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America, time to wake up

Roger Cohen (Globalist)
Filed on June 29, 2011

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin once remarked that the United States was “aesthetically inferior but morally superior” to Europe.

On the aesthetics, there’s not much doubt. Savoir vivre is a French expression that English finds it needs. Style is many things but one reason Italy elevates it is because it is a fine disguise for lost power. When you’re running the world you don’t have much time for Windsor knots.

The aesthetics of European cities offer the consolation of the past’s grandeur but seldom the adrenalin of future possibility. It’s wonderful to be lost in Bruges or Amsterdam, Venice or Vienna. The palaces bear no relation to current obligations. They have become outsized repositories of beauty.

Sleepwalk through them and feel content. The only problem is awakening. One of the things you awaken to is that it’s now almost a century since Europe ripped itself to shreds at Verdun. Geoffrey Wheatcroft recently calculated in The New York Review of Books that British losses on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, given respective populations, were the equivalent of “280,000 GI’s killed between dawn and dusk.”

The Great War had its midcentury European sequel. And so power passed to America. It was of a United States ascendant that Berlin wrote, a confident nation assuming responsibility for the world.

He found it “morally superior” to Europe. I think he meant above all the can-do vigour of a young nation still able to dream big and gather its collective resources to realise great projects. Not for America the moral relativism of tired European powers that, ambition exhausted or crushed, settled for comfort and compromise.

I was talking about puritanism the other day with an American friend who observed: “Don’t knock it – that’s what got us this country in the first place!” There’s something to that: America has been inseparable from a city-on-the-hill idealism but also from a strong work ethic. When I became an American citizen and had to do an English test the second sentence of my dictation was: “I plan to work very hard every day.”

But of course you can’t work if you don’t have a job and today that’s the situation of 9.1 per cent of Americans and 24 per cent of US youth. These are shocking numbers that aren’t temporary blips. They reflect shifts in the global economy. Every year developing economies are producing tens of millions of middle class people who can do American jobs.

What’s most worrying is that the US response to this crisis seems to be one of a country in middle age, a nation that has lost its can-do moral edge, the ability to come together and overcome. In this critical regard President Obama has failed to deliver.

Berlin observed that Americans were a “2x2(EQUALS)4 sort of people who want yes or no for an answer.” They’ve gotten neither of late, only muddle.

Bill Clinton recently took Obama to task in Newsweek, proposing 14 measures to create employment. Given that the Clinton presidency saw the creation of 23 million jobs his advice is probably worth a glance even if it grates. I was struck by two underlying themes: the need for an energy policy and for an industrial policy.

Here’s why: It’s absurd that “climate change” has become an unpronounceable phrase under Obama and that green technology initiatives have been stymied by sterile ideological dispute. Intelligent use of resources makes strategic sense for America whatever your hang-up on global warming. It’s equally absurd that private US corporations, having made $1.68 trillion in profits in the last quarter of 2010 and sitting on piles of cash, are doing fine while job numbers languish and more Americans struggle.

None of this makes moral or any other sense. America needs an energy policy and an industrial policy. It has to lead in green technology and – purist capitalist reflexes notwithstanding – it must find ways to get corporate America involved in a national revival.

In these regards it might look to Europe: Copenhagen now heats itself in winter by burning its own garbage; Germany has 6 per cent unemployment in part because the government and corporations have cooperated to keep jobs.

One of Clinton’s energy ideas related to the cash incentive Obama had offered for start-up green companies. America moved in the past few years, the former president noted, from having less than 2 per cent of the world market in manufacturing high-powered batteries for hybrid or all-electric cars to 20 per cent, with 30 new battery plants built or under construction. Then – wait for it – Republicans in Congress wouldn’t extend the plan because they viewed it as a “spending programme” rather than a tax cut.

This is madness, the ne plus ultra of American politicians betraying the American people. As Clinton noted, “We could get lots of manufacturing jobs in the same way” – that is, combining green energy and industrial policy.

It’s past time for Obama to lead in these areas. Americans, Berlin also suggested, are the “largest assemblage of fundamentally benevolent human beings ever gathered together.” But their representatives have lost their moral compass. History tells us where that leads.

Roger Cohen writes The Globalist column for The International Herald Tribune





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