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segunda-feira, 17 de agosto de 2020

US decline and resilience - a book by Bruno Maçães reviewed by Dominic Green

BOOKSHELF | By Dominic Green
The American Century to Come
History Has Begun
By Bruno Maçães
(Oxford, 227 pages, $29.95)

The Wall Street Journal, August 17, 2020

The astute reader will have noticed that there is no shortage of books on America’s political and cultural decline. Bruno Maçães, who is in no doubt of America’s decline, sees the potential for its resurgence. The key to the future is American relativism. “We are unlearning old truths, a prelude to learning new ones,” he observes in “History Has Begun.” The book, though flawed by expansive predictions and occasional historical inaccuracies, is a fascinating survey of the decline and possible rise of the American empire. We may still believe in the liberal values that have guided Western politics since 1945, but they are now, Mr. Maçães argues, “true in a different way.”
The “automatic expansion” of liberal values no longer seems inevitable. If China sustains an alternative model for “developing and controlling the key technologies of the future,” the United States will find itself peripheral to a
Eurasian world order. Mr. Maçães’s recent book “The Dawn of Eurasia” advised
Europeans to stop worrying and learn to love the Belt and Road Initiative. Here, too, he
counsels the embrace of fate and radical relativism in the “game of civilization”—this
time as a means of securing American society and sustain- ing America’s global power.
“What if American history is only just beginning?” Mr. Maçães asks. He sees our
current troubles in Joseph Schumpeter’s terms: The
destruction of liberal values is also the “natural and spontaneous” creation of a new “post-
modern and postliberal” order. The book attempts to trace the emergence of a truly American “way of looking at the world” and to “decipher the logic of this new civilization.”
American society, Mr. Maçães reminds us, was founded on a “flight from reality.” The reality was the hereditary habits and laws of Europe. Alexander Hamilton called for “one great American system, superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world.” Nonetheless Hegel reckoned America was only “an echo of the Old World,” and Tocqueville could only conceive of America as “the end point of European culture and politics.”
The poets broke free before the politicians. Notwith- standing the continued existence of slavery in North America, Emerson and Whitman conceived of a “new man,” the practical proto-Pragmatist. “Reality,” writes Mr. Maçães, was for them “essentially a theatre for heroism. Call it the Hollywood theory of truth.” The truth of course is that Emerson would not have been able to conceive of his new American soul had he not read the Englishman William Blake’s vatic ecstasies or the Scotsman Thomas Carlyle’s prophecies on the forthcoming heroic European soul.
The “Americanization” of Europe, a form of reverse imperialism by mass-production and modern efficiency, was underway by the 1890s. But Americans, the first post- colonial people, were unwilling to recognize the extent of their power or its possible applications.
Roosevelt and Truman did better, though the Truman Doctrine of defending democracy anywhere was a recipe for “planetary conflagration.” After 1945, America was a global power in the European mode, able to “pursue its own instincts in complete freedom.” This, Mr. Maçães believes, led to disastrous attempts to export the deep “fantasy” of American liberalism to such unreceptive locations as Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.
A European politico argues that American policy making—for good and ill—was always about creating new and better fantasies.
Part of the problem was the consensual replacement of America’s “liberal society” by an “unreal world.” Mr. Maçães traces this not to imperial arrogance but to technologically enhanced decadence. Television, and now the internet, align Freud’s pleasure principle—seeking pleasure to avoid pain— with “the principle of unreality: everyone can pursue his or her own happiness so long as they refrain from imposing it on others as something real—as something valid for all.”
Mr. Maçães writes perceptively on how the democratic right to a vivid fantasy life slowly annexed first domestic politics and then, fatally, foreign policy. There is no American reality, only the “fictional structures” pioneered by “Holly- wood, Disneyland and Vegas” and now applied to media events with names like “Russia collusion” or “impeachment.” The winners are the strongest performers: Donald Trump, whose “Art of the Deal” counsels “truthful hyperbole, an innocent form of exaggeration,” or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose Green New Deal is a quest “set in a kind of dreamland” and who admits, “We have to become master storytellers.”
The lesson of Vietnam was not to avoid overreach or idealism, but to find a better story: to avoid wars whose narratives might run out of control, and choose ones in which the “heroic act” could be accomplished with minimal risk. This “dream of total control” was the strategic equivalent of a cable television package. It drove the canny actor Ronald Reagan to limit his foreign campaigns to invading Grenada, and it encouraged politicians and strategists to ignore any fact of local context that might complicate the heroic script.
The American fantasy is energy-independent, so it can run and run. Mr. Maçães, a Harvard-trained political scientist who served as a Portuguese representative to the EU, suggests ways in which the United States can secure its interests as a peripheral power against the emerging Eurasian order. As Britain once “balanced” Europe to prevent the emergence of a hegemon, the United States can broaden its narrative techniques from those of the epic to those of the multivoiced novel. Can it play the “great balancer” of Eurasia—Europe, Russia, India—and prevent China from sweeping the board?
Mr. Maçães’s later chapters identify the path to the new America with embracing Silicon Valley and the application of military surveillance technologies to civilian life, including a drift toward a “hybrid Eurasian culture” that adopts Chinese innovations in surveillance and artificial intelligence. The word “democracy” does not appear in these chapters, though “empire” does. This is the emerging truth of the “new, indigenous American society.” To comprehend that emerging reality, it is necessary to read this book, flaws and all.
Mr. Green is Life & Arts editor of the Spectator (US).

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