Analysing the road to US isolation. Twelve `liberal' essayists

Estrangement: America and the World, edited by Sanford J. Ungar. New York: Oxford University Press. 347 pp. $19.95. The 12 contributors to this book take the reader from an America strong and confident, a world leader, to an America weak, confused, unsure of its path.

According to these admittedly ``liberal'' writers, the result of the foreign and economic policies pursued by the United States during the last 45 years has been to isolate it from the rest of the world, including its allies.

The editor, Sanford J. Ungar, is well known for his searing analysis of US foreign policy, particularly on Africa. As a whole, this book does not escape the risks involved in interpreting a period or event with a preconceived attitude toward the way things turned out. Readers may be impelled to refresh their memory of a key historical event to determine whether or not the essayist's interpretation can be accepted.

That said, the book is both comprehensive and unified. Each essay is, in itself, a brief interpretation of US foreign policy during a certain period of history. The essays are, for the most part, chronologically arranged. Here and there, however, a topical essay interlude is offered - usually giving greater depth to the estrangement issue.

``Uncle Sam's hearing aid,'' by Ali A. Mazrui, for example, provides insight into the widespread view in the developing nations that the US pays heed to their needs and concerns only when it is in America's best interest to do so.

There are variety and individualism among the essays, but common threads - interpretations, observations, analysis - run through them.

Americans, the essayists say, have long been living under certain illusions: that the US-Soviet rivalry will force all nations to align themselves with one or the other of the superpowers; that the US, because of its unprecedented economic and military might, can, in effect, control world political and economic affairs.

As Robert Dallak puts it: ``A world becoming just like the United States was the prerequisite for an end to America's deeply ingrained habit of isolating itself from international politics.''

During the last 45 years, according to these essayists, the US has failed to grasp the fact that the world has become increasingly nonaligned and uncontrollable - economically and politically.

Increasingly, US foreign policymakers have seen all the world's difficulties through the glasses of the East-West debate, and their global policy of ``containing communism'' has been used as justification for many otherwise unjustifiable actions abroad.

Against a background of the Korean and Vietnam wars, the civil rights movement, and Watergate, the book analyzes the dilemmas that have beset successive US administrations, including:

Paternalistic vs. self-serving foreign and economic policy.

A moralistic foreign policy clothed in ``keeping the world safe from communism.''

An inability to confront its own revolutionary legacy.

As a result of its inability to deal with these issues, the US has often preached what it did not practice.

According to the contributors, the US has manipulated its allies and therefore lost credibility with many of them. And it has been unable to discriminate between nationalism and communism, ensuring poor handling of third-world revolutionary movements.

The writers use Vietnam as the most devastating result of America's alienation: a government committed to ``keeping the world free of communism,'' unable to understand the power behind revolutionary nationalism, and out of touch with its nation.

The final essay discusses reconciliation. How does the US stop further estrangement and improve its relations abroad? The two key elements, according to Richard H. Ulman, are: changing individual American misconceptions and misperceptions of the world, and forging a new relationship with Moscow.

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