A Polish poet recently speculated on the remarkable dearth of battle scenes among the masterpieces of Seventeenth Century Dutch painting. In his engaging collection of essays, Still Life with Bridle, Zbigniew Herbert wonders aloud why such painters as Vermeer and Ter Borch eschewed military themes despite the plentiful opportunities so readily exploited by their counterparts in neighboring countries. A Polish poet mulling over Dutch art - this may seem a rather odd place to start thinking about Bill Clinton's foreign policy. But it strikes me as eminently apropos because it throws into sharp relief the relative degrees of national militarization.
The Dutch are not angels. One need only read the histories of Indonesia and Surinam to be reminded of Dutch proclivities for military conquest. But it seems clear that Dutch culture has escaped some of the profound forms of militarization that plague American culture and distort U.S. foreign policy. Not all countries' foreign-policy discussions are as burdened and polluted by militaristic concerns as our own. Did anyone in Canada discuss the military careers of that country's candidates for prime minister during the recent election? No. Do most residents of the European Community look to their senior military commanders as models of citizenship or of upwardly mobile success? No.
We need to be a lot more curious about exactly why and how American political life has become so militarized. If we are going to have an authentic foreign - policy discussion - one that tussels with the actual issues, not just their symbolic overtones - we must become more curious about why and how our notions of security, leadership, public legitimacy, and national humiliation have become so imbued with military meaning and military values.
Many Americans, and citizens of other countries as well, hoped that the end of Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union would herald not just a new American foreign policy but, more radically, a new American political culture free from militarized pride and anxieties. Today's debates over U.S. involvement in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia suggest that these hopes were not based on a full appreciation of what has always sustained the American brand of militarism.
In particular, we have underestimated many American men's need for militarized legitimacy to prove their masculine authority. Painting still lifes and raising tulips have not won many men political office or popular accolades in...