David Brooks argues today that the US is suffering death by a thousand cuts.
As far back as the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, dominant powers tried to establish procedures and norms to secure national borders and protect diversity. Hegemons like the Nazis or the Communists tried to challenge this system, but the other powers fought back.But now, he says, that system is under attack.
China, Russia and Iran have different values, but all oppose this system of liberal pluralism. The U.S. faces a death by a thousand cuts dilemma. No individual problem is worth devoting giant resources to. It’s not worth it to spend huge amounts of treasure to establish stability in Syria or defend a Western-oriented Ukraine. But, collectively, all the little problems can undermine the modern system. No individual ailment is worth the expense of treating it, but, collectively, they can kill you.This is what happened to the Roman Empire as well. No one factor destroyed it -- barbarian invasions, exhaustion of resources, a resurgent Persian Empire that forced the Empire to gut resources from the West, Christianity. But together, all these factors contributed to its downfall.
The problem, Brooks says, is selling the American public on the need to prop up the pluralistic system of international alliances needed to counteract these threats.
Moreover, people will die for Mother Russia or Allah. But it is harder to get people to die for a set of pluralistic procedures to protect faraway places. It’s been pulling teeth to get people to accept commercial pain and impose sanctions.I submit that until we provide for our peoples' basic needs as a country, we are not going to get them to care about Ukraine or Syria or any other hot spot in the world. Here is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. This is the updated version that he put out around 1970.
1. Biological and Physiological needs - air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep, etc.First of all, there are far too many homeless people in this country. Yet cities are making laws against homelessness instead of providing for their basic needs. The second tier is security, order, law, limits, and stability. That might include such things as roads and bridges, water, electricity, and gas. Yet our roads and bridges are deteriorating, our highway departments are getting less and less money to keep our roads in good shape. And our country has $1 trillion of work to do over the next few decades as water systems built in the 19th century crumble and have to be replaced.
2. Safety needs - protection from elements, security, order, law, limits, stability, etc.
3. Social Needs - Belongingness and Love, - work group, family, affection, relationships, etc.
4. Esteem needs - self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility, etc.
5. Cognitive needs - knowledge, meaning, etc.
6. Aesthetic needs - appreciation and search for beauty, balance, form, etc.
7. Self-Actualization needs - realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.
8. Transcendence needs - helping others to achieve self actualization.
These are just examples; I could list many more. But a government like ours that has a responsibility to protect stability around the world has an obligation to first provide for the needs of all its citizens, starting with getting homeless off the streets and providing for everyone's basic needs as much as possible. The final point on the hierarchy is "transcendence needs." If you want to know why the people aren't sold on the need to intervene in Iran, Syria, or Ukraine, it is because people aren't going to start caring about the rest of the world until their basic needs are met. Don't get me wrong; this is not an argument to use force; this is an argument that we must create wealth and prosperity for all if we are to get people to care.
When Bill Clinton was President, he was able to sell the people on Bosnia and on containing Iraq precisely because we were in the process of creating 20 million new jobs, putting thousands of new police officers on the streets, and creating record budget surpluses. But now, after the Great Recession, it is much more difficult to sell people on the need to protect stability in part because there are too many people we know who have dropped out of the work force due to the inability to find a new job. And we know of too many people personally who are in that situation.
So when you hear a Republican advocating cuts to social spending so that they can line the pockets of their millionaire contributors, we can remind the people that their policies would enable Putin and China to continue their plots to undermine the social fabric that has been a restraining influence over the last four centuries.