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National Dreams in a Multi-polar World


  The phrase “American Dream” is relatively new. It wasfirst popularized in the 1930s during the depths of theGreat Depression. What it initially meant is profoundlydifferent from the universalistic vision advocated byWashington since 1945. Its original proponents saw the AmericanDream as seeking to overcome a “business civilization” that wassubordinating everything to the dictates of profit and the marketplace,a rapaciousness that was destroying the environment, andan obsession with bigness that had turned its back on the need forgreater equality and basic human needs.

  But this is not the American dream the world largely seestoday. America’s emergence as a superpower after 1945 requiredsomething quite different – a more simplified, distorted, andideological export product for Washington’s “war of ideas.” Thisofficial American Dream has been part of Washington’s ideologicalarsenal for over six decades. Such an idealized universalismby and large has worked, as it was designed to do by leaders inthe national security establishment, to polarize, divide, and turnagainst each other key aspects of humanity’s progressive traditionsboth within the U.S. and abroad. It has divided needs and rights,individual and collective interests, reform and revolution, equalityand freedom. This current dream is centered on the notions of“individual freedom” and the inalienable right to pursue one’s owninterests for prosperity and success. There is merit in such notions,of course, but focusing the dream around them has made it at thecore a harsh, highly useful propaganda weapon. For the earlier,more vibrant, compassionate, and complex American dream(which was very much what President Roosevelt’s New Deal wasabout) was very much a national, not a universal, one.

  The universalistic vision of the American Dream offers a starkwarning about the corrupting influences of the quest for globalsupremacy on what is best in a nation’s traditions. A nation canbecome a great power with a central global role without seekingto change others into versions of itself. Even as China’s powerincreases, the Chinese Dream has the opportunity to be open to anevolving multi-cultural world in quite different ways than the currentAmerican Dream. Unlike the American Dream, the Chineseversion underscores the notion that no one country is a model forhumanity; none encompasses all of its accomplishments. This, too,if stayed faithful to, would be a valuable contribution to a moredynamic multi-polar world, for there is perhaps no greater humanvanity than the belief that one’s own values have universal validity – and no greater folly than the attempt to impose the preference ofa single society on an unwilling world.

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