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The Elephant in the (War) Room

October 24, 2012

American politics is such that serious politicians can’t say so, but the fact is that American power and influence in the world is on the wane. For what it’s worth, I think that’s a good thing, and here’s why.

Since Woodrow Wilson was president, the United States has been arguing to the peoples of the world that liberal, capitalist democracy is the way to go. Our actual dealings with the governments of the world have not always been consistent with our advocacy, but still, advocacy of liberal, capitalist democracy has been a premise of American foreign policy for a century – since we fought World War I to “make the world safe for democracy.”

We have steadily been winning that argument. I remember a college professor of mine, James Q. Wilson, telling us in the mid-1970s that there were at that time maybe a dozen liberal, capitalist democracies. Today, there are scores of them. And at least as important, many of the countries that do not yet qualify as liberal, capitalist, and democratic explicitly aspire to do so.

We advocate liberal, capitalist democracy because we think it is the best way for a society to organize and govern itself. We advocate liberal, capitalist democracy because we have tried it and found it to be hugely successful, and because we believe its success is not peculiar to us but universal.

Sometimes we have lacked the courage of our convictions. We were taken by surprise when European communism collapsed, because we lacked the courage of our conviction that centralized authoritarianism was unsustainable. We were taken by surprise again by the Arab Spring, because we lacked the courage of our conviction that all people want individual rights, economic opportunity, and self-government. Despite our imperfect advocacy of the ideal, and even our sometimes counterproductive attempts to pursue that ideal, the arc of history continues to bend toward liberal, capitalist democracy.

We believe that liberal, capitalist democracy is an essential element of American success among nations. It follows logically that as other countries move toward liberal, capitalist democracy, those countries will also enjoy increased success – economically, socially, and geopolitically. In other words, we will have more and tougher competition. The countries that have become liberal, capitalist democracies in the last 60 years or so include Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, and Italy – five great economic, social and geopolitical success stories. As countries like Brazil, India, Mexico, Turkey, and Indonesia have become more liberal, capitalistic, and democratic, their success and influence have grown. Even China has become quite capitalistic, and just a tinge more liberal and democratic – and China has boomed.

The fact is, as the countries of the world become more liberal, more capitalist, and more democratic, they become more powerful. This is right and good, and not a thing to be regretted.  It is a victory of American foreign policy, not a failure. It is a vindication of the American ideal.

As other countries gain influence in the world, American naturally loses it. Baby boomers grew up in a bipolar world of countries divided in their loyalties to the two great superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States. After the Soviet collapse, we briefly imagined that we lived in a unipolar world, where the United States could control world events. It is increasingly clear that we live in a multi-polar world of numerous successful and powerful countries, in which we cannot control but instead must persuade.

In a world of maybe a dozen liberal, capitalist democracies, the United States could out-compete the world with one hand tied behind its back. And we tied our hand way behind our back. We took on the role of the world’s police force, devoting extraordinary resources to our military. After World War II we fought long, expensive wars in places that mattered very little to our core interests and not at all to our economic success. Western Europe and Eastern Asia have thrived under the defensive umbrella that American taxpayers bought and paid for.

The price of our six-decade World Cop adventure has been staggering. The infrastructure that we built in the 1950s, that was the envy of the world for two generations, is rotting out from under us. We have fallen pathetically behind our competitors in advancing our infrastructure from its 1950s foundations, in all respects from high-speed broadband to high-speed rail.

American educational achievement, the world’s foremost for much of the 20th century, has taken on elements of farce. We fight life-and-death battles over whether our schoolchildren should be taught evolution or creationism, whether our public schoolchildren should be led in Christian prayer, and whether ethnic studies is an acceptable curricular item, while other countries are teaching foreign languages to their third-graders and computer programming to their teenagers. Our students’ mathematical and scientific literacy lags behind that of world powers like Latvia.

Economically, our obsession with military power has sapped our resources. Already in great debt when the financial crisis hit, our Keynesian ammunition was depleted – we had emptied our fiscal armory in order to fill a military one.

Militarily, we remain the world’s supreme power. We are the king of the hill, and the king of the hill is the natural target of every actor who wants to reorganize the hill. Staying king of the hill is just as demanding, and expensive, as becoming king of the hill was – if not more so.

During his foreign affairs debate with President Obama, Mitt Romney made all too plain his belief that the United States must remain the military king of the world’s hill. He perceived weakness in every global event that has not played out exactly as we would have liked, and he implied that greater military strength would have turned those events out differently. So, for example, although he praised American contributions to the end of the Tunisian and Egyptian dictatorships, he condemned the electoral successes of moderate Islamists in those countries. Had we been stronger, Romney appears to believe, the elections would have come out differently.

I think most Americans recognize that we cannot argue for democratic elections and then condemn the election of politicians we did not root for. I think most Americans would agree that our military cannot serve as the world’s police force. But I also think that most Americans want our military to be the strongest in the world, and are susceptible to rhetoric that plays on that desire. Or, perhaps more accurately, I think most Americans fear that our military might someday not be the strongest in the world, and are susceptible to rhetoric that plays on that fear.

Therefore, as I said way back at the beginning of this post, it is not possible for American politicians to acknowledge that we are no longer living in a one-superpower world, where we can compete with one hand tied behind our back and still easily outdistance all of our competitors. We now live in a world where we have to be much more tactical, much shrewder in how we compete.  We have to make choices that we didn’t have to make before. But our politicians must pretend otherwise in order to win elections.

Before, we could fight wars in Korea and Vietnam and still build and maintain the world’s most robust infrastructure, the world’s most productive economy, and the world’s most advanced educational system. In today’s world of many liberal, capitalist, democratic – and highly successful – countries, we can no longer do all of those things. We have to make choices. But we can’t make choices, much less make them intelligently, until we are able to acknowledge that maintaining the world’s premier military is a choice, and has costs.

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