspect of all remains the unacknowledged racism in this country of pragmatic enlightenment -- the ongoing prejudices of whites against blacks.

America is an extreme country, and no one feels indifferent about it. No matter whether you live in Karachi, Hamburg or Tbilisi -- you are bound to have an opinion about America. The US has friends and enemies all around the globe. America serves as a role model for Western industrialized societies, a model based on the spirit of Protestantism. But it also provides a paragon example of the downsides of this approach: materialism, unbridled consumerism, reckless exploitation of people and natural resources. This country the size of a continent has fascinating strengths and unparalleled weaknesses. It inspires both devoted admiration and aggressive contempt.

Ever since Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to the US in the early 1830s, America has been the preferred object of study for sociologists, philosophers and historians because they rightly perceive this country as an experimental laboratory for the future. Invariably, they have either predicted its rise or its fall, and given perfectly plausible arguments for both theories. Nevertheless, the most perceptive and compelling books of the last two decades have not been written in Europe, but in America. When it comes to writing about America, both pro and con, America refuses to be outdone by others.

In 1987, Paul Kennedy, a British historian who teaches at Yale, published his famous work "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers." Kennedy presented the US and the Soviet Union with the possibility that the arms race during the Cold War could rob them both of their status as superpowers. Four years later, the Soviet Union had collapsed and its empire had vanished. America, which had suffered crisis after crisis during the 1980s, quickly turned things around and experienced a surprisingly long economic boom during the 1990s. Suddenly, the US was the only remaining superpower, with unique possibilities, and incomparably stronger than the Persian, Roman or British empires had been in earlier centuries.

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama, the grandson of Japanese immigrants who had been interned in the US during World War II, published his book "The End of History and the Last Man." In this work, he postulated that the fall of communism heralded the advent of the age of liberal democracy, which he interpreted as the final objective of history. Sooner or later, he wrote, all countries on earth would adopt a combination of a market economy, democracy and the rule of law. After 9/11, Fukuyama's manifesto of optimism became the bible of the neoconservatives in the US administration and certain members of the media. Their ideal was to transform autocratic and dictatorial countries into liberal democracies, starting with the Middle East, in the hope that the rest of the world would follow.

Today, in the autumn of 2008, precious little remains of this exuberant optimism. The Middle East is just as plagued by conflict as ever. Everything seems plausible and possible, a war with Iran, peace with Syria, an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, or even a third Intifada. Things could improve in Iraq, or a civil war could break out between Sunnis and Shiites.

It is frequently up to the US, as the world's only superpower, to tip the scales one way or another. The administration vacillates between unilateral and multilateral actions, between punitive sanctions and diplomatic initiatives. This ambivalence stems from the past few years, which have been extremely difficult for the US, with its 'can-do' mentality. It has also been a sobering experience for America to see how little can be gained from its overwhelming military superiority, and how little can be achieved using war as a political tool to solve elementary problems.

For the time being, all dreams of omnipotence have evaporated, gone is the illusion that America could handle everything, either alone or in concert with its allies, as it sees fit, pursuing either its own interests or for more altruistic reasons. The world is far more unmanageable than Fukuyama and the neoconservatives would like to believe. It is safe to assume that a superpower becomes increasingly unpopular as it exerts a greater degree of superiority. And when it indulges in self-righteous behavior, forfeits basic democratic rights, and grants powers to its president that are not easily reconciled with democratic principles, then it also loses the moral right to put things in order elsewhere.

The following rule of thumb can be derived from this situation: A superpower like the US would be well advised, despite its superiority, to seek support and backing among its allies, even if this is nothing more than a ploy to dissipate suspicions that it is only acting in its own interests.

Eight Wasted Years?

It is interesting to note that some of the old optimism is returning to America. In Iraq, America has succeeded, at least temporarily, in averting the worst. For the first time, there is hope that the Iraqi government can guarantee stability, and will not simply crumble as soon as US troops are reduced or withdrawn. It is another story altogether in Afghanistan, the second major stage for the projection of American might since 9/11. The Taliban have gained strength, al-Qaida is regrouping, and there are now roughly as many US casualties in Afghanistan as in Iraq.

Iraq and Afghanistan appear to be communications pipelines. If the conflict between the occupying troops and the insurgents escalates here, it diminishes there, and vice-versa. Ever since Osama bin Laden's terror network suffered defeats in Iraq, it has transferred the main focus of its operations back to Afghanistan.

In America there is a general consensus that the Bush administration did the right thing, but went about it the wrong way. Hunting down terrorists around the globe after 9/11 was the right thing to do. But it was wrong to declare a war on terror. A government can declare war on another country, and deploy its military to fight it. Terror, on the other hand, is a modus operandi, a way of spreading fear through bombings and attacks. Terrorists can retreat and seek refuge in countries that support their cause, such as Pakistan. Polish-American political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski, a seasoned strategist, once remarked that declaring a war on terror was as if the West had declared war on the Blitzkrieg in 1939, and not on Nazi Germany.

Even after doing the right thing the wrong way, it is still possible to make amends. The troop surge in Iraq, in combination with the political talents of General David Petraeus, has mitigated the fiasco and improved the prospects for enhanced stability. Thanks in part to these measures, Iraq has not developed into another Vietnam, despite the second front in Afghanistan. In Vietnam, America fought, under constant escalation, the wrong war for the wrong reasons. The US sought to force a victory in Southeast Asia because it was simply unacceptable that a small, communist country could thwart the military might of the leading power in the West. This narrowmindedness cast America into an ongoing fit of self-doubt. Iraq of course remains an open wound for America, and Afghanistan can become one as well, but that has not caused the country to lose faith in itself -- just in its president.

Political problems can be easily blamed on the president -- on his incompetence, his ignorance, his lack of judgment, and his inability to select the right advisors. This also explains why the situation has not triggered pangs of self-doubt which could paralyze America. The new, surprising awareness of the crisis stems from events that touch at the heart of capitalism and have shaken the country. After all, America's effectiveness around the world depends on its economic strength.

The heart of America beats on Wall Street. This is where the rules of the business world are made, and this is where the world is ruled. Washington, the capital, is actually nothing more than the running dog of the banks and investment funds, at least according to the old anti-capitalist legend, and, like all legends, it contains a grain of truth. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that a government, especially the Bush administration, would consciously and deliberately violate the interests of Wall Street. It thus comes as no surprise that Washington is busy bailing out Wall Street.

The fallout of the crisis of 2008 is that three of the five largest investment banks in New York have collapsed. It began with Bear Stearns, founded in 1923, which was quickly bought up by JP Morgan Chase. Then came Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, two government subsidized banks whose job was to help hardworking American families, but with low liquidity, to become homeowners, and now the banks had to be rescued by the state. The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, a venerable 168-year-old capitalistic institution, caused a huge uproar. For now, this string of failures has ended with Merrill Lynch, prompting Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, the two remaining financial giants, to downgrade from investment to normal banking establishments.

These once-proud big financial institutions are both the perpetrators and the victims of this crisis. They have supplied the entire country with money, granting loans to the government and homeowners, despite the fact that they were up to their ears in debt. Since the spring of 2007, the real estate crisis has plunged them into ruin. They have helped provoke this crisis with irresponsible loans and complicated maneuvers, and now they are being swallowed up by the consequences. America is facing a looming recession and the largest financial crisis since 1929, which threatens to pull down the entire world economy.

The crisis on the financial markets has more influence on America's self-confidence than Iraq. The economic crisis limits the superpower's ability to act more than the war on terror.

The election campaign for the White House, which has actually been raging since early 2007, highlights what concerns and worries Americans the most. Iraq has played only a secondary role here since the number of attacks and US casualties has declined. It is no coincidence that the new strategy coincided with the launch of the election campaign.

In reaction to the real estate crisis, the nation is turning inward and focusing on its own problems. This process became even more pronounced when gas prices skyrocketed. America's top priority has become how to work its way out of the crisis, and whether it can reinvent itself, perhaps as a leader in green technology, or, in any case, with less dependency on oil and a new generation of smaller cars. This is all part of a broad effort to conserve resources instead of wantonly exploiting them.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has a keen eye for crises that are brewing. In a commentary published back on June 29, 2008 under the headline "Anxious in America," he wrote: "We are a country in debt and in decline -- not terminal, not irreversible, but in decline. Our political system seems incapable of producing long-range answers to big problems or big opportunities. We are the ones who need a better-functioning democracy -- more than the Iraqis and Afghans. We are the ones in need of nation-building. It is our political system that is not working."

In just a few short sentences, Friedman has touched on a wide range of key issues. His comments reflect the feeling of unease that accompanied the first eight years of the 21st century, the priority given to making changes overseas rather than at home, the hubris of trying to save the world instead of alleviating America's glaring injustices, and the inability to reduce the country's dependency on oil. Between the lines is the allegation that the eight years under President George W. Bush could be eight wasted years.

The Next President Should Have a Greater Degree of Modesty and Humility

The 44th president of the United States has his work cut out for him. Back in 1980, America elected Ronald Reagan to the White House in a similar situation because he exuded unflappable optimism and left no doubt that America could bounce back from any crisis. His country saw him as a kind of prophet -- and ignored his incompetence and his reluctance to work long hours. The Republicans have chosen him as their icon, the standard by which all subsequent candidates are measured.

But what distinguishes a good president? The most common answer is "experience." The idea here is that politics is an occupation where you have to start at the bottom and work your way up. You get a feel for the terrain and observe how others react in situations that demand decisions. You learn how to do things right and what mistakes to avoid -- and how to behave in a competitive climate and under intense pressure. Eventually, at least according to political philosophers, your powers of judgment have been sufficiently honed by years of practice to meet the key qualification for the highest public office in America.

Essentially, this view of political values is rather widespread in Europe. In Germany and France, future presidents and prime ministers often serve as cabinet members and ministers, and thus gain essential knowledge and skills. Helmut Schmidt, for example, was a German politician who particularly appreciated the importance of experience, and served in a number of traditional ministerial positions before he took the helm as chancellor. In addition, aspiring politicians have to gain acceptance within their own parties, which constitute the other receptacles of power. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy may not be products of their parties, but their parties are a crucial condition for their power.

America is different. In the US, parties have no life of their own, but are merely products of their protagonists, structures designed for an election and organized around the top candidates. Before they become president, most candidates have served either as a state governor or as a senator in Washington. That is an exceedingly small playing field compared to the White House with its abundance of power.

In addition, experience doesn't play the key role in America that it does in Europe.

Roosevelt picked Harry S. Truman as vice president because he was no competition. Truman served as an artillery officer in World War I, and that constituted his knowledge of the world. He remained proud of his roots in Missouri, and was a senator for his home state. When he died, he was extremely unpopular. Meanwhile, scholars rank him as one of the greatest US presidents, as the man who gave America a philosophy during the Cold War.

John F. Kennedy was 43 years old when he moved into the White House. His experience was primarily based on a number of years as senator for the state of Massachusetts. That alone would not have been enough to overcome the Cuban Missile Crisis, a confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. It took other time-honored statesmanlike qualities to master this situation: excellent judgment, Kennedy's ability to put himself in Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's shoes, patience and nerves of steel.

By contrast, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon had a wealth of experience as members of Congress and vice presidents. Johnson failed in Vietnam and bitterly complained that his historical accomplishments to enhance the civil rights of blacks have been forgotten. Nixon's presidency is well known for ending the Vietnam War and establishing diplomatic relations with China -- and for his shameful resignation due to the Watergate Affair.

America has actually never had qualms about sending beginners to the White House. "Learning by doing" is the confident advice that is given to inexperienced presidents. The job builds character. If the experiences with novices had generally proven to be a disappointment, the Americans would have changed their basic attitude. Jimmy Carter, the respectable peanut farmer from Georgia, was pious and ineffective. Bill Clinton, the sunny boy from Arkansas, learned quickly how to stand his ground under the most difficult circumstances -- which he brought upon himself with his escapades. And if a president really requires the benefit of experience to be successful, then Bush's first cabinet would have been the best of all times. Marshaling a team with more experience than Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Cheney and Colin Powell is virtually an impossible task. However, it failed to prevent the administration from making enormous blunders and horrendous mistakes.

In 2008, two candidates face off that represent nearly a perfect contrast between experience and exuberance. John McCain is plugging his image as the veteran politician with a discerning and balanced sense of judgment. He has very little choice. At his age, 72, he can't sell himself as a passionate reformer. The boyish inexperienced candidate is Barack Obama, who represents the next generation, which feels that it is time to replace baby boomers such as Clinton and Bush.

In a historic sense, McCain follows in the footsteps of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the general who became president at a time when his country had grown weary of war. McCain's main reference for the job is the Vietnam War, especially his suffering as a prisoner of war in Hanoi. He sees himself as an American patriot who always puts his country first -- yet, paradoxically, in an act of ultimate personal ambition, he would now like to become president at a ripe old age.

By contrast, Obama portrays himself as the political heir to the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr. His credentials are also based on his biographical background, a black father and a white mother, raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, with roots in Kenya. The legacy that he would like to represent aims to achieve reconciliation between blacks and whites. If he is elected president, he will be living proof of the long road that America has traveled since the murders of the Kennedy brothers and King. His candidacy alone is a groundbreaking event in the history of this country.

Still, being President of the United States still remains a dream job, no matter how many crises the country may be facing. The man in the White House is both head of state and head of the government -- he is the leader of the Free World. He has "hard power" at his disposal, a vast military force on water, land, and in the air, and a formidable arsenal of nuclear weapons. His country also still possesses a wealth of "soft power," in other words, the allure of American culture in the broadest sense. He is the ideal overall representative of this wildly exuberant country as it rushes toward the future, a nation that would rather look forward than backward, always on the move, evolving, and changing the world beyond its borders.

A dream job? A killer job. The 44th president will have to maintain an upbeat mood in the country and soften the blow of the economic crisis. His historic mission will include winning back America's lost moral and political authority. He may well end up primarily occupied with setting things straight in Iraq, the entire Middle East and in Afghanistan. If Friedman is right, and America has lost eight years, how long will it take to make up for this?

America elects a new president and the entire world looks on, party impressed, partly amused and partly disconcerted.

It is impressive how this country, 232 years after it was founded, has lost none of its vitality. Americans have no doubt that crises are natural a part of life -- that they present an opportunity to turn over a new leaf, for each individual as well as the entire country. It is also amusing to hear the political romanticism that all politicians need to muster if they want to be heard. Even in Europe, all democracies rely on pat slogans about change and transformation, about a new awakening and a new beginning. But America has a different quality. America believes enthusiastically in the ability to change the world and mankind.

America's enduring claim to rule the world, however, can be rather disconcerting. In America, the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr are currently experiencing a minor renaissance. Niebuhr, an American theologian whose parents came from Germany, died in 1971, but during his best years, he basically acted as the voice of reason in America. He is attributed with the statement that America bears the "shining armor of self-righteousness," as if it were born to lead the world. Niebuhr wrote: "Our greatest weakness as a nation is our exaggerated image of America's virtuousness. ... We believe that America is exceptional in the world, a people of unsurpassed generosity and benevolence. We assume that God is always on our side and that we have a special bond with the Almighty."

This weakness has characterized the past eight years. If he is well advised, the 44th president will start his first term of office with a greater degree of modesty and humility, either based on his wealth of experience, or thanks to his power of judgment, which stems from an extraordinary life. The world will be rapt with attention as it watches and hopes for a satisfactory ending.

Gerhard Spörl is the chief editor of DER SPIEGEL's foreign desk.

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