The Long View 2004-04-16: Hegemony and the Left

Thanks to a South Asian history professor I had, I always hear the word 'hegemony' with an British accent in my head. I also remember dropping my coffee into my favorite hat in that class, but the TA was teaching that day.

Unlike a lot of John's post-9/11 writing about the intersection of war, terrorism, the Middle East, and American domestic politics, I find this blog post interesting. At this point, I find a lot of the things John said in 2003 and 2004 embarrassing, but I try to stick to the program of reposting everything because I believed those things too, at the time. I also think John was a better man than his advocacy of the Iraq War might imply. But we have to face what we have said, and what we have thought; what we have done, and what we failed to do.

John first references a very old essay of his, Permanent Interests, written in 1996. After twenty years, I think that essay has aged pretty well. Especially as politics in the Western world has started to pivot to the globalism/nationalism axis instead of the Left/Right axis, it is good to remember that the current state of international politics is a creation of the United States of America. The UN Security Council represents the coalition that won the Second World War, and things like the World Trade Organization represent the later United States that had won the Cold War too.

John goes on to suggest there is a kind of historical inevitability to this, insofar as the peculiar madness the Soviet Union represented may not have been the primary factor resulting in the world we see today. I am not entirely convinced, but this kind of argument relies on counterfactuals, and is hard to make.

Despite Gordan Chang still being wrong, I remain more sympathetic to the idea that China may not fully realize the potential of its vast population and surging economy in the coming decades. One of the greatest points in favor of the metahistorical theories of Spengler and Toynbee and their ilk is that is makes it easier to understand why Europe happened to eclipse the older and more advanced Chinese and Ottoman Empires; they were just in different phases of their civilizations, and it is hard to overcome the inertia built up over nearly a thousand years.

Of course, this theory may be wrong, so I would like to wait and see what happens.

John's more narrow point about the trajectory of American politics seems to have been largely borne out by subsequent events. The foreign policy of President Barack Obama, or the likely foreign policy of Hillary Clinton, bear a strong family resemblance to the foreign policy of the hated George W. Bush, minus the American casualties, plus a strong dose of drones and special forces.

You can see the adumbration of this in the cited opinion article in the New York Times:

The only long-term hope for tamping down the terrorist impulse was to turn America's traditional policies upside down, and come out for once in favor of the liberal democrats of the Muslim world. This would mean promoting a counter-wave of liberal and rational ideas to combat the allure of paranoia and apocalypse....
As for the results — well, in one respect, these have turned out to be, in spite of everything, almost comically successful. Baathism's super-weapons may have been a figment of the universal imagination; but as soon as the United States elevated this figment into a world crisis, astonishing progress was made in tracking down weapons programs and trafficking in Libya, Iran, Dubai and Pakistan...

In the bitter aftermath of the Arab Spring, we can see the fruit of this idea, now enacted by both Right and Left in America.

Socialism in the sense of caring deeply for your citizens, has been effectively buried by Hillary Clinton [in the form of Bernie Sanders]; instead she represents the international community precisely as John defined it in 1996. The twist that John missed is that the identity politics of the Left have been used as a cover for the economic politics of the Right. The economic inequality of the robber barons has been successfully fused with the most radical individualism of the flower children.

In my opinion, this is the culmination of long-standing American policy. For example, consider the allegation that the CIA funded modern art as a tactic in the Cold War. Even now, Americans on the right often consider modern art a sign of decadence and decline. Yet, for all that, modern art is as expensive as ever. The reason is that rich capitalists keep buying it.

Hegemony and the Left

Is there anything more annoying than when a writer quotes one of his old pieces to say "I told you so?" Why, yes, quite a few things are more annoying, which is I why I can dredge up this bit of analysis I wrote in the innocent days of 1996:

Finally, we may note one other way in which the state of the world has not changed with the end of the Cold War. The Left in the U.S. throughout that period saw its role as more or less the defense of socialism. Thus, they sought to limit the influence and power of the United States. Even with no more Fatherland of Socialism to defend, they still continue the same policy, like a missile defense system that keeps working even after the civilization that built it has died out. When they finally realize that anything they want to achieve in the world will have to be achieved through the United States, we will have a different politics.

There is some evidence that the Kerry campaign has gotten the memo about the role of the United States in the world. At any rate, we know for a fact that some people on the Left have been trying to deliver it. A prime example is this Op Ed by Paul Berman, which appeared in The New York Times of April 15 under the title, "Will the Opposition Lead?" Consider these excerpts:

As for the results — well, in one respect, these have turned out to be, in spite of everything, almost comically successful. Baathism's super-weapons may have been a figment of the universal imagination; but as soon as the United States elevated this figment into a world crisis, astonishing progress was made in tracking down weapons programs and trafficking in Libya, Iran, Dubai and Pakistan...

[However, entire] populations around the world feel a personal dislike for America's president, which makes it difficult for even the friendliest of political leaders in some countries to take pro-American positions.

But the bigger problem has to do with public understandings of the war...

Somebody else will have to straighten out these confusions, then. I think it will have to be the Democrats -- at least those Democrats who accept the anti-totalitarian logic. And why shouldn't they show a bit of leadership?...

The gist of the argument here is that the Bush Administration's foreign policy is both correct and feasible. The problem is that too many people around the world feel about Bush the way that Danny Devito's character in one of his comedies felt about his ex-wife:

I hate, I hate that woman. I hate everything about her. I hate the way she licks stamps.

There is something to be said for this assessment, as well as for the historical analogies that Berman's prescription conjures up. It's often the case that the opposition implements the policies of its discredited predecessor. FDR's economic policies were different in degree rather than kind from Herbert Hoover's. Poor, damned Richard Nixon spent his years in office enacting the wishlist of the progressive Democrats. So why might John Kerry not complete what George W. Bush has begun?

For one thing, the foreign policy wing of the Democratic Party is the American avatar of progressive transnationalism. Today, at least, Tranzie World is a morbid, unhelpful phenomenon. It's the European malady writ large. There is actually something of a bait-and-switch in the Berman article. There really are "liberal democrats" in the Muslim world. There are, however, few if any "liberal democrats" in the domestic American sense. This can never be repeated often enough: if "liberal democracy" means things like defining marriage out of existence, then the world will reject it. The Culture War is a national security issue, and the Democrats are on the wrong side.

Then there is personality. George Bush is not Lyndon Johnson. I suspect that John Kerry may well be.

* * *

There are three interesting points about Osama bin Laden's recent offer of a truce to Europe. The first is that the text makes a conditional offer at all. Usually, his messages are along the lines of "This is why I am killing you." It's something of a novelty for him to ask his enemies to do anything but die.

The second point is that he apparently follows the anti-war literature. The military supplier, Halliburton, has become one of the objects of his especial ire. It's hard to believe that this condemnation has anything to do with events on the ground. He is reaching out to Western opponents of the war (as the hapless Moqtada al-Sadr has attempted to do, too, now that I think of it).

Finally, and most important for the people muttering about exit strategies, he links the US and the UN in a way that leaves no room for compromise with either. He is onto something if he thinks that the UN does not mean much without the US in the context of an actual war. It's a pity that the UN's advocates have never taken this on board.

* * *

This is not to say that the UN does no good. Its agencies, often older international bodies that the UN has absorbed, continue to carry on the unseen maintenance functions on which civilization depends. The International Telecommunications Union, for instance, has recently seen fit to update Morse Code. Hereafter, the "@" symbol found in email addresses is supposed to be rendered as "dit-dah-dah-dit-dah-dit." Many of the hobbyists who use the code will continue to just write "at," of course, but I for one am pleased to see that anyone is still using Morse at all.

* * *

On the subject of private contractors in Iraq, it was only the recent mutilation of four contract guards that alerted many people to just how privatized the military function is becoming. This has led to the observation that, in the 21st century, the world seems to be getting back to normal:

Before the 20th Century, private armies were as common as government-backed militaries; maybe more so. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all used arrows-for-hire. "Contract armies fighting contract armies, led by contract generals," is how Singer describes the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).

This all has a fine Spenglerian ring; Spengler was predicting the end of mass, national armies even as the build-up to World War II started. However, this does not seem to be what is happening in Iraq. There are no armies of mercenaries there conducting large-scale operations. In a situation where the state does not exist, a few rent-a-cops are not enough; hence the rent-a-paratrooper.

* * *

Headlines like this are multiplying: Newest Export Out of China: Inflation Fears. Domestic inflation in the US also seems to be reviving; at least it is no longer negligible. This is important for a number of reasons, but among the most important is that it makes the Bush Republican Party obsolete. Whatever its other elements, the glue that held his coalition together was the promise of lower taxes. It was possible to deliver on that platform, so long as the fiscal deficit was costless. However, we are now moving to a situation like the 1970s, when people will associate deficits with ever-rising prices. It will be possible to portray tax cuts as a form of theft: government by inflationary expropriation.

Again, there is no safe alternative to reelecting George W. Bush in 2004. That is necessary for the successful prosecution of the Terror War. Then, however, it will be necessary to change partners. For the longer term, there has to be a coalition of fiscal conservatives, military realists, and sober Culture Warriors. All these were features, oddly enough, of the New Deal. The trend is away from libertarianism, and toward public order, which will have to be seen to encompass features like a national health system. The existing political parties may have to dissolve to provide components for the mix.

* * *

Finally, thanks again to those of you who have been using the Amazon search buttons. The commissions are nice, but I appreciate the thought more.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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