Belmont Club

The Essay Read Round the World

Caroline Glick’s article on the foreign policy implications of Angelo Codevilla’s essay on America’s Ruling Class comes as Niall Ferguson is touring Australia warning that the end of American dominance may be imminent and sudden. Somehow the ideas in Codevilla’s essay are popping up everywhere, whether people have read it or not. Ferguson describes how rapidly empires can fall.

The Bourbon monarchy in France passed from triumph to terror with astonishing rapidity. The sun set on the British Empire almost as suddenly. The Suez crisis in 1956 proved that Britain could not act in defiance of the US in the Middle East, setting the seal on the end of empire.

But those things happen only to the denizens of history. People who live in the today usually think they are different. So despite evidence of dramatic change, people who have spent their whole lives among the policy certainties of the postwar period find it difficult to accept they may have to build a world of their own from first principles. Ferguson asks his audience: “what would you do in a world without America? Has the question even crossed your mind?”

Australia’s post-war foreign policy has been, in essence, to be a committed ally of the US. But what if the sudden waning of American power that I fear brings to an abrupt end the era of US hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region? Are we ready for such a dramatic change in the global balance of power? Judging by what I have heard here since I arrived last Friday, the answer is no. Australians are simply not thinking about such things.

But if the Australians are not thinking about it, the Chinese are certainly preparing for it. The Wall Street Journal recently noted that Beijing objected to the right of US naval vessels to exercise in the Yellow Sea, despite the fact that they are international waters. At least they used to be. Waters are only international if kept so by a powerful navy committed to the freedom of the seas.  People sometimes forget that treaties reflect realities rather than create them, no matter what the European Union may think. In another era the US would simply have bulled through. Not this time?  According to Greg Palkot at Fox “so, at the last minute, word came from the exercises would happen east of South Korea (and well east of China) in the Sea of Japan. U.S. officials denied to us there was any cave-in to Beijing.”

Ironically, the exercises themselves were designed to send a signal of resolution to North Korea following the Obama administration’s decision not to respond to the sinking of a South Korean frigate by the North. Palkot, who was present for the exercises, said “the signal being sent during our U.S. TV exclusive embedment: Solidarity with South Korea, Deterrence to North Korea.” The plan was to show China who’s who. In that the Obama administration eminently succeeded.

But from the run-up, to the end, the maneuvers were also marked by some mixed messages. …First there was the timing. Following the suspected sinking of the South Korea warship, the Cheonan, by a North Korean submarine, South Korea announced the exercises. …

Which were then delayed by the U.S.

The main reason given was diplomacy needed to play out, including efforts in the UN Security Council to come up with a strong resolution against Pyongyang.

Council member and North Korea ally China blocked that and a much weaker “statement” came out. So it was back to military might.

Next … where to hold the drills? South Korea apparently pushed for them to be held in the Yellow Sea where the incident occurred. And the U.S. seemed good with that.

But China wasn’t, complaining loudly about the drill being at its maritime front door.

The actual message sent was that America was afraid to mess with fourth-rate North Korea and even more afraid to mess with China.  But Glick is not surprised. “There is a clear foreign policy corollary to Codevilla’s discussion. Just as US bureaucrats, journalists, politicians and domestic policy wonks tend to combine forces to perpetuate and expand the sclerotic and increasingly bankrupt welfare state, so their foreign policy counterparts tend to collaborate to perpetuate failed foreign policy paradigms that have become writs of faith for American and Western elites.”  In other words, when it comes down to funding politics or funding defense, fund politics. Ferguson made the same point more starkly: “it is quite likely that the US could be spending more on interest payments than on defense within the next decade.”

If the love of money is the root of all evil, the lack of it is the cause of the fall of empires.  Ferguson gave some examples:

Think of Spain in the 17th century: already by 1543 nearly two-thirds of ordinary revenue was going on interest on the juros, the loans by which the Habsburg monarchy financed itself.

Or think of France in the 18th century: between 1751 and 1788, the eve of Revolution, interest and amortisation payments rose from just over a quarter of tax revenue to 62 per cent.

Finally, consider Britain in the 20th century. Its real problems came after 1945, when a substantial proportion of its now immense debt burden was in foreign hands. Of the pound stg. 21 billion national debt at the end of the war, about pound stg. 3.4bn was owed to foreign creditors, equivalent to about a third of gross domestic product.

Alarm bells should therefore be ringing very loudly indeed in Washington, as the US contemplates a deficit for 2010 of more than $US1.47 trillion ($1.64 trillion), about 10 per cent of GDP, for the second year running.

But alarm bells aren’t ringing in Washington. The entire alarm system has been disabled, disconnected, perhaps scrapped. Anyone who wants to turn it back on will have to root through the dumpster to see if any usable parts can still be retrieved. No better symptom of the absence of alarms is the genuine astonishment of Charles Rangel that it is illegal to break the law. Almost as a matter of course he concealed hundreds of thousands of dollars in income, used Congressional letterhead to solicit donations for private causes, took four rent controlled apartments for himself. Innocently. He probably didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. Things had been so sweet, so long that even after he was offered the chance to negotiate his way out of 13 separate violations of House rules and federal statutes he simply refused to believe it was happening.

Like Brecht’s fictional Atlantean who “the night the seas rushed in … still bellowed for their slaves,” the members of what Codevilla called the “ruling class” can’t believe it is happening. They still want their last dollar, their last perk. Literally, no matter what. “Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank caused a scene when he demanded a $1 senior discount on his ferry fare to Fire Island’s popular gay haunt, The Pines, last Friday. Frank was turned down by ticket clerks at the dock in Sayville because he didn’t have the required Suffolk County Senior Citizens ID. A witness reports, ‘Frank made such a drama over the senior rate that I contemplated offering him the dollar to cool down the situation.'”

The worst thing about the ferry incident is the possibility that if the witness had really offered Frank the dollar he might actually have taken it.  Automatically; out of conditioning, like a Pavlovian dog. The culture in which the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee rose to power is one in which it is OK to blithely borrow more money than the entire defense budget can service and yet refuse to spend one whole dollar of his own money. The ethos of that world can be captured in one phrase: “don’t you know who I am?” Earth to Barney Frank. Earth to Barney Frank. People know who you are. They also know what you are. You’re a member of a world where never mind what as long we’re the who. Asked to describe the 1,990 page, $894 billion health care bill, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said “it’s going to be very, very exciting,” [Congress has] “to pass the bill so you can find out what’s in it, away from the fog of controversy.”

The Codevilla essay is arresting not because of its originality but because it simply captures the common mood in a concise way. Its greatest virtue is unoriginality. It says everything we already know. The bell sounded was already cast in the foundry of public opinion. All Professor Codevilla did was take out a hammer and tap it. Five years ago the ideas in it would probably not have occurred to him. Had he written the essay as little as two years ago he would have been laughed to scorn.

Charles Rangel’s problem is that the old world has picked this moment to suddenly die underneath him. He won his last race with 89% of the vote, as big a margin as you can get outside of North Korea or Syria. Now he  faces 13 counts at the hands of colleagues who are his “friends,” but maybe not “friends” enough to lose their next election on his behalf. It’s unfair in a way. Nick Nyhart of the Huffington Post says that because the “whole system” is guilty, Charlie Rangel shouldn’t be singled out for punishment. He wants the Republicans on trial too and hopes Rangel doesn’t have to face ethics charges. “Rep. Rangel may be the one in the spotlight today, but it’s the whole system that’s guilty.” He might be right at that. But he should be careful what he wishes for. The road is like a river. Once you step on to it, there’s no telling where it takes you.

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