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All change for a different world

06 December 2013

The United States needs to learn new ways of doing things, says Bill Countryman

OVER dinner in Australia, about 20 years ago, a young acquaintance gave me quite an earful about the negative impact the United States was having on the rest of the world. His parents (my hosts for the evening) were embarrassed by his frankness, but he opened up a perspective for me that I have not forgotten.

The US was the sole world superpower then, and, as he said, we did pretty much what we pleased. Yet we still thought of ourselves as we had in the preceding decades - as pure-hearted defenders of freedom. We did not recognise how much the world had changed, and we with it. Our new power shaped us unawares.

Now, the world configuration is shifting again. However powerful the US is, it can no longer enforce its will unilaterally, whether in combat or in world councils or in the market. It can do more, for good or ill, than any other one nation; but we are repeatedly coming up against our limits.

It makes you pause - not because the new situation is intrinsically better or worse than the world of the '90s, but because all calculations must now change, and human beings are not good at that process. Some will see a new opportunity, and will try to seize it for themselves at the expense of others. Some will see a world order under siege, and try to defend it whatever the cost.

I find myself thinking of July 1914, having just read Sean McMeekin's intriguing book of that title. A few zealots in Sarajevo, without fully intending it, managed to take hold of another changing world that was refusing to recognise its instability, and shake it dangerously. The European powers, in their unthinking response, failed to recognise what they were bringing down on their own heads.

The US is in danger of trying to deal with its new world in terms of the old - the world of clear-cut enemies and friends. Having spent the years of the Cold War opposing Communism, and the years since enjoying unparalleled power, we have thought of every issue in terms of the exertion of force.

Frustrated in that respect abroad, we are turning the same mindset inwards, which may explain why Congress has become such easy prey to partisan intransigence. It seems, at first glance, an easier course than the complex business of learning to negotiate a different order of things.

I cannot say whether my then-young Australian interlocutor will find this changed world order more to his liking, or less. But I am sure that it will require careful reflection to see us all through the transition. I would like to think that the Church has something to offer in the process, but we seem still to be as committed to conflict as some American politicians.

Perhaps the Church, too, is still mired in a passing world composed only of friends, enemies, and the application of power.

The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.

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