A recurring theme on this blog has been Muggeridge’s Law. As I wrote on April Fool’s Day of the very first year of this blog’s existence:
When Malcolm Muggeridge was the editor of the British satirical magazine Punch in the early 1960s, Khrushchev had announced he was going to tour England alongside its prime minister. Muggeridge wrote up a list of the silliest tour stops he could think of, and then put the article to bed, ready for publication. When the actual tour list was drawn up, he had to massively rewrite the article. At least half the tour stops in his satirical piece were actually on Khrushchev and the British PM’s agenda!
Which is why Muggeridge’s Law is: there is no way that a writer of fiction can compete with real life for its pure absurdity. How else do you explain, orbiting around April Fools’ Day, real headlines such as these?
Back then, I linked to some of the more outré then-current headlines, but as a commenter on Ann Althouse’s blog notes, in 2009, we’re in the middle of the Mother of All Muggeridge’s Law Moments:
This just reinforces my ongoing impression that we’ve been living out a satire for the past year or two. We elected a callow nobody as President on the strength of a few vacuous speeches. The healthcare debate — driving trillions of dollars in anticipated future expenditures — got turned around by comments someone scrawled on Facebook, and now the Nobel Peace Prize committee has decided to award prizes for good intentions. It’s like no one’s even serious about anything anymore. None of it matters. It’s the Society of the Spectacle.
Which is why, as Mark Steyn writes in his weekly syndicated column, that Obama winning the Nobel Prize tops SNL’s daring! edgy! attempt at presidential humor:
For these and other “extraordinary efforts” in “cooperation between peoples”, President Obama is now the fastest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in history. Alas, the extraordinary efforts of those first 12 days are already ancient history. Reflecting the new harmony of U.S.-world relations since the administration hit the “reset” button, The Times of London declared the award “preposterous,” and Svenska Freds (the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society) called it “shameful.” There’s something almost quaintly vieux chapeau about the Nobel decision, as if the hopeychangey bumper stickers were shipped surface mail to Oslo and only arrived last week. Everywhere else, they’re peeling off: The venerable lefties at Britain’s New Statesman currently have a cover story on “Barack W. Bush”.
Happily, there are still a few Americans willing to stand by Mister Saturday Night. “I am shocked at the mean-spirited comments,” wrote Judi Romaine to The Times in protest at all the naysaying. “I’m afraid I’ve registered into a very conversative [sic], fear-based world here but I’d like to suggest the incredible notion we all create our worlds in our conversations. What are you building by maligning rather than creating discourses for workability? Bravo to Obama and others working for people, however it appears to cynics.”
If that’s the language you have to speak when you’re “working for people,” I’d rather work for a cranky mongoose. Yet to persons who can use phrases like “creating discourses for workability” with a straight face, Obama remains an heroic figure. Like Judi Romaine, he works hard to “create our worlds in our conversations.” Why, only the other day, very conversationally, the administration floated the trial balloon that it could live with the Taliban returning to government in Afghanistan. A lot of Afghans won’t be living with it, but that’s their lookout.
This is – how to put this delicately? – something of a recalibration of Obama’s previous position. From about a year after the fall of Baghdad, Democrats adopted the line that Bush’s war in Iraq was an unnecessary distraction from the real war, the good war, the one in Afghanistan that everyone – Dems, Europeans, all the nice people – were right behind, 100 percent. No one butched up for the Khyber Pass more enthusiastically than Barack Obama: “As President, I will make the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban the top priority.” (July 15, 2008)
But that was then, and this is now. As the historian Robert Dallek told Obama recently, “War kills off great reform movements.” As the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne reminded the president, his supporters voted for him not to win a war but to win a victory on health care and other domestic issues. Obama’s priorities lie not in the Hindu Kush but in America: Why squander your presidency on trying to turn an economically moribund feudal backwater into a functioning nation state when you can turn a functioning nation state into an economically moribund feudal backwater?
Gosh, given their many assertions that Afghanistan is “a war we have to win” (Obama to the VFW, August 2008), you might almost think, pace Judi Romaine, that it’s the president and water-bearers like Gunga Dionne who are the “cynics.” In a recent speech to the Manhattan Institute, Charles Krauthammer pointed out that, in diminishing American power abroad to advance statism at home, Obama and the American people will be choosing decline. There are legitimate questions about our war aims in Afghanistan, and about the strategy necessary to achieve them. But, eight years after being toppled, the Taliban will see their return to power as a great victory over the Great Satan, and so will the angry young men from Toronto to Yorkshire to Chechnya to Indonesia who graduated from Afghanistan’s Camp Jihad during the 1990s. And so will the rest of the world: They will understand that the modern era’s ordnungsmacht (the “order maker”) has chosen decline.
Barack Obama will have history’s most crowded trophy room, but his presidency is shaping up as a tragedy – for America and the world.
So far, indeed it is — and it’s a reminder that however absurd today’s elites seem, their actions have real-world consequences, particular for America’s future, as the aforementioned Charles Krauthammer writes:
There is no free lunch. Social democracy and its attendant goods may be highly desirable, but they have their price–a price that will be exacted on the dollar, on our primacy in space, on missile defense, on energy security, and on our military capacities and future power projection.
But, of course, if one’s foreign policy is to reject the very notion of international primacy in the first place, a domestic agenda that takes away the resources to maintain such primacy is perfectly complementary. Indeed, the two are synergistic. Renunciation of primacy abroad provides the added resources for more social goods at home. To put it in the language of the 1990s, the expanded domestic agenda is fed by a peace dividend–except that in the absence of peace, it is a retreat dividend.
And there’s the rub. For the Europeans there really is a peace dividend, because we provide the peace. They can afford social democracy without the capacity to defend themselves because they can always depend on the United States.
So why not us as well? Because what for Europe is decadence–decline, in both comfort and relative safety–is for us mere denial. Europe can eat, drink, and be merry for America protects her. But for America it’s different. If we choose the life of ease, who stands guard for us?
The temptation to abdicate has always been strong in America. Our interventionist tradition is recent. Our isolationist tradition goes far deeper. Nor is it restricted to the American left. Historically, of course, it was championed by the American right until the Vandenberg conversion. And it remains a bipartisan instinct.
When the era of maximum dominance began 20 years ago–when to general surprise a unipolar world emerged rather than a post-Cold War multipolar one–there was hesitation about accepting the mantle. And it wasn’t just among liberals. In the fall of 1990, Jeane Kirkpatrick, -heroine in the struggle to defeat the Soviet Union, argued that, after a half-century of exertion fighting fascism, Nazism, and communism, “it is time to give up the dubious benefits of superpower status,” time to give up the “unusual burdens” of the past and “return to ‘normal’ times.” No more balancing power in Europe or in Asia. We should aspire instead to be “a normal country in a normal time.”
That call to retreat was rejected by most of American conservatism (as Pat Buchanan has amply demonstrated by his very marginality). But it did find some resonance in mainstream liberalism. At first, however, only some resonance. As noted earlier, the liberal internationalism of the 1990s, the center-left Clintonian version, was reluctant to fully embrace American hegemony and did try to rein it in by creating external restraints. Nonetheless, in practice, it did boldly intervene in the Balkan wars (without the sanction of the Security Council, mind you) and openly accepted a kind of intermediate status as “the indispensable nation.”
Not today. The ascendant New Liberalism goes much further, actively seeking to subsume America within the international community–inter pares, not even primus–and to enact a domestic social agenda to suit.
So why not? Why not choose ease and bask in the adulation of the world as we serially renounce, withdraw, and concede?
Because, while globalization has produced in some the illusion that human nature has changed, it has not. The international arena remains a Hobbesian state of nature in which countries naturally strive for power. If we voluntarily renounce much of ours, others will not follow suit. They will fill the vacuum. Inevitably, an inversion of power relations will occur.
Do we really want to live under unknown, untested, shifting multipolarity? Or even worse, under the gauzy internationalism of the New Liberalism with its magically self-enforcing norms? This is sometimes passed off as “realism.” In fact, it is the worst of utopianisms, a fiction that can lead only to chaos. Indeed, in an age on the threshold of hyper-proliferation, it is a prescription for catastrophe.
Heavy are the burdens of the hegemon. After the blood and treasure expended in the post-9/11 wars, America is quite ready to ease its burden with a gentle descent into abdication and decline.
Decline is a choice. More than a choice, a temptation. How to resist it?
First, accept our role as hegemon. And reject those who deny its essential benignity. There is a reason that we are the only hegemon in modern history to have not immediately catalyzed the creation of a massive counter-hegemonic alliance–as occurred, for example, against Napoleonic France and Nazi Germany. There is a reason so many countries of the Pacific Rim and the Middle East and Eastern Europe and Latin America welcome our presence as balancer of power and guarantor of their freedom.
And that reason is simple: We are as benign a hegemon as the world has ever seen.
So, resistance to decline begins with moral self-confidence and will. But maintaining dominance is a matter not just of will but of wallet. We are not inherently in economic decline. We have the most dynamic, innovative, technologically advanced economy in the world. We enjoy the highest productivity. It is true that in the natural and often painful global division of labor wrought by globalization, less skilled endeavors like factory work migrate abroad, but America more than compensates by pioneering the newer technologies and industries of the information age.
There are, of course, major threats to the American economy. But there is nothing inevitable and inexorable about them. Take, for example, the threat to the dollar (as the world’s reserve currency) that comes from our massive trade deficits. Here again, the China threat is vastly exaggerated. In fact, fully two-thirds of our trade imbalance comes from imported oil. This is not a fixed fact of life. We have a choice. We have it in our power, for example, to reverse the absurd de facto 30-year ban on new nuclear power plants. We have it in our power to release huge domestic petroleum reserves by dropping the ban on offshore and Arctic drilling. We have it in our power to institute a serious gasoline tax (refunded immediately through a payroll tax reduction) to curb consumption and induce conservation.
Nothing is written. Nothing is predetermined. We can reverse the slide, we can undo dependence if we will it.
The other looming threat to our economy–and to the dollar–comes from our fiscal deficits. They are not out of our control. There is no reason we should be structurally perpetuating the massive deficits incurred as temporary crisis measures during the financial panic of 2008. A crisis is a terrible thing to exploit when it is taken by the New Liberalism as a mandate for massive expansion of the state and of national debt–threatening the dollar, the entire economy, and consequently our superpower status abroad.
There are things to be done. Resist retreat as a matter of strategy and principle. And provide the means to continue our dominant role in the world by keeping our economic house in order. And finally, we can follow the advice of Demosthenes when asked what was to be done about the decline of Athens. His reply? “I will give what I believe is the fairest and truest answer: Don’t do what you are doing now.”
Read the whole thing. 2010 and 2012 loom large to determine whether the rendezvous with scarcity will be temporary or seemingly near-permanent.