OK, Let's Decline
"Leading From Behind"
A recent report in The New Yorker suggested that the Obama’s administration’s weird sort of/sort of not foreign policy is now gleefully self-described as “leading from behind.” Not exercising leadership is a reflection, the article suggests, of Obama’s view that the U.S. is both disliked and in decline. Decline?
Here are some tidbits from the Ryan Lizza adulatory piece. The following I think is meant as a compliment:
“The one consistent thread running through most of Obama’s decisions has been that America must act humbly in the world. Unlike his immediate predecessors, Obama came of age politically during the post-Cold War era, a time when America’s unmatched power created widespread resentment. Obama believes that highly visible American leadership can taint a foreign-policy goal just as easily as it can bolster it.”
I supposed eliminating “unmatched power” would also eliminate “widespread resentment” — in that few are envious of the failed. Here is another assessment also offered as a tribute:
“One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as 'leading from behind.' That’s not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It’s a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength. 'It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world,' the adviser said. 'But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.'”
What the hell is “this phase”? Where are we “reviled” and by whom? Syria? Russia? Yemen? Somalia? Cuba?
Decline or Ascend?
Does “decline” mean inevitable collapse, like an aging person whose mind and body have become enfeebled? That was certainly the view of the ancients, who felt civilizations had finite life-spans (see Jacqueline de Romilly's The Rise and Fall of States According to Greek Authors.) Do environmental catastrophes, resource depletion, or foreign armies end societies? They can, as the complex pyramidal societies from the Minoans and Mycenaeans to the Mayans and Aztecs learned.
All that said, decline is far more often a choice, not a preordained destiny. There was no reason that Athens at 338 B.C. needed to lose to Philip at Chaironeia or even that the loss there meant the end of Greek freedom. Macedonian forces were a fraction of the size of a far larger Persian force that had swept from the north into a far weaker Athens in 480 B.C. No law said that drama of the quality of the Orestia, Oedipus, Ajax, Bacchae, and Medea had to give way to the sitcoms of Middle and New comedy of the fourth century B.C. By September 1945, England had far more of its industrial base intact than had Germany or Japan, and had suffered far fewer losses, both material and human, since 1939 than either of the defeated Axis powers whose entire national ideologies had been rendered bankrupt and their people reduced to global pariahs. Why, then, did a country that produced the sort of four-engine bombers en masse that its wartime adversaries could not, or a Spitfire fighter better than any produced by Japan or Germany until the advent of the jet, end up decades later with unsold Jaguars while Mercedes and Lexus swept world markets? And why did a bombed out Frankfurt and Tokyo (200,000 incinerated in March 1945 alone) rather quickly out-produce a less damaged Liverpool (e.g., 4,000 killed in the blitz) or Manchester? Clearly the UKchose a path in 1945-9 that a once flattened Germany and Japan did not.
If Rome was supposedly “doomed” by the 5th century A.D., why did the Eastern Empire last another 1,000 years? Why was 1978 America a very different place than either 1955 or 1985 or 1996? How did gas lines, stagflation, and malaise lead to the boom of the Reagan and Clinton years?
Our Choice, Not Others'
President Obama, listen carefully. By every benchmark, this should be an American century. Our known fossil fuel reserves are soaring, as new finds of coal, natural gas, oil, tar sands, and oil shale keep growing, not shrinking. Demographically, we are expanding; Europe, Japan, and China are shrinking.
We do not have the strikes of Europe, the violence of the Middle East, the state oppression of China. India has religious, social, and caste tensions unknown in the U.S. American farmland is the most productive in the world, its farmers the most gifted and innovative. We inherited a vast, developed infrastructure; out duty is to improve and expand it, not, as our ancestors had to, start from scratch building a Hoover Dam, intercontinental railroad, or port facilities in Oakland.
I remember growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the sheer amount of wealth creation since then staggers the imagination. I recall my parents taking me in 1962 to a dinner at a judge’s “mansion”: it was a 2000 sq. ft. ranch house in north Fresno — with three, repeat three, bathrooms -- an unheard of thing at that time — and a 15-foot kidney shaped swimming pool to boot! The sort of elite home that is solidly now middle class.
iPhones, Facebook, and Microsoft are culturally U.S. to the core; construction, computers, oil drilling, and refining are still American premier sciences. For all the talk of China, it would take the Chinese thirty years to acquire the expertise to launch and employ 10 effective carrier groups. To the degree an India or China is successful, it is because of emulation of the West, and the United States in particular. When I have my solo lunches in the new courtyard at the Stanford Business School, I stare at the number of foreigners networking in this global training station, where the world’s elites flock to shell out tens of thousands for the expertise and signature degree.
We see in the misadventure in Libya what the Europeans do without the U.S. military. Japan’s dense population and centralized mode of transportation, housing, and industry make it serially vulnerable to natural disasters in a way a dispersed, decentralized, and huge America is not. Our poor suffer far more from obesity than malnutrition; diabetes and clogged arteries, not scurvy and rickets, are the plagues of the underclass. Is driving a Kia that much less comfortable than a Mercedes, is hot water in Trump Towers hotter than a mile from my house in federally subsidized apartments? Does a middle seat on a 737 mean you are tortured and exploited while the “rich” zoom by in a Gulfstream? My local Wal-Mart parking lot yesterday in Selma — poorest section of one of the poorest counties in the most bankrupt state in America — had 3 BMWs, 3 Mercedes, 1 Jaguar, 2 Metros, 16 Camrys, 13 Accords, 21 newer double-cab pickups, and lots of late-model Civics, Nissans, and Kias among 82 cars. I counted them for this article; my statistically “poor” town did not look like Dickensian London. Wealth has been distributed to millions in a way once thought impossible. When did driving a Civic make you poor because someone else was driving a BMW, or why was living in a downtown Fresno condo unfair if someone else had one about the same size and with the same accoutrements in Santa Monica with a view of the ocean?
I could go on, so why does Mr. Obama see us in decline? Is it a wish rather than a descriptive assessment?
1) Debt. In 1999 we worried about the specter of paying off the debt and transmogrifying to creditor status. There are trillions of dollars produced annually in this country; it is a matter of redirecting the economy from consumption to savings, and to wealth creation from redistribution. The years 2004-5 seemed to me pretty fat when the federal budget was $2.3 trillion. Go back to those spending levels and we would more or less balance the budget. California is in extremis with a $25 billion annual budget shortage; read the state's newspapers and they are full of stories about notable state employees accused of retirement spiking, hefty profits at Google, record water levels in our reservoirs, and tiny houses in Santa Monica or Mountain View selling for over $1 million. There is money in the country, and money in California. If we had a leader that was willing to cut and ignore the furor, we could pile up surpluses rather quickly. The present fiscal policy is a choice to embrace redistribution and decline.
2) Energy. Known reserves of natural gas just keep getting larger. The amount of oil in the Dakotas, in Alaska, and offshore climbs too, even as cars are getting more efficient and new hybrids are getting better. There is enough natural gas and its derivatives to power quite easily a quarter of our fleet. Should we have a president who wished to drill, press natural gas as a transportation fuel, and shut up about “millions of green jobs” that so far means a subsidized 1-2% of energy production, we could do wonders on the energy front. Each barrel produced here rather than imported from Saudi Arabia means more money, more jobs, and enhanced national security. By asking other governments to pump more oil, as we insist that drilling and supply have no effect on prices, we want to become more indebted and dependent. Again, a choice, not a fate.
3) National security. For all the talk of Al Qaeda, the Bush anti-terrorism protocols — derided and then embraced and expanded by Obama — coupled with the terrible toll we took on Islamists in Anbar, and in Afghanistan, have meant that radical Islam is far weaker than it was in 2001, we far stronger. We are still spending less than 5% of GDP on defense. If we were to develop a strategic, consistent policy of bestowing our alliances and friendship on those who shared either our values or our notion of security, we could easily regain our strategic preeminence. “Leading from behind”? Does the president think Japan will rush to stop the North Koreans when they cross the 38th Parallel; does he believe France is going to air-lift spare parts to Tel Aviv when the Arabs again attack Israel? Leading from behind is like a person choosing to stay home from work – occasionally calling in to do a bit of business and usually being ignored. That too is a decision, not destiny.
4) Immigration. Close the border, institutionalize employer fines, finish the fence — and predicate legal entry into the U.S. not on race, nearness to the border, or the number of relatives in America, but on skills and capital. We would experience a renaissance. If were to end 500,000 illegal entries and replace them with 250,000 legal entries based on education and expertise, not national origin, proximity, or family connection, immigration would be one of our greatest strengths, rather than a continual effort to bolster political constituencies. Apparently, self-supporting, highly educated, confident immigrants from all regions of the globe are not one’s constituents, and therefore of no value politically. What would we do without "getting in their face" to "punish" the proper "enemies"?
5) Entitlements. Whether we adopt the Simpson-Bowles commission’s analyses, or just raise the retirement age, or follow Paul Ryan’s recommendations, there is a little discussed truth: we can make Social Security solvent and still support retired citizens in finer fashion than was true ten years ago. Borrowing to spend is a mood, a state of mind, not a death sentence. It can be reversed almost instantaneously — if it is recognized as a pathology, a sort of degeneration of the spirit.
We may well decline, and pass on a weaker, more divided, more insolvent and at-risk America to our children. But that is again, entirely a choice, not a fate. It is a decision that many prosperous, but tired and squabbling societies — 4th-century Athens, 5th-century A.D. Rome, 1950s Britain, 1970s America — chose willingly when they redistributed rather than created wealth, embraced envy rather than emulation as their collective creed, whined about not being liked rather than unapologetically assumed unpopularity is always the price of leadership and jealousy its constant twin, and talked of rationing, lectured on what they could not, rather than could, do, and made bickering between the generations, the sexes, the races, the classes, and tribes a national sport, rather than collectively and confidently looked forward to expanding, creating, and uniting in national purpose.
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