The horrific massacre in Paris reminds us of the Achilles’ heel of American foreign policy. Ever since World War II, our foreign policy has rested on an oft-silent presumption that shared prosperity is a powerful and benevolent force for social stability, peace and (often) democracy.

All the emphasis on free trade and globalization is ultimately not a celebration of economic growth for its own sake. It’s a means to larger ends of social cohesion and political pluralism.

In this, we have mostly projected our own domestic experience onto the world at large. Americans’ obsession with material progress — which seems excessive and even vulgar to many — is largely what has enabled us to be a multiethnic, multicultural, multiracial and multireligious society.

Everyone can strive to get ahead. There’s a large common denominator. The competition is not always fair or equal, but the pervasiveness of these beliefs has generally allowed (there are, of course, conspicuous exceptions) Americans to tolerate their other differences, which are enjoyed or endured mainly in private.

Let it be said that this framework of values, when applied to foreign affairs as it has been since World War II, has paid large dividends. Germany and Japan rejoined the ranks of major nations. Germany and France are reconciled. The Cold War was won, and Eastern Europe was liberated from Soviet tyranny. Large parts of Asia have become hugely prosperous. That there has been no World War III reflects, in part, a world in which most nations have a stake in a global economic system that has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, spawned vast middle classes and created widespread interdependence.

In the era of Pax Americana, history texts have emphasized diplomatic dramas and military conflicts. The more obscure reality is that military might has often been used to buy time for the economic logic of shared prosperity to work.

But this approach to foreign policy has long suffered from two potentially crippling defects.

One is unrealistic expectations that, when disappointed, backfire in popular discontent and, sometimes, protectionism. The ideology of economic growth has presumed that growth can be, more or less, taken for granted. Unfortunately, it can’t, and when growth stalls or falls, all the individuals and institutions that had uncritically banked on its permanence find their plans disrupted or destroyed. Local and global politics are thrown into turmoil. In the wake of the 2008-09 financial crisis and the Great Recession, we are going through just such an episode now, whose long-range consequences are not yet clear.

The second defect is more unnerving and dangerous. It is the true Achilles’ heel of American foreign policy: Significant blocs of humanity ignore or repudiate our faith in the power of shared prosperity. They put other values and goals first. Nationalism is one obvious alternative — Putin’s Russia being a good example. The case of China is more complicated. Although it is obsessed with economic growth, it’s also indulging a nationalistic urge to reassert itself on the global stage.

Less ambiguous is radical Islam, whether the Islamic State group or other variations. We don’t speak the same language or, at any level, share the same goals. They deny the legitimacy of the secular state and seem willing to do almost anything to weaken or destroy it. Their moral code is completely disconnected from ours. They are creatures of rigid religious dogma, fervor and fanaticism. We are the secular state — creatures of messy modern democracies with their (at times) seemingly elastic moral standards.

What’s happening is completely at variance with our post-World War II experience. Even at the height of the Cold War — when people really feared nuclear annihilation — there was some self-restraint (based on mutual fear) and, perhaps more surprisingly, a common understanding of the terms of the contest. There was an acknowledged competition between capitalism and communism. Which could better satisfy the wants and needs of its citizens? We will bury you, bragged Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

In the end, the opposite occurred. The Soviet bloc ultimately collapsed because it lost this competition, weakening its claim to any popular legitimacy as well as undermining its military strength. What makes the present struggle so threatening is that it’s not being waged on familiar grounds that play to our strengths — our ability to outproduce our opponents. The battlefield has been selected by them, and it’s what makes today’s predicament so disorienting.

© 2015, The Washington Post Writers Group

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