I read two things this week, and they – between them – nailed what I’ve believed for a long time.
They are about the change in role and position of the United States; one is purely historic, and one prescriptive (note that I’m dubious about the prescription)…
The issue, of course is the decline – certainly in relative and potentially in absolute degree – of the United States. Decline economically, which in turn leads to decline politically and militarily.
One is an instablog over at Seeking Alpha, the investment site, by some guy named Steven Graves. He makes, succinctly, a point that I deeply believe in:
Consider the circumstance of the US at the conclusion of the Second World War:
1) As a result of the enormous arms build up, approximately half of the world’s industrial capacity resided on US soil.
2) We possessed two-thirds of the known gold reserves on the planet.
3) To help fund the war effort 85 million Americans had “saved” $185.7 billion by purchasing bonds (equivalent to Americans saving $2.26 trillion today).
4) A half decade of rationing had pent up an overwhelming reservoir of consumer demand.
5) Our primary economic competitors had all been ravaged by warfare while our infrastructure had thrived.
When had any nation, since the dawn of the industrial age, enjoyed such a staggering advantage over every other nation? It had never happened before and almost certainly never will again, so it is little surprise that such an unprecedented advantage would subsequently translate into a generation of unparalleled growth and prosperity. By the 1970s, however, the world was catching up. US economic hegemony was being directly challenged by rival powers and US industries, many of which had slackened into complacent oligopolies, sluggishly adapted to foreign competition. For their part, US workers, whose wages and benefits had soared during the boom years, were increasingly forced to compete with cheap foreign labor. Add to this the unfortunate fact America’s domestic energy supply had peaked in 1970 and the vine was ripe for stagflation as President Carter urged his fellow Americans to “face the truth” in his infamous Malaise Speech of 1979.
There’s a level of inevitability in this – it would have been virtually impossible to have maintained the kind of economic gap that existed at the end of WW II – as well as a level of virtue – the world is better off with more prosperity wider spread than with less.
We’ve clearly done a bad job with what we were given as well – squandered when we should have invested, raised generations of critical theorists, filmmakers and lawyers when we needed entrepreneurs and engineers. But overall, all it would have done is to have slowed the changeover.
The question, of course, is what that means.
Robert Wright, over at the NYT, has a thoughtful – and I think off-base – article in which he moves from the historic point to a policy one.
People who, like me, raise questions about the value of global military engagement are sometimes called “isolationists.” But that term rightly applies only to people who don’t realize that there are threats to our security out there. If you perceive the threats but realize that they’re collective action problems, you realize that we do have to be involved in their solution.
What form should the involvement take? Funny you should ask! This is my last Opinionator column (maudlin details below, in the postscript), and I just realized that in my year of writing the column I’ve given short shrift to one of my main hobby horses: global governance.
Global governance is the solution to international collective action problems. The problems can range from environmental (it doesn’t make sense for any one nation to cut carbon emissions unless others join in) to financial (as when nations coordinate policy to head off a contagious financial panic). But the most prominent symbol of global governance – the United Nations – was created mainly to deal with the problem under discussion here: keeping the peace. The United Nations Security Council is a mechanism through which threats to peace can be recognized, the military action necessary to deal with them authorized, and the burdens of that military action shared.
That’s gonna work well…
Look, the United Nations is the organization that puts brutal dictators on the Human Rights Commission. The smurfs – the blue helmeted soldiers acting under UN control – consistently fail in their missions, where they aren’t trafficking in underage sex. It is one of the most deeply corrupt and ineffective organizations on the planet, and the notion that we can simply toss them the keys to world security, sit back and open a cold one and then catch a Jets game while the world takes care of itself is flatly ridonkulous. As Joe K frequently mentions his favorite Owen Wilson quote…”What in our history together makes you think I’m capable of something like that?“
Look, it’s one thing to make a policy proposal. It’s another to make one so loopily ungrounded in actual history.
Wright wraps up saying
If we’re smart, we’ll use what’s left of this moment to craft instruments of global governance that will assure our security even in a world we don’t dominate … and will also equitably distribute the costs of international security. We’ll show people how to build a world in which we can all, without fear of being attacked, reduce the amount of money we spend on arms.
We do need to craft those instruments. But they will look much more like alliances with Brazil, India, and the Anglosphere than like yielding our authority and power to the control of the UN or one of the existing global agencies.
We need to do something, and we need to start doing it soon. But let’s not confuse something with anything.