A new year begins, and America must resolve to do different & better. Here’s a roadmap. It starts with clear eyes
William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney (Credit: AP/Janet Van Ham/Yves Logghe/Reuters/Larry Downing/Salon)
We have put away our argyle cardigans, drawn close to the fire, listened to the Crosby records, and roasted a few chestnuts for that God-sent aroma they give. Now, as we begin a new year, let’s think about what we all like to think about at holidays: Why is America in decline and just how far and fast is this going to go?
Cheerful New Year tidings to all, of course.
Anyone who thinks of America and its place in the world clearly and honestly understands, with no shred of doubt after the destructive year gone by, that this nation is now well into its late-imperial phase.
As history instructs us, two signs of an imperial power’s decline at this point in its story are blindness and deafness: It gives up all capacity to see the world as it is and takes no interest in what those dwelling in it have to say. Clear sight and open ears are unbearable, for both bring news that history’s wheel is turning and an era of primacy is passing into the past.
This is where we are as 2014 ends. It is not, I add instantly, where we have to be, only where we happen to be, where we have been led and find ourselves as we look to the year ahead.
A few years ago the words “decline” and “declinist” were much in debate. A declinist was not something a good American was supposed to be. The obfuscating chatterers on the opinion pages and in the magazines could hold these terms up for criticism because there was—apparently, not evidently—enough ground to stand on and dismiss the declinist’s point. Recall all this?
Now no one talks about decline, if you have not noticed—not because the triumphalists have won the argument but precisely because they have lost it. In the best American tradition, the topic falls away: It grows ever more obvious now that our leaders have put themselves and us on the road to decline.
If I can impose on your time a few extra seconds, please read that last sentence carefully once again. Two things in it we need to talk about now: “Our leaders,” as opposed to us, we the led. “Chosen,” said leaders having made choices and not simply accommodated the inevitable. To have a choice, by definition, means to have an alternative.
Many readers have questioned use of the term “we” in these columns over the past year. “Who is this ‘we’ doing this or that in Ukraine, Syria, across the Pacific or wherever?” they ask. They are right to do so, but only half right in refusing responsibility for America’s conduct abroad.
It has long been true that this nation’s foreign policy cliques think and act—often the latter while skipping the former—independently of any electorate. But the sharpening of this contradiction is among the significant realities to come to the fore in 2014. We are back in the pre-crisis years of the Vietnam period, in my estimation. A lot goes on people do not like.
I am not a declinist, as noted often in this space. Neither are many readers, if the interactivity and the Twitter accounts are any guide. I see nothing of myself reflected in either the objectives or the execution of American policy, not anywhere on the planet. Possible exceptions include the administration’s opening to Cuba and its “skin in the game” response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa.
O.K., policy may be made by a sequestered elite and not in our image, but it is nonetheless our responsibility. The goals and strategy are shaped in our names. We pay for the drones. This is why all my “we’s” have to stand.
The column has instructed the columnist in too many ways to count this past year, mostly because of the place readers have generously given it in their conversation. The thought has come home: One of the very largest boulders in the way of a re-imagined place for Americans among others is the failure of the political system.
This failure is now complete. At present there is no avenue open to meaningful expression of popular preferences on the foreign policy side. The conclusion is obvious: Better policy abroad requires better political arrangements at home. This is among our responsibilities, too.
To put this point another way, I see malign intent among the policy people, the military command and the national security “folks,” as Obama memorably referred to the NSA crowd when Edward Snowden was opening the lid on their Strangelovian doings. (Always be careful when this president uses the folksy “folks,” for he is usually trying to put something objectionable over on you. I loved “We tortured some folks.”)
That is at the top. Below I see an accumulating swell of opinion in search of a voice—a voice to insist that there are alternative ways for Americans to go at the 21st century. As noted a while ago, this column is less about policy per se than the broader topic of Americans among others.
In this connection, more and more of us understand that there are choices before us and we can—incredible as the thought may seem—make the right ones, the constructive ones.
Step 1: Recognize that these choices are there to be explored. Forget anyone touting TINA, the neoliberal mantra, “there is no alternative.”
Step 2: Start on all the obvious things arising out of Step 1.
In my read, we are at work on Step 1. This is why I am not a declinist even as there is no mileage in denying the road to decline we now travel.
Error and failure among our leaders, a gathering resolve in the name of humane good sense among the led. This is among my 2014 recognitions. The exception here is Pope Francis. Rome has very oddly elected a Latin American social democrat to the chair of St. Peter, and in consequence a notable man has emerged among the world’s leaders.
In the late-imperial phase, I find, optimism and pessimism seem to change places. This, too, is a pronounced feature of our moment.
On one hand, you have elites and their messengers in the media who incessantly insist that the course is right and all we have to do is stay it. The task is not to renovate anything but to remain faithful to the cult of the founding fathers. We cannot risk change or lose our nerve, for without us the world would fall into chaos.
This is advertised as optimism but is profoundly pessimistic on the very face of it. The working assumption is that we must always act out of belief, for to venture into thought is beyond our capacities. We did our thinking in the eighteenth century.
So you get, from the euphemism creators—Is there an office in Washington that cranks these out?—things like Operation Inherent Resolve, the bombing campaign against ISIS. The moniker tells us only that the Pentagon is going to keep this stuff going no matter how counterproductive it is.
Think about it: These are the optimists. In this crowd it is always TINA. On consideration the optimists turn out to be a frightened lot—frightened mostly of change and anything new.
On the other hand, there are those who insist that we Americans can do better, far, far better, and that we are capable of re-imagining our place in the community of nations—to everyone else’s benefit but also our own. We should think this through, the line goes, as our predicament belongs to us, not anyone of a previous time. We understand the past and the old beliefs but are not history’s prisoners.
To think anew is a necessity given the vast transformations the world has entered upon—rising aspirations everywhere, new poles of power, the limits of violent resolution now obvious. If we do this it will look like decline only to those too wanting in spirit to understand that we are what we choose to make of ourselves.
Think again: These are the pessimists, gutless wretches one and all. These are the nattering nabobs of negativism, the hysterical hypochondriacs of history. (And I have dreamed for years of my chance to deploy the phrases Bill Safire put into the immortal Spiro Agnew’s mouth.)
During my days as a correspondent I learned to distinguish between strong nations and the merely powerful. A good social fabric and a clear idea of purpose and limits make a nation strong. Think, say, of the Finns or the Norwegians. Or the Koreans, maybe. Germany has aspects of strength. Strength is endogenous, arising from within.
Powerful nations rely on military budgets and economic leverage. The powerful tend not to respect limits and their purpose is often a blur. Attaining and then maintaining power will shred the social fabric. Power is exogenous, like a brittle shell.
Let’s see, then. Germany, again, is powerful in some respects. China is getting there. And you know where we are headed from here.
America’s single greatest vulnerability now is its overweening power. It is because of it that the nation goes blind and deaf.
The torn social fabric, a tragedy in itself, is directly related to the position the fear-ridden leadership insists on claiming abroad. If anyone can state clearly what this nation is doing in the world without indulging in hollowed-out mythology and Disneyesque fairly tales, do step forward. We all want to hear the plan.
When the superpower has to telephone allies to assure them it will not torture their citizens, when it has to fend off prosecution in international courts for its criminal conduct, when it comes down to depending on everyone else’s fear of retribution to get things done, well, the superpower has reached a bad place.
Among the aspects of our time that continues to astonish is the speed with which events unfold. Maybe nothing that happened in the year now concluding is new—one of our calamities, indeed, is that we have done it all before—but the chaos American policy causes spreads ever more quickly. In the confrontation with Russia, for instance, we have come to the edge of real disaster in a matter of months: There could be war; sooner, there could be an economic crash.
Something else comes at us far faster than would have been guessed even a few years ago. This is the matter of lost opportunity. In its pursuit of chaos, America harms itself as well as others. We are losing out in the world as it now evolves.
The example here, noted in previous columns, is the formation of new economic and diplomatic partnerships. South-South and East-East ties proliferate in part because Washington makes South-North and East-West ever less appealing.
It has proven impossible to write about foreign affairs this year without becoming something of a media critic. The logic here should be evident. Few would argue that the American press has performed well on the foreign side since the earliest days of the Cold War. But the deterioration of overseas coverage is something else that has accelerated markedly this year.
I see two reasons for this, and they meet at the horizon.
One, as the late-imperial leadership acts ever more desperately, the long- unhealthy closeness of media to power leaves the former holding the bag. I cannot imagine there are not correspondents feeling betrayed as they are charged with reproducing untenable accounts of events and with leaving so much of the story out.
It is bad out there in medialand, and this is perilous. One understands that journalists have families, mortgages, consumer desires and so on, but I have no sympathy for those tolerating the worst excesses and corruptions.
Two, media have emerged this year as an instrument of aggression. “The information age is actually a media age,” John Pilger, the noted English journalist, said in a remarkable speech delivered in London earlier this month. “We have war by media, censorship by media, demonology by media, retribution by media, diversion by media—a surreal assembly line of obedient clichés and false assumptions.”
Taking this to the specific, Pilger had this to say on the Ukraine crisis, which has done much to worsen the crisis in the media:
The suppression of the truth about Ukraine is one of the most complete news blackouts I can remember. The biggest Western military build-up in the Caucasus and Eastern Europe since World War II is blacked out.
Washington’s secret aid to Kiev and its neo-Nazi brigades responsible for war crimes against the population of eastern Ukraine is blacked out. Evidence that contradicts propaganda that Russia was responsible for the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner is blacked out.
Back in the 1960s, the late and great Herbert Marcuse described ours as “a society without opposition.” In such a society, as he put it, we find “a paralysis of criticism,” which is the fault of a very unprincipled press. “Under these conditions,” he wrote, “our mass media have little difficulty in selling particular interests as those of all sensible men.”
Marcuse is supposed to have fallen way out of fashion, but I have never been with this. He is out of fashion simply because most of us cannot bear the truths about us he put in his books. “This society is irrational as a whole, he wrote. “Its productivity is destructive of the free development of human needs and faculties.”
All very pessimistic, it would seem. But anyone who has read the man knows that he was incurably optimistic, sometimes to a fault, maybe. Among his fundamental arguments was that the kind of change we must achieve now requires nothing short of a new consciousness, not a lot of tinkering at the margins, and I can find nothing to counter the theme.
At the behest of a reader, I have begun re-reading “One-Dimensional Man,” and I will finish it early in the new year. It is a good enough way to start over.
Elsewhere, in “Essay on Liberation,” Marcuse observed, “The temporary suppression of the rebellion will not reverse the trend.” Maybe I or a reader will find this in a fortune cookie some evening soon.
Patrick Smith is the author of “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century.” He was the International Herald Tribune’s bureau chief in Hong Kong and then Tokyo from 1985 to 1992. During this time he also wrote “Letter from Tokyo” for the New Yorker. He is the author of four previous books and has contributed frequently to the New York Times, the Nation, the Washington Quarterly, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter, @thefloutist.