Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Unreality in Washington

It can get increasingly difficult to attend think-tank events in the DC area.

I am tired about hearing the U.S. described as a superpower. Yes, we are. Big whup.

The reality is that there are severe domestic constraints on how we can utilize and deploy that power. We can put less troops into the field today that Mussolini's Italy--and Italy of the 1930s was far from being the world's greatest power. Americans do not want to assume the burden of empire--which is why we seem to have to resort to lies to motivate them (the "next Hitler", the imminent mushroom cloud, etc.)

Moreover, our economic prosperity depends on many factors no longer under our control--imported energy, supply chains (read Barry Lynn on this!), etc. We require the active cooperation of the intelligence services of other states in areas where we have limited reach.

The free lunch attitude is also irritating me. Because we seek to do good in the world, others will reward our virtue. That the U.S. only seeks to do good, not to advance its own interests.

I liked John Owen's piece in the current issue because he notes why other states, even other democracies, may not see the extension of democracy as being in their interests, but also because he notes some hard-headed, realpolitik reasons why democracy promotion serves U.S. interests. Perhaps being out at Charlottesville puts him beyond the beltway.

This is not confined to DC. A large number of Americans seem to have been persuaded that they and their country can do no wrong.

It is ironic since that "no man is justified in the eyes of the Lord" was a fundamental insight of the Reformation.

As to assuming the "burden of the Empire"; there is-at the individual level- not much to be gained by being an imperialist. Historically, and imperialist be he an Assyrian, a Persian, a Macedonian, a Roman, an Ottoman etc. could look forward to violence, power, pillage, rapine, slaves, etc. That is no longer the case.

Any way, thinking of US as an empire is not useful; a common- wealth is a more fitting analytical framework with US being Primus entre pares.
Beltway pundits take American expressions of generosity and interest in freedom to mean unlimited commitments which isn't the case. Americans can be very generous in the short term but tend not to like long-term open-ended commitments, which is why the color revolution model seems so well suited--instant and immediate change with little involvement.
The problem is that U.S. foreign policy tends to be framed in terms of long-term open-ended commitments if goals cannot be achieved in the relatively short-term. This sort of thinking is probably a legacy of the Cold War. We are much less adept at formulating intermediate-range goals, ie. goals that can be set and met within say five to fifteen years.

Partly this is because of the difficulty of distinguishing normal from exceptional challenges, which is usually not possible to do except in retrospect. The problem Nikolas identifies is that we may be entering a slow-motion breakdown that cannot be addressed until events demonstrate more clearly to the American people and to the world the need for a new set of constraints.

The problem is the tendency of policy to substitute new half-measures for old ones when opportunity for change presents itself. If this continues, any new set of constraints that emerges in the next two years could prove to be only a way station to a more violent reaction in the opposite direction. If our foreign policy is to avoid becoming incrementally less stable as a result, we need to think more about the future without polarizing our vision between the short-term and the completely open-ended.
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