Today I am Going to Fly

Some men are born posthumously. ~Nietzsche

The Retreat Dividend

Posted by penuruloki on October 13, 2009

Charles Krauthammer has a new piece in the Weekly Standard that is, quite frankly, an amazing read to understand what is before us down the road the liberals are taking us. As he says, Decline is a Choice. And the agenda of the liberals in charge is exactly to choose decline over renewal.

It seems like a harsh charge. Calling the opposition “anti-American” is an easy slur, used by both Conservatives when Bush was in office trying to win support for the war in Iraq, and now by Liberals with Obama in office trying to push through significant changes in the American economy and Health Care system. The reality is more nuanced. The reality is that liberals are pursuing an agenda of reduced American influence in the world, and declining economic preeminence, while conservatives push for a more dynamic, open domestic environment and a foreign policy deliberately designed to secure a stable world system. Neither one is a direct assault on America per se, but an attempt to remodel America to match their vision. The liberal vision however, depends on the decline of American power and influence.

[T]he ultimate purpose of [New Liberalism’s] foreign policy is to make America less hegemonic, less arrogant, less dominant.In a word, it is a foreign policy designed to produce American decline–to make America essentially one nation among many. And for that purpose, its domestic policies are perfectly complementary.

Domestic policy, of course, is not designed to curb our power abroad. But what it lacks in intent, it makes up in effect. Decline will be an unintended, but powerful, side effect of the New Liberalism’s ambition of moving America from its traditional dynamic individualism to the more equitable but static model of European social democracy.

This is not the place to debate the intrinsic merits of the social democratic versus the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism. There’s much to be said for the decency and relative equity of social democracy. But it comes at a cost: diminished social mobility, higher unemployment, less innovation, less dynamism and creative destruction, less overall economic growth.

Liberals want to trade our current incarnation for one modeled on Western Europe. The first question is “Do we want to be like Europe?” Certainly we all have different answers, depending on our own situation and the particular trait we’re looking at. “Free” health care sounds great to some. Others don’t like the sound of having hired goons going around checking our trash bins to make sure we’re recycling. We don’t necessarily get to pick and choose what we want. It tends to come as a package deal. The second question has to be “What is it going to cost us?”

There is always a cost. Economics refers to “opportunity cost,” the value of the next most desirable alternative. Cost can sometimes be measured in monetary terms, but money is not always the next most desired option. Regardless, there is always some alternative that is forsaken to get anything. The next most desirable alternative is this case is most obviously what we have now.

Growth provides the sinews of dominance–the ability to maintain a large military establishment capable of projecting power to all corners of the earth. The Europeans, rich and developed, have almost no such capacity. They made the choice long ago to devote their resources to a vast welfare state. Their expenditures on defense are minimal, as are their consequent military capacities.

I can’t put it in better terms than Krauthammer does. Heed these words well:

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?

This is not a new struggle. This has been the struggle of the conservative movement against the liberal movement of the past half century. In the words of the late great Ronald Reagan, spoken during the campaign of 1964:

Not too long ago, two friends of mine were talking to a Cuban refugee, a businessman who had escaped from Castro, and in the midst of his story one of my friends turned to the other and said, “We don’t know how lucky we are.” And the Cuban stopped and said, “How lucky you are? I had someplace to escape to.” And in that sentence he told us the entire story. If we lose freedom here, there’s no place to escape to. This is the last stand on earth.

The promises of the liberals, on health care, the economy, their foreign policy, are all based on a lie. They are trying to promise the security and comfort of Europe, when we’re the ones footing the bill for their security right now. If we stop picking up the tab for maintaining the world system, who’s going to step up to the plate?

Make no mistake, someone will come forward, but not to fill the same role the US does now. Regardless of our decision to abandon our leading role in the world or to defend it, there is always a power in the world striving to contest the power of the current hegemon with an eye toward remaking the global system to suit their vision. The international institutions that form the basis for international relations are all a product of hegemonic power, first of the British Empire, and since WWII a product of US power and design. The UN, NATO, the World Bank, etc. that institutionalize foreign relations are all a product of US hegemony, not an independent successor if we should step away. They are an incarnation of US power, not a power source. The League of Nations failed precisely because every entity in the world that had some power to make it work either abandoned it (as the US did) or challenged it (as Germany and Japan did). The previous hegemon (Britain) was in rapid decline and either would not, or could not order or enforce world system. The breakdown of the 1930s happened largely because of a refusal of those with power to play a constructive role in the world.

The world system authored by the US in the wake of WWII, and modified to suit the needs of the Cold War, represented a departure from the world system authored by Britain. Britain and other American allies (the “First World”) endorsed the new system designed by the US and lent it additional power. Those who challenged it (mainly the “Second World” of the communists) never achieved the power to supplant it with their own design. If the US steps back, and abandons their dominant role in the world, we can not assume that our allies will increase their contributions to maintain the status quo. If that was their intent, they have had ample opportunities to contribute already, but their contributions are diminishing instead as their power diminishes, traded away for comforts. If the US is supplanted as hegemon, we certainly can not assume that our successor will endorse a similar system to the one that currently operates. There may emerge a new dominant power with a radically different vision of global order (China and Russia would be the current leading contenders here). We could also enter a new era of instability as contenders move to fill a perceived power vacuum, as an echo of the situation in the inter-war period that culminated in WWII and the Cold War.

The suggestion that we can step aside, reduce our role in securing and ordering the world, and somehow collect a financial windfall to support a European style welfare state is an outright LIE. Europe could only do it with the US provided security, and a US structured world system. Who would provide security for us to do the same? Try to find a global entity with the will to power and sympathies toward the current system. If you disregard the US (which may or may not have the will at this point), there exists no such thing.

All of this brings us back to Voegeli’s Claremont article I referenced in June. To reiterate:

The danger liberalism poses to the American experiment comes from its disposition to deplete rather than replenish the capital required for self-government.

The liberal program isn’t simply an attempt to redirect or redistribute a vast quantity of wealth in America toward an unproven social experiment. It’s an attempt to deplete exactly the capital that has supported the freedom and prosperity of western civilization. This is the political struggle of today, to determine the shape of the world tomorrow. Keep it well in mind next time you have a chance to weigh in.


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