Wednesday, 22 October 2008

"In Defence of America", by Bronwen Maddox (Duckworth & Co.)

An intelligent, considered defence of the country it is oh-so-cool to hate

In an environment of knee-jerk anti-Americanism, it is a relief to know books such as this are being written by intelligent, literate commentators; informing us of what the situation really is, devoid of bloviating or exaggeration and hyperbole. Maddox, an British-domiciled American, writes in a moderated, considered tone, offering balancing arguments for and against her own views, giving the reader a more even picture of America’s strengths and weaknesses.

Inspired by the “abrasion of ill-founded comment about the United States”, which Maddox considers “normally amusing, but occasionally sharply irritating”, In Defence of America is meant as a riposte to the pervasive and ill-informed criticism of those who equate being anti-Bush with being anti-American, who tow the tabloid line of America being the root of all that is evil and wrong in today’s world. People, in other words, who think it’s cool to simply state “I hate America.”

Areas that are discussed include America’s “culture” (of which there isn’t really only one), America’s approach and adherence to international law, American business and trade culture, and of course American foreign policy toward Iraq, Iran, Russia and China. Maddox doesn’t even pretend to defend Bush and Co.’s many blunders. Instead, she tries to explain it. While she is definitely on America’s side, she is not blind to America’s shortcomings or mistakes. Like Robert Kagan (though considerably less stridently), Maddox believes that Russia and China are the biggest, potentially looming threats to America’s position in the world. Rather than echoing Kagan and McCain’s calls for expelling Russia from the G8 or creating Democracies-only clubs, Maddox actually thinks America should stop demonising China (her position on Russia is a little more measured).

The one criticism I would have of the book is that it’s too short. While it’s clear that Maddox was working to a tight deadline (the examples and sources used are extremely timely), I can’t help but wonder about the ways in which the book would have benefitted from more depth. The book’s structure doesn’t lack for cohesion or pace, but I do think the book would be a lot more powerful if Maddox had been awarded more time to dig deeper into her subject.

Offering plenty of policy proposals for the next president, Maddox discusses how America can redeem itself, with suggestions including: increased diplomacy, close Guantanamo Bay, “act on global warming, the economy and trade”, soften tone on issues such as Iranian nuclear proclivities, wean itself of paranoid exaggerators in government, “give a nod to cooperation”, and remain engaged in the Middle East (including avoiding a precipitated withdrawal from Iraq). Maddox believes there’s still plenty to inspire confidence and optimism in America and its continued strength – both in terms of soft and hard power.

In Defence of America is a great little book. In a style far more eloquent than I could ever achieve on this subject, Maddox has written a book which should be essential reading for all in Europe and the rest of the world, who need to be reminded of all the good America has done for and around the world. It would be interesting to see what she could do with a little more time.

Highly recommended.

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