America as Tragic Hero: The Fatal Flaw in International Policy

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 24, 2006

There is no political figure in American politics today with sufficient stature and dignity to play a tragic hero, but in its dealings with the rest of the world America itself may be perfect for the role. Here we have a country of enormous power and wealth governed by citizens who genuinely want to do good. Most Americans sincerely try to craft and support international policies based upon the common good of other nations. And yet things seldom work out as planned.

The Essence of Tragedy

I don’t mean to claim that American foreign policy is without its dark side, that no one ever acts out of self-interest, or that the end is never used to justify the means. But compared with the way other super-powers have acted throughout history, there is a kind of bluff openness and friendliness about American foreign policy. We very much want others to be happy as well as ourselves, and because of this basic goodness in most of our intentions, we assume that our interventions will be welcomed by persons of good will everywhere. The constant surprise Americans experience when they find that others don’t like them is perhaps the greatest possible proof that we sincerely believe ourselves to have the best interests of others at heart.

So why do so many people around the world hate America? And why do so many of our international plans turn sour? America, like all tragic heroes, seems often to miss the mark through a fatal misperception or misstep very like the problem of hamartia in Greek tragedy. Moreover, the reason for this missing of the mark is also right out of the books. We Americans tend to be rather blandly self-satisfied, not in a cold, cruel or mocking way, but in our ingenuous assumption that we have a superior grasp of reality, that whatever we choose is good, and that however we do things is right. This largely unrecognized pride, which the Greeks called hubris, skews our perceptions until we make a misjudgment and act on it. The fault does not lie so much with our motives as with our understanding of reality, which is flawed by the implicit assumption of our own surpassing excellence.

For Their Own Good

This is true on both sides of our political spectrum. Conservatives, preferring to work through national initiatives, very frequently make decisions about the use of economic and military pressure based on the assumption that, given the chance, the vast majority of people everywhere will make the same choices we have made for democratic procedures, republican government, and a market-driven culture. Liberals, who prefer to work through the United Nations or other international agencies when possible, just as frequently make decisions about the use of political influence and financial aid based on the assumption that other peoples want to repeat our choices in favor of secular education, modern health care and sexual license.

Although Americans themselves are sharply divided on many significant issues (reflexively blaming the other side for its blindness when policies fail), we tend to share a certain inability to comprehend any significant reality outside our own experience. Most of us are quite frankly incapable of imagining that anyone would not want to enjoy our political, economic, social and sexual liberties. Because we are typically so satisfied with ourselves, we turn a blind eye both to the positive elements in other cultures and to the dark side of our own (except for the other half’s dark side). We simply do not see what others see.

Liberation for Success

This hubris leading to hamartia is evident on almost every side. Our intervention in Iraq is based on nothing if not our assumption that Iraqis really want to be just like us. Our foreign aid programs frequently incorporate notions of educational positivism and reproductive rights, transforming material assistance into ideological pressure. Our economic policy is built on the principle that American consumerism is an unqualified good, and that to establish it anywhere is to transform enemies into friends. All our international policies are conceived in terms of liberation, sometimes liberation from poverty, ignorance and powerlessness, often liberation from tradition, family and God, but always liberation of everybody else to be like us.

If American material success is not enough to make others hate us (and, in a fallen world, it surely is), American blindness to nearly everything but material success will certainly do the trick. It is both a strength and a weakness of American history that we as a people have learned to minimize other differences in favor of the pragmatism of material results. While many Americans still value other, non-material goods, these unquantifiable goods have been progressively relegated to the private realm. In our public life, and in our public policies, we seem now unable to focus on anything which might broaden our vision or transcend our own peculiar limitations.

The Only Way Out

The best way out of all this lies in a new direction. Instead of evading and marginalizing religion, we have a desperate need for a rational and sympathetic engagement with it. It is precisely the purpose of religion to focus the mind on transcendent values which force it to recognize its own limitations. It is preeminently through religion that we learn that our habits and desires do not constitute reality, and that we must be ever attentive to external truths. The very awareness that we are not the sole measure, that there are larger realities, that our own grasp of reality is limited and flawed: these are tremendous aids not only to effective policy but to life as a whole.

In short, we need very much to learn to see what God sees. That we don’t recognize this need is our hubris. That we engage others only on our own terms is our hamartia. In a noble people, when hamartia follows hubris, the result is tragedy.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

There are no comments yet for this item.