[NOTE: During three decades as an officer of the U.S. Foreign Service, I sent to Washington many frank, confidential analyses of countries where I was stationed. Some of these countries were friendly allies, like Italy. Others, like the Soviet Union, were not friendly at all, at least on the official level. In the following, I have tried to imagine what the envoy in Washington of a friendly, allied country in Europe might be writing now, in confidence, to his foreign minister. I do not suppose you will like what you read. I do hope that you will agree that something is lacking in what most of us see and read in Baltimore or Carbondale or Montecito.]
For the Minister’s Eyes Only
Dear Mr. Minister,
I have on infrequent occasion taken the liberty of sharing with you some observations on my country of assignment, to complement what I trust the Ministry finds to be good reporting by my embassy’s political and economic officers, and what I believe is equally good reporting by our clandestine staff.
I am, to put it briefly, distressed by both the longer-term trends in America and the seeming inability, or unwillingness, of American leaders and their public to face up to reality. Iraq is the famous example, but we have sent the Ministry countless cables on that and I want to go into other, if related, subjects here.
You will recall what this country was like when we two served in our embassy here as junior officers, over three decades ago. America was a country that had made serious mistakes–and knew how to correct them. Even before we came to Washington, America had ended the legal segregation of blacks. More recently it had reelected Nixon and then found him unworthy, and moved to impeach him. It had made grave errors in Vietnam, and then in 1975 ended a senseless war. Perhaps most importantly, Americans–or at least those of them who had studied history–recalled the great divide between the opulent and the others in 19th century America. They seemed intent on preventing that from recurring, through application of a thoroughly democratic ideology.
What worries me most about today’s America is that the country seems incapable of righting today’s wrongs. In my view, the Americans’ most serious problem for the longer term is the development of a new class of super-rich, while at the same time their middle and lower classes find themselves increasingly burdened by debt and worried whether their jobs will be “outsourced” to India or China. A few decades ago, the growth in individuals’ fortunes was restrained by taxation rates which, if I am not mistaken, were as high as ninety percent at the end of World War II. There is no chance of this happening today. The Democrats, who were the party of progressive taxation, need the support of the ultra-rich as much as the Republicans do, and so say almost nothing on the subject. If they do nothing, the divide will increase and open the way to some American Le Pen or Zhirinovsky–who fortunately has not, so far, appeared.
One thing, incidentally, that our Ministry should keep always in mind in dealing with these people is the steady bureaucratization of their society, which–except in cases like a President intent on making war–makes action in almost any field come slow. The latter-day American approach to a problem is to name yet a new top official to tackle it (as Bush did when there were intelligence failures), or else to name a study commission like the Baker/Hamilton commission on Iraq (whose report was quickly forgotten). The size of Congressional staffs continues to increase, and concomitantly the laws increase in complexity; the voluminous Federal tax code is a perfect example. Bureaucratization also permeates the corporate world–it is a major factor in the continuing failure of the American automobile companies–and, as well, state and local government, charitable foundations, and academia. I was amused the other day to learn that the hierarchy of a certain American university includes not just a provost but several deputy provosts and even someone with the marvelous title of “deputy assistant executive provost.”
There is a yet deeper underlying problem here in America, namely the disintegration–I do not want to say degeneration–of the family, the school, and indeed the individual. Clinton as President managed to turn around in fairly short order the lamentable Federal deficit, and I believe it not unlikely that a Democratic successor to Bush will do the same thing again. It will be far more difficult to turn around the trends toward disintegration in today’s American society, which can be objectively measured by the amount of narcotics use, the widespread obesity, the increase in personal indebtedness, the number of citizens in jail, etc.
The failure of the American educational system is something I find reflected every day in the Americans I meet–people with higher degrees and good jobs who know nothing about NATO or EU or WTO or IAEA except the very names, and who know nothing about our country except its location somewhere in Europe. Many of them know little more about the geography of their own country. This, I am told, is why New Mexico added “USA” to its automobile license plates: too many people thought New Mexico was located on the other side of the border. Nor do I forget the recent occasion when I was invited to speak at Cleveland High School, in a western state. After my talk I spent some minutes with a group of obviously intelligent students. When I told them how I admired the presidency of Grover Cleveland, one young woman admitted that she had not known her school was named for a former President. She thought, she said, that it was named for the city in Canada.
A large percentage of Americans attend church. I see this in part as a healthy reaction of people to the disintegration of so many older forms of association, formal and informal. As a Harvard professor has written, too many people here go bowling alone. Unfortunately most of the newly burgeoning churches insist on the literal truth of the Bible–as interpreted by their ministers, who demonize Islam and argue against fundamentals of science. There is at the same time a lamentable use, not just in churches but across America, of labels like “liberal” and “conservative” that raise tempers but do not produce civil discourse. (I told a friend here recently that if I were an American I would be a liberal conservative. He could not believe I was serious.)
Many of these churchgoers are also impelled by despair. They claim to be proud of America as the biggest and best country on earth, but they do not save for the future, they are beset by increasing personal debt and wonder how long their jobs may last, and they fall to prey to the preachers who tell them they will soon be saved from earthly unhappiness by “rapture” into heaven. Why worry, then, about paying off what they owe on credit cards, or about global warming and the destruction of the fine American countryside?
I suspect that it is this lack of faith in the future that has left Americans, individuals and leaders alike, largely paralyzed in the face of foreign economic competition–the problem of China, above all. The Chinese are increasingly able to provide Americans with every sort of thing they need, from children’s toys to microchips to automobiles–and even dog food. In another decade, I have no doubt, China will have taken away from America the last remaining field in which it continues to dominate the export market, aircraft production; and the American defense machine will by then depend on Chinese technology. Yet when I ask supposedly well educated Americans what they think this country should do about China–or more generally about America’s perilous current-account deficit–or, say, about the steep decline in the dollar’s value vis-a-vis our Euro–I seldom get an answer. Again, this has something to do with the failure of their educational system, and with the decline in readership of serious newspapers and journals.
I recall, as I am sure you do, how in the 1970s the U.S. dollar shockingly lost value against foreign currencies as a result of oil prices and the trade gap. Then, Americans agreed on the need for action to restore their competitiveness in the world. Now, the situation is far worse, yet to date not a single candidate for the Presidency has chosen to discuss the problem. It is, it seems, too complicated for them.
If an American should read these thoughts of mine, he or she would no doubt call me “anti-American.” You know I am not that; you know that our daughter is happily married to [name omitted], and I have two American grandchildren. This is moreover the nation to whom we owe, more than to any other, our liberation from Nazi oppression in 1945 and from Soviet oppression in 1990. America remains the most prosperous country in the world, and it is still American scientists who take most of the Nobel prizes and who are at the forefront of work on medicine and global warming. This country continues to absorb millions of immigrants, with far less disturbance than we see in our own country. The best young people here are admirable in every way. I meet them on my visits to schools and universities, and frankly I find many of them better educated and better motivated than our own students. But their numbers are relatively small; and a democracy must of course be based not on an elite but on a well-educated broad public.
America needs reform but we cannot bring it about, any more than the Americans have been able to reform societies in what is called the developing world. Reform here must come from here. I confess I see little chance of this happening. Nevertheless, the American republic remains a place where change can come quickly, for good as well as bad. The outcome of the 2008 American elections, and the years that will follow, are totally unpredictable. Meanwhile, even if I have avoided predictions I hope you have found this note of some use.
I am, Mr. Minister, with deepest respect and highest regard,
(No name shown).