I think Peter Beinart is probably onto something when he says that Obama is leading us into a post-America world. Whether you want to argue that this is because our country is so financially strapped, or because we've lost our appetite for costly military intervention, or because the president is secretly working to undermine American hegemony, there are a lot of people who are profoundly uncomfortable about seeing America act on the world stage in anything less than a clearly-defined leadership role.
Then, Beinart's piece:
Some commentators love the Libya war; others hate it. But most agree that it’s profoundly unnatural that we were pushed into it by… France. Welcome to the post-American world. In the age we’re entering, most of the time, the choice will no longer be between humanitarian interventions controlled by the United States and humanitarian interventions where other nations take the lead. The choice will be between humanitarian interventions where other nations take the lead and no humanitarian interventions at all.
For a journalist, Beinart does well in the article. For a journalist not because there's a problem with journalism but because journalists are trained to report the short term and do so well. Beinart shows himself a broad thinker but is hemmed in by the formal limits of the newspaper article. He needs to write a paper on it as my impression is that he'd write an excellent one. I'd point out that the bit about France is idiotic. France is a major imperialist power and the United States knows it. France is a partner in crime, and its refusal to sign off in 2003 in the Security Council was that of a partner, not an adversary. Beinhart should know this and avoid a cheap shot that, out of alignment with fact, is bound to both miss and mislead.
I will confess that I had bet that Obama would not order a military intervention. Immanuel Wallerstein did, too: more on him later. I am well aware that Obama is no dove, as he stresses this point at every opportunity. It seems to me, and a ton of other people, that he has democratic instincts coupled with pragmatism on Alinsky's model. My impression as I've pointed out in a couple comment threads is that Obama's decision was not a matter of taking sides in internal White House politics, siding with H. Clinton against Gates, but rather I imagine the sense that intervention was going to happen: witness that jackass Sarkozy. Properly put, jackass is not an analytically valid category, but Sarkozy has as long as I've been aware of him evinced some unseen power to repel analytical validity. The secret to his success has, here, been unveiled: notify Le Monde. Obama will not allow a party to take place without at minimum being on the guest list plus one. He accepts the functional existence of national interest and will not oppose it, and as it is in the US national interest, or at least that of the state, to have more rather than less influence in the world, the US must participate. I don't think that myself, I hasten to say. Obama weighed pros and cons differently than I did, obviously.
At some point I'll write a piece, possibly degenerating into a rant, about all this talk about "humanitarian military intervention." The short story is that the second adjective trumps the first, and trumps it always. Our point now is the relatively serious public discussion of American decline, or more generally and simultaneously precisely imperial decline. It's good that, 1973 having arrived almost forty years ago, some people are starting to realize that at some point this country is going to have to put down its bottle or its drinking will kill it.
In one of Thich Nhat Hanh's books, can't remember which, he made the point that a the question at any moment is "how do I know?" Of course he's not the first person to say this, but it bears examination nonetheless. Marx, too, showed his Buddha nature: "merciless criticism of everything existing."
At hand, we need to examine decline. The formal means of public discourse, the short article or television report, mitigates against such an examination, and therefore the thing--American decline--the existence or non-existence of which and nature of that we would need to demonstrate by argument becomes an assumption from which the argument proceeds. Not a sound process.
So, decline: how do we know? One knows by measurement and there are ways we can measure these things. Annual GDP growth is a variable of choice in this discussion. Here we go:
That's a decline all right, quantified at -2.6%. Viz., a well-sourced Wikipedia article:
Bear in mind that the article does not refer only to the US but to the world economy generally, in which the US acted as hegemon. The point hopefully is clear enough and I'll call blogger's privilege to not keep digging for data on the assumption that we all know it's there.
We can stop here, and then proceed forward, if we choose, or we can follow Thay's instruction, and now say: "GDP shows us if a country is going up or down. How do we know?" You can see where I'm going with this but I'll go there nonetheless. It doesn't cost any more to write, publish, or read this if I do or if I don't.
The first choice is the most common. We accept GDP, or any other measures, as having some inherent validity in and of themselves. I'm not at all suggesting that we abandon measurement. On the contrary, we need it and we need to increase the role of measurement in our discourse and diminish the role of ideology. From a left perspective, the more we put facts on the table the more our side takes the day. What we need to do, however, is be clear about what measurement is. Dig:
That's Heisenberg. We refer to him only for general guidance: the way we measure things conditions the measurement itself. GDP is a particularly problematic--not invalid, but problematic--measurement, and people with more expertise in the subject than me have ably elaborated on this. The basic problem for our discussion is that GDP is not terribly meaningful for anything I care about unless it is cross-referenced with distribution of income. In a nutshell, high growth can be accompanied by increasing inequality. We can see "growth!" when in fact life is becoming financially harder for some or most people if the increase in the top quintile, to grab an example, is sufficiently large to compensate and then some for decline in the others. Americans: look around you and remember our lives since 1973. I have no need to prove this point since you are living it.
So, decline. The point that does not get mentioned on TV is that GDP could halve in the United States while quality of life, measured by other means, could double. Look at Bhutan's GNH, for example:
The Bhutanese grounding in Buddhist ideals suggests that beneficial development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other. The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance. At this level of generality, the concept of GNH is transcultural—a nation need not be Buddhist in order to value sustainable development, cultural integrity, ecosystem conservation, and good governance. Through collaboration with an international group of scholars and empirical researchers the Centre for Bhutan Studies further defined these four pillars with greater specificity into eight general contributors to happiness- physical, mental and spiritual health; time-balance; social and community vitality; cultural vitality; education; living standards; good governance; and ecological vitality. Although the GNH framework reflects its Buddhist origins, it is solidly based upon the empirical research literature of happiness, positive psychology and wellbeing
One would then object that the United States is no Bhutan, or vice versa depending on your politics. Sometimes the boss drinks a little harder than the lemmings of the office, because he bears upon him the weight of the world, while they can be carefree. And he's getting older. He tires more easily than he used to, and doesn't snap back the next morning after a bender last night. Indeed, his hangover often lasts until dinner. This is us in America, in 2011. So, what happens when the boss finally has too much of the shakes and calls it a day? Clement Attlee can tell us.
Let everyone know, the greedy on the right and unimaginative on the slightly left, that it was only when Great Britain explicitly renounced empire and embraced decolonization in 1945--because that imperialist bastard Winston Churchill won the war but, deservedly, lost the election, doomed to drift like a well-spoken John McCain to any midwestern University that would invite him to make a speech--that the riches of Brit Rail and National Health shower upon the actual people of Britain.
Great Britain remains a rich country. Great Britain continues to suck wealth out of the Global South like, not so much a leech but a vampire, not alive as once but definitely not dead nor dying. Great Britain is by no means making the world a better place. The point is that once Great Britain acknowledged it could not remain the world's hegemon
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
it could actually use its wealth as a society for its society. Imperial decline is something to be embraced, because it makes like better for people, even measured materially. They don't report this on Fox News, nor CNN, nor the Grey Lady, nor any of the capitalist media in this country. They don't want people to know. But, like Prince before me, I'm here to tell you: there's something else. We embrace decline, because it is on balance a good thing if we play our cards right and invest in ourselves, socially.
The second Bush was the first fully Post-American President. He's the one who played his decline cards wrong. It's difficult to know what Bush himself did or did not think, at any given moment, but it's clear Cheney, showing if not telling the thought of the truly evil who fear in death the inevitability of the Christian Hell as payment for their sins, so they do everything to stave it off. The cryogenically preserved and, in his own way equally evil Disney is worth noting.
We grant that Disney wasn't actually frozen, but he was an undeniably awful man, like Cheney is. Disney would have probably, as did Cheney, sign on to this in 1997:
We are in danger of squandering the opportunity and failing the challenge. We are living off the capital -- both the military investments and the foreign policy achievements -- built up by past administrations. Cuts in foreign affairs and defense spending, inattention to the tools of statecraft, and inconstant leadership are making it increasingly difficult to sustain American influence around the world. And the promise of short-term commercial benefits threatens to override strategic considerations. As a consequence, we are jeopardizing the nation's ability to meet present threats and to deal with potentially greater challenges that lie ahead.
That as a statement of principles, such as they were, presumes a decline already under way. PNAC's goal was to reverse, so to speak, the flow of history, and keep using forever. To do this, the United States needed to go all Keith Richards and get a transfusion: witness Iraq and its pretext, Afghanistan. Again, I know Keith Richards didn't actually get a transfusion, but dammit if the US didn't give it a try.
I am absolutely convinced that the current President means it when he says "win the future," clearly the 2012 slogan, many have noted. I'm equally convinced that he means it, but uses it tactically. Surely nobody is going to actually press him on what he means by "win," like change didn't need to be defined in 2008. It's clear to me that while Obama may idolize Lincoln, admire Reagan, and get compared unfavorably to FDR by left liberals, in his heart he hoped to be a Clement Attlee, the guy who brought the British Empire to a soft landing. That metaphor I sense spontaneously is a gift that keeps on giving, because we know that the second President Bush had a very chequered career as a pilot, and indeed seemed compelled by his co-pilot to crash the thing. Maybe in this sense Obama might have hoped to have been, as he entered the transition in 2008, Sully Sullenberger. Indeed, my own thought is that the transition was the most important part of Obama's Presidency, his "oh s#$t" moment. It's clear that the previous Administration knew but hid how in trying to reverse history's flow--a metaphor, to be sure--they actually sped up American imperial decline. Obama found this out in mid-November 2008.
Immanuel Wallerstein is well-enough known, but not often-enough referenced outside of a certain strain of Monthly Review reading leftists, of which I am a part. Arguments that capital cannot rebut it marginalizes, we know this. We will reference Wallerstein here, after we reference the Buddha, critical theorist #1, as he exited this fleeting world as a flash of lightning in a summer cloud:
Conditioned things are perishable;
with vigilance strive to succeed.
Conditioned things: things that come into being given certain conditions. Like us. Perishable: the translation is what it is, but might but it might be better said (I don't know Pali but I do know English) that all things that come into conditioned being must by that fact go out of conditioned being as such. This bears directly on imperialism. Were one to accept the desirability of establishing empire--slaughtering people who don't deserve it, destroying all culture, even your own, and generally degrading our species and every other--to do it well one must approach its end in its beginning, as to live well requires that one do so with death in mind.
Now, to Wallerstein, from 2003. In the thick of it, we might remember.
How come at the moment we are living through a particularly aggressive and egregious form of imperialism, which for the first time in over a hundred years has been ready to use the words “imperial,” and “imperialism”? Why should they do that? Now, the answer most people give in one word is U.S. strength. And the answer I will give in one word is U.S. weakness.
Of course he was right. Neither was this weakness new.
The threefold fact of the rise of economic rivals, the world revolution of 1968 and its impact on mentalities across the world, and Vietnam’s defeat of the United States, all taken together, mark the beginning of the decline of the United States.
How could the rulers of the United States handle the loss of hegemony? That has been the problem ever since. There were two dominant modes of handling this loss of hegemony. One is that pursued from Nixon through Clinton, including Ronald Reagan, including George Bush, senior. All these presidents of the United States handled it the same way, basically a variant of the velvet glove hiding the mailed fist.
Bush--these are my words, not Wallerstein's--was the first Post-American President, as those listed above, Nixon through Clinton, pursued a more or less rational policy to lengthen the period of decline which all understood as more or less inevitable, witnessing the warm relations with China that each had. Then:
Enter the hawks. The hawks do not see themselves as the triumphant continuation of U.S. capitalism or U.S. power or anything else. They see themselves as a group of frustrated outsiders who for fifty years did not get their way even with Ronald Reagan, even with George Bush, senior, even with George Bush, Jr. before 9/11. They are still worried that George Bush, Jr. will chicken out on them. They think that the policy that went from Nixon to Clinton to the first year of George W. Bush, of trying to handle this situation, diplomatically, multilaterally—I call it the velvet glove—was an utter failure. They think it just accelerated the decline of the United States and they think that had to be changed radically by engaging in an egregious, overt, imperial action—war for the sake of war. They did not go to war on Iraq or Saddam Hussein because he was a dictator. They did not go to war on Iraq even for oil. I will not argue that point here, but they did not need the war on Iraq for oil. They needed it to show the United States could do it, and they needed that demonstration in order to intimidate two groups of people: (1) anybody in the third world who thinks that they should engage in nuclear proliferation; and (2) Europe. This was an attack on Europe, and that is why Europe responded the way it did.
Bearing in mind that this is 2003:
The hawks have not won the game. They have grabbed hold of the U.S. state machinery; 9/11 made that possible. And the hawks know it is now or never and they will continue to push, because if they don’t push forward, they will fall back. But they have no guarantee of success, and some of their biggest enemies are other capitalists who do not like the line with Europe and Japan because they basically do believe in the unity of capital; who don’t think that the way you handle these things is by smashing all opposition, but would prefer to co-opt it. They are extremely worried that this is Samson pulling down the house.
As we saw, Samson did indeed pull down the house. Enter Obama, who it is very clear to me thought that the Attlee model of imperial decline was the best realistic possibility. Dismantle empire, spend domestically. Politics intervened, but even then the last Congress still passed, as sober observers--or rather, observers who actually observe rather than merely pontificate--more "progressive" legislation than any since Johnson. Obama has gotten we might say 80% of what he wanted, and that in Alinsky's model--not necessarily mine--is a 100% success.
Having said that, and it's time to close, it's very clear that political considerations in the United States will make its decline less beneficial for its people than Great Britain's. Less overt and covert racism in the electorate, combined with a Parliamentary system, would really help right now.
Crossposted at http://palaverers.wordpress.com/