That our present level of dominance is unsustainable we can say with Newtonian certainty. Much as water will find its own level, so will the balance of power between nations swing back to a mean after a period of uneven distribution. Of the factors that have made us the most powerful country on earth, the only one that was uniquely American was the political and economic system that generated wealth like kudzu, and that secret recipe has now become a staple of kitchens in China, Indonesia, and even the once-calcified culinary institutions of Europe. Soon all the world will be asphyxiating beneath the matted vines of a luxury once reserved for us alone.
The party, in other words, is over. If we have not noticed the caterer putting the chairs on the tables, it is because we are too drunk to rise up off the couch. The only open question now is whether we will accede gracefully and play the role of partner in the order of nations, or will we act the megalomaniacal Caesar until the bitter end and lash out indiscriminately at all who come within range of our mindless rage, raving like an addict in withdrawal, grain alcohol in one hand, matches in the other, as we make the planet our funeral pyre.
Hmmm, I wonder…
I’ll confess: it’s a rhetorical question. The early results are in and the answer is evident in the way our military outlays continue to expand relative to the rest of the world, even though we already spend more than the next 15 most martial-minded nations combined. It is evident in the proliferation of American service uniforms in all four corners of the globe even as American diplomats become an endangered species. And it is evident in our look of disgust as we brush away the filthy hands of nations clutching at our sleeves, hoping for a moment’s audience to say, please, sorry to disturb you, but you’re kneeling on my throat.
It wasn’t always this way. If we have become the world’s bully, it is not because we haven’t had positive experiences with soft power. In the years after WWII, we took the rest of the world on a joyride of economic and cultural globalization that brought great riches and a significant degree of freedom to swathes of the planet previously unaccustomed to such pleasures. We were then, as now, armed to the teeth and forever demonstrating our good will by shooting people. But our adventures in Vietnam and Korea, the ass-kickings we administered via US-supplied proxies in Latin America and the middle east, and most significantly, the cold war’s one-hydrogen-bomb-for-every-household plan were less responsible for our present hegemonic precedence than our far-more-benign role as the world’s preeminent loan shark and pusher of drugs like Baywatch, Hotpockets, cigarettes, and warehouse-sized bathrooms. In fact the only drugs we kept just for ourselves were the actual drugs. We also retained dibs on all the Chips Ahoy! cookies, which, because of the drugs, we will definitely want later tonight.
But now, presented with the opportunity to boldly lead or brashly dominate, we’ve put on our brass knuckles. This approach achieves a trifecta: it is simultaneously futile, shameful and stupid. But it is not surprising, for all Americans are attuned to a whispering voice that only we can hear, a voice that ever contests the better angels of our nature, calling us something worse than murderer, worse than liar, worse than cheater…
Calling us pussy.
How is it that this notion, that we are “soft,” is an arrow privileged to bypass all our critical faculties and strike a fatal blow to our self image, even while we can blithely equivocate when charged with seemingly far worse trespasses? The answer is found in a handful of formative historical and cultural factors that make multilateralism and cooperation an unnatural act for us. These demons have been dozing uneasily in our national psyche for decades now, but circumstances are conspiring to fully rouse them. They have not had their coffee yet, and they are in a foul mood.
The first of these demons is the myth that there are only two approaches to conflict resolution: Thunder Dome deathmatch or appeasement, as embodied by the rather drab figure of Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain, as you probably know, was singlehandedly responsible for giving the word appeasement a pejorative connotation when he let Hitler know that Britain would look the other way if Germany elected to get jiggy with Czechoslovakia. Five years and millions and millions of dead people later, it looked like the wrong call. Fair enough. Chamberlain’s misjudgement certainly deserves to be ranked as one of history’s more piquant learning moments. But the second world war was the birth agony from which sprung our modern international order, and like any creation story, it exerts an outsize influence on our perspective of contemporary events. So it is that ever after we have been inclined to see diplomacy of any kind as a thinly disguised desire to french kiss Adolf Hitler.
Mirror image to the myth of appeasement–and likewise uncritically granted a significance unsupported by the facts–is the myth that Ronald Reagan toppled the Soviet Union with only the withering power of his steely gaze and several hundred billion dollars of America’s lunch money spent on stealth bombers. It is only one of several miracles attributed to the gipper which led to his recent canonization. The others were turning America’s frown upside down (1981-1983), and when he addressed the Liberian ambassador by name without prompting in 1987, despite suffering from a well-advanced case of Alzheimer’s. But the Soviet Union had been leaking at the seams for 50 years by the time Reagan arrived on the scene, assisted towards an early grave by the prudent pressures of every administration after Roosevelt. Pinching a comatose invalid’s respirator tube is something less than slaying a raging dragon.
We are further discouraged from cooperative action by a deep seated belief in the goodness of competition in all matters. If we were to assist other peoples and nations who have so plainly failed to develop sewage systems and useless trinket based economies on their own, what critical lessons about not living in your own filth and coveting expensive, pointless toys would thereby go unlearned? And there is an ironic analog to facets of Darwinian theory involved here as well. For though the more pious among us would not be descended from apes, they are nonetheless at ease with the idea of survival of the fittest, mapping neatly as it does onto the unassailable tenets of free enterprise and the market economy. Strong animals devour the weak, they note, it is nature’s plan. Which may be true. But as America transforms from a shining beacon into a bristling fortress, they might pause to consider how seldom successful animals devour those of their own species. Genetically distinct for no more than 100,000 years, humanity is still in a pre-release trial phase, by nature’s standards. It’s not to late for her to cancel the project altogether.
So let us review. Appeasement is bad. Cooperation with those you should be competing with is app
easement. And who should you be competing with?
Everyone, of course.
In better times, these self-serving urges coexist with the more compassionate and good-hearted aspirations of our citizenry and, by electoral extension, our government. But these are not better times, for now we are in great fear. We are afraid of terrorists. We are afraid of global warming. We are afraid we’ll get sick with no health insurance. We are afraid of immigrants. We are afraid of our credit card debt. We are afraid of gas prices. And while we don’t much care if the rest of the world hates us, we are deathly afraid that they will laugh at us. France most of all.
Yet our crisis presents a tremendous opportunity. There is ample historical evidence that great leaders can harness the energy latent in our anxiety and channel it in positive directions, revolutionizing our sense of ourselves and our role in the world. Unfortunately, none of that evidence is to be found in the last eight years, and none of those leaders are named Bush. So we strut brashly back and forth on the world stage, our shirt open to the navel, spewing profanity and reeking of booze as we inquire who at the bar–if any have not yet eaten–would like a knuckle sandwich? But let us pick two examples at random from the tome of reasons that we are idiots, and consider them in order of ascending degree of irony.
First, every step we are taking to insure our continued dominance is serving only to hasten our downfall. The economics of our strategy are disastrous. Soldiers cost a lot more than diplomats, and having them running around the middle east shooting people is making the locals nervous. That, in turn, drives up the price of oil, which drains what little cash we have and sends it right to those nice men with the framed picture of Osama Bin Laden on their wall. And when the President implores us to continue spending this Christmas, next Christmas, and every day in between, that only increases our consumer debt, already at Alice-in-Wonderland levels. All our guns aren’t going to be much use when we can’t afford any bullets.
Another facet of our “strength” is manifested in a disdain for multilateralism. Far from widening the power gap between us and other nations, our go-it-alone mentality is only accelerating the creation of new international combinations that don’t look to the U.S. as a center of gravity, if they even include as at all. The economy of the EU may soon rival ours in size. Much of the world is pursuing climate action without American participation. If we thought to discipline the world by threatening to uninvite them to our party, we’re finding instead that we’ve simply given them the push they needed to learn how to throw a party of their own. And in their minds, the best thing about their party is that a certain colossal asshole will not be in attendance.
There is a positive feedback loop that occurs here (note–“positive” in this instance is not the same as “good”). As each ill-conceived attempt to control the world blows up in our face, our anxiety level ramps up, eliciting ever more irrational and heavy handed reactions on our part. In short, it is suicidal, and in the end we will press our face into a pile of cocaine, shout “Say hello to my little friend!” and be cut in two by a shotgun blast from behind. Be sure to bring popcorn.
But the greatest irony about our policy of strength is that it is, like most indications of bravado, actually cowardice. We are what we most fear and despise–utter pussies. Confronted with the prospect of change, we cannot summon the courage to manage the process so as to mitigate the downside and conduct ourselves with the humanity and honor which are the only things of value in this life. Small wonder. The last generation to experience national hardship in this country is at this moment waiting for a nurse’s aid to roll them over and change their diapers. The rest of us equate our second cars and second homes with vital organs of our body; we could no more do without our wine chiller than our pancreas.
But rather than trying to horde our power, or beat other nations over the head with it, what if we actually invested it? What if we supported genuine freedom and democracy in Pakistan? In the short run we would lose some leverage against Islamic extremism there, and yes, some unreliable characters would get their fingers on the nuclear button. But Musharraf has delivered little of value to us, and arguably our support for him only enhances the Taliban’s power base in that country. In the long run, a significant change of course in our policy there would take the wind out of the fundamentalists’ sails.
And what if we engaged with Iran and at least kept them talking until their geriatric leadership croaks? The young people that make up a huge proportion of their population have western predilections, and will soon take over the country and be a friend to us. Unless we do something stupid. Like what we’re thinking of doing now.
What if we looked for a multilateral solution in Iraq? What if we made a genuine effort to address the question of Israel and the Palestinians? What if we actually packed up our forces in the middle east and left? These thoughts are Dick Cheney’s nightmares–which is reason enough to give them serious consideration–but such tactics would have universally positive effects. The threat of terrorism would wane considerably. We would save enough money to give health care to every American and still be able to take the whole country out for ice cream.
Change is coming, whatever we do. Why not display a little less strength. And a lot more courage.