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Furious agreeement

November 16th, 2008

Back when I was a high school debater, my team once had to take the negative position on the topic ‘Australian democracy is dying’. With the Vietnam war at its worst, conscription of 18-year olds (old enough to die, but in those days too young to vote) a big issue, and a conservative government that had been in office since before my classmates and I were born, it didn’t seem likely that we were going to carry the audience with Panglossian rhetoric. So, we decided to argue instead that Australian democracy couldn’t be dying because it was already dead. The resulting debate was somewhat farcical, as we rushed to agree with every piece of gloomy evidence raised by the affirmative side, and pile on with our own. We won easily, but I gave up debating not too long after that.

I’m reminded of this episode by a piece by Robert Kagan, criticising the idea that American power is declining. In effect, Kagan argues that, while things might seem bad for American power just now, they’ve actually been terrible for decades. Unchallenged economic dominance had already been lost by 1960, when the US share of the world economy (around half in the immediate aftermath of WWII) had fallen to 24 per cent. The international image of the US was trashed by Vietnam and other disasters of the 1960s. Military failures are nothing new. So, those who, decade after decade, proclaim that America is in decline have simply forgotten how bad things were in the past.

The idea that the US effectively dominated the world for decades after WWII is an illusion. As Kagan says:

between 1945 and 1965 the United States actually suffered one calamity after another. The “loss” of China to communism; the North Korean invasion of South Korea; the Soviet testing of a hydrogen bomb; the stirrings of postcolonial nationalism in Indochina — each proved a strategic setback of the first order. And each was beyond America’s power to control or even to manage successfully.

Kagan is spot on here, and the implications are obvious. Ever since MacArthur crossed the 38th parallel in 1950, US governments have shown a chronic tendency to over-reach themselves, and to squander blood, treasure and international respect as a result. The Vietnam disaster reined in this tendency for a while. But then neoconservatives invented the term ‘Vietnam syndrome’ to describe the perfectly sensible lessons most people learned from the US defeat. In the end, it took the Iraq fiasco to provide a remedial lesson for the slower learners.

There’s no need to postulate a decline in American power and influence to explain why an aggressive and unilateralist policy is a foolish one. As Kagan says, there was never a time when the US, or any other country ‘could dominate, dictate and always have its way’. Every state that has tried to do this has failed. I share Kagan’s hope that President Obama will not regard a sensible recognition of the limits of power and of the need for international co-operation as a confession of national decline.

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  1. November 16th, 2008 at 19:19 | #1

    Agreed. But we should not underestimate the forces committed to an “aggressive and unilateralist policy”. Obama will find them undermining any of his attempts at internationalism. The secret state is alive and flourishing.

  2. philip travers
    November 16th, 2008 at 20:46 | #2

    It isn’t secret,has never been secret,nor acts like a whole series of secrets cannot name them!?Some are already Virtual Lizards.And when ,regularly $Trillion of dollars disappear in Defence Spending,and only 48 sitings of U.F.O.s accounted for around the White House,and, the only warning is when the dog bites for the “Secret”,rather than any one else looking on..you see how disclosed they are.Open Government that is the U.S.A. And what do you see inside the Openness!?Well that is the only mystery.From the films they create themselves like Murder Inc.The Two Passports Imperative and Empire.As a distinguished Royal once said ‘Fleas ,Big fleas have Little Fleas ..all the way to Eternity”.Just make sure you pronounce that right!

  3. gerard
    November 16th, 2008 at 21:40 | #3

    you should write a book, philip

  4. TerjeP
    November 16th, 2008 at 21:55 | #4

    aggressive and unilateralist policy is a foolish one

    Unilateralism has it’s place. Its the agressive bit that’s the problem.

    Hillary Clinton voted for the invasion of Iraq (ie she followed the crowd). I really hope she doesn’t become secretary of state. Perhaps somebody who can think a bit more unilaterally (ie for themselves) would be better. Hillary should run the postal service or some such thing. 😉

  5. zoot
    November 16th, 2008 at 22:10 | #5

    Forgive my pedantry, please, but Australian males were conscripted at the age of 20. Still couldn’t vote or (legally) drink; at least when my marble came up.

  6. November 16th, 2008 at 22:39 | #6

    You might also want to consider Rupert Murdoch’s latest speech furiously arguing that the news industry is not dead. When I first read it, I thought he was getting senile. He bizarrely criticizes news organisations (or is it just journos?) who spend too much time on their own ideological hobby-horses.

    Does this mean a slew of top-level News Corp sackings are on the way? Certainly FOX News needs to do something about Teh Credibility. I wonder how Greg Sheridan is sleeping tonight? Actually, I wonder how he sleeps at all, but that’s another story.

    And now, with a bit of luck, back to the actual topic…

  7. November 16th, 2008 at 22:41 | #7

    The only reasons Americans think they have ruled the world for the last 50 years, and think they can rule it for the next 100 years, is that hardly any of them have any idea how big the rest of the world actually is.

  8. sean
    November 16th, 2008 at 22:43 | #8

    “it took the Iraq fiasco”

    You mean to tell me that there are wars that are not fiascoes?

    The fact is we dont yet know if the Iraq war II has worked, Ive been twice in the employ of the UK army and meet plenty of Iraqis and I can tell you they dont share your distaste for getting the bad guys.

    My bet is that it is working and will work, Iraq will emerge once again as the intellectual power house of the mid east and guide it to a brighter future. Even in Egypt where I have recently been there is a shift in opinion towards the west, you no longer hear the hate as much, they are critical but are ready to listen to your side of the story and not take the state medias line.

    Ive lived in the Gulf and worked and traveled in the Mid east most of my adult life, and I do have a sense that Bush and Cheney gamble has a fair chance of working. Of course the naysayers will never admit it even if it does.

    I am looking forward to visiting Iraq late Jan and Feb and I cannot wait to go.

  9. observa
    November 16th, 2008 at 23:37 | #9

    Yes sean, I said a fair while ago with Blair’s ME beacon of light theory, Bush, Howard and COW were either going to be great statesmen or naive fools in the long run and that’s still running.

    There is of course no reasonable grounds to prefer a morally bad (alas no WMD) but practical war(beacon of light glows brighter after surge)to a morally good (nasty Talban AQ axis) but impractical war (graveyard of increasingly reluctant moral empires). Obama and fans are about to solve that wee conundrum for us all quite soon. Apparently that’s the great benefit of empowered incumbency over impotent opposition. You get to accomplish all the mission statements.

  10. observa
    November 16th, 2008 at 23:52 | #10

    Not to mention freeing all those innocent political prisoners and closing immoral Gitmo of course.

  11. November 17th, 2008 at 01:31 | #11

    Niall Fergusson’s Colussus- http://www.amazon.com/Colossus-Americas-Empire-Niall-Ferguson/dp/1594200130 – is very good on the fact that objectively the US is an empire, but one whose leaders and people refuse to recognise the fact – with the result that it always tries to leave its imperial adventures too soon, with the consequences of the type described. His argument is that force in oursuit of a liberal empire can be a positive thing. The US’s trouble has been, he would say, is that it has been neither fish nor fowl. He also foresaw the economic calamity that has swept over America, and its causes, very clearly.

  12. November 17th, 2008 at 03:12 | #12

    “In the end, it took the Iraq fiasco to provide a remedial lesson for the slower learners.”

    I wish that there was a learning curve in operation, but, sadly, the S & L crisis and Vietnam War were not so long ago that they couldn’t have warned intelligent people of our current woes.

    By the way, what was WWI called?

  13. bill broome
    November 17th, 2008 at 05:52 | #13

    ww1 is good enough. the important part was that the german people were handed the bill, while kaiser bill retired to his estate in holland.

    if , instead, kb was shot and the people of europe agreed not to submit to kaisers,czars, grand dukes or presidents, perhaps there wouldn’t have been a ww2.

    it’s been working for the swiss for a long time now, surprising no one notices.

    btw, our host was on the right side of that debate, orstralia is a monarchy, there is no ‘by the people’ around here. never has been, since wat tyler stood too close to henry’s sword. that ended any notion that polite discussion would prevail in britain, or it’s colonies.

  14. gerard
    November 17th, 2008 at 09:14 | #14

    In the long run there are one million dead Iraqis and god knows how many people maimed and families broken because of this war, which was initiated on the basis of perhaps the most obviously false set of flimsy, pathetic lies ever to be employed by any politicians in modern history. you would have to be pretty sick in the head to suggest that it’s too early to tell whether its been a success or not. it has indeed been a success – for the war profiteering industries in whose interest the war was waged. apart from that – why not try getting your legs or arms blown off so that you can personally experience some of this war’s success first hand.

  15. observa
    November 17th, 2008 at 09:25 | #15

    “By the way, what was WWI called?”
    WWI I believe, but it supposedly marked the beginning of the rise of the little bloke and his various forms of empowering socialism as I recall.

    Speaking of the empowerment of the little bloke, I note that overnight the Iraqi cabinet has largely agreed on the military pact for the continuation and ultimate withdrawal of all UN mandate foreign troops in Iraq by 2011, bearing in mind they would have had to have stood down on Dec31 without it. The first reading will go to the Iraqi parliament immediately for ratification by vote on Nov 24th now. No doubt the similar moral authority in Kabul is asking for like UN mandated troops to stay the course for as long as it takes. Clearly it will be up to Obama to determine who has the higher moral authority to plead on behalf of the little blokes concerned.

  16. observa
    November 17th, 2008 at 11:35 | #16

    Streuth! Our new moral commander-in-chief is way ahead of my thinking by the sounds of it-

    US President-elect Barack Obama says he will shut down the “war on terror” internment camp at Guantanamo Bay and rebuild “America’s moral stature in the world,” in a major interview aired overnight.

    “I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that,” the Democrat, who takes office on January 20, told the CBS program 60 Minutes….

    Senator Obama said that from his inauguration, “it is a top priority for us to stamp out al-Qaeda once and for all” and that killing or capturing the group’s mastermind Osama bin Laden was “critical” to US security

    Nice of the Amoral One to whittle down those Gitmo numbers to around 250 for him I suppose.

  17. jrbarch
    November 17th, 2008 at 11:49 | #17

    I think the USA is a teenager. Some of the reasons are:

    . The duality of their self-obsessed internal personality and the brazeness of the external face they show to the world;
    . Their immaturity, petulance, selfishness, self-centredness, self-importance, and inability to relate inclusively to other countries;
    . Over estimation of their personal role in the world and under estimation of their own potential;
    . Lack of long range vision;
    . Love of freedom without responsibility;
    . Love of idealism and an oft fanatical devotion;
    . A fresh youthful, powerful, and exuberant intelligence without too much experience;
    . The way they have to ‘ground’ themselves in the soil of their continent (‘ground zero’);
    . The way they have opened up their borders to blend many of the earth’s races, despite their youthful antagonisms.

    Am sure there are many more …..

  18. Michael of Summer Hill
    November 17th, 2008 at 16:00 | #18

    John, it is the ordinary folks who will be paying the price for years to come through their blood, sweat and hard yakker taxes to correct the past mistakes of the free market and cannot wait for the day when fair competition replaces free competition.

  19. Donald Oats
    November 17th, 2008 at 17:15 | #19

    It was referred to as “The Great War” and also as “The War to End All Wars.”; in #12 I believe Don the Libertarian was posing a rhetorical question, wasn’t he? [I ask rhetorically, in keeping with the mood.]

    Now, back to the free market, as it seems to be understood by much of the American polity and by Fox TV. To put their position as I understand it: regulation should always be dismantled where it is found, and get out of the way of the business of wealth creation and/or destruction process. Standing in the way of “individual self interest” is an anathema. Let’s compare that with society in the free world.

    In society we set a bunch of rules, typically called laws, and allow people to get on with their lives – unless they transgress the boundaries. Then, we introduce the transgressors to a bunch of enforced constraints, typically called prison, and allow the rest of the people to get on with their lives. People have an awareness of the laws, and the possible consequences of violating them. A structure is in place for the monitoring and enforcement of the rules.

    Surely it is reasonable to expect a free market to be subject to a similar device as a free society. Regulations and regulatory oversight, anyone?


    Don (of Murray Bridge).

  20. Damocles
    November 17th, 2008 at 17:23 | #20

    “Streuth! Our new moral commander-in-chief is way ahead of my thinking by the sounds of it-

    US President-elect Barack Obama says he will shut down the “war on terror” internment camp at Guantanamo Bay and rebuild “America’s moral stature in the world,” in a major interview aired overnight.”

    That’s not news – it was his stated policy befroe the election.

  21. Ubiquity
    November 17th, 2008 at 17:57 | #21

    The American psyche is a reflection of the most effective medium of communication in the US. TV.

    “So, if you want to understand where America is going, just watch TV.”


    That clearly suggests that the masses psyche is simply a refelction of the medias opinion. The current most obvious example of this is the $600M plus campaign of the new US president.

    It leaves an empty feeling in my gut knowing few can critically think for themselves.

    Its so easy to swallow up the support of the masses with a black box or a slim line version in the living room. Who needs rallies with surround sound in your living room.

  22. gerard
    November 17th, 2008 at 19:26 | #22

    How typical of the Corpo-Right media interview style. Did they ask Obama if he will prosecute the illegal authorization of torture and warrentless spying by Administration officials going all the way up to Bush and Cheney? Or will blatant law-breaking be given a ‘get out of jail free’ card in the name of bipartisanship? Clinton made a mortal mistake in 1993 by not chucking the Reagan/Bush Sr. Iran-Contra crooks in prison where they belong, and allowing them to come back to power, worse than ever, a few years later. Will history repeat? Probably. As a wise man once explained to me: you can’t kill a tiger claw by claw, you need to stab it in the back of the throat.

  23. observa
    November 17th, 2008 at 19:38 | #23

    “That’s not news – it was his stated policy befroe the election.”
    I know but I was kinda wondering if he’d have second thoughts and not be quite so brazen about releasing those Gitmo boys straight away. I was wondering where these political refugees would kip immediately after being freed and awaiting their automatic refugee visas and ticker tape parade. A rhetorical question only, We could safely leave the answer with the clever folk over at Andrew Bolts and Tim Blairs I presume. They’ll no doubt come up with an eminently sensible list of folk to open their hearts and homes to these poor unfortunates. An offer they can’t refuse presumably.

  24. Damocles
    November 17th, 2008 at 19:58 | #24

    “I know but I was kinda wondering if he’d have second thoughts and not be quite so brazen about releasing those Gitmo boys straight away.”

    Most of them aren’t being released, they’re being transferred to federal prisoners on the US mainland.

  25. gerard
    November 17th, 2008 at 21:55 | #25

    Kroft: Is this something you are going to do right away?

    Obama: Yes.

    Q: Am I hallucinating?

    The Presidential bar has been set so low that even the most bare-minimum level of honesty and decency comes as a complete shock.

  26. charles
    November 18th, 2008 at 06:16 | #26

    “Most of them aren’t being released, they’re being transferred to federal prisoners on the US mainland.”

    Nothing is wrong with the rule of law and I don’t think you can dismiss the USA legal system as completely disfunctional.

  27. observa
    November 18th, 2008 at 08:26 | #27

    ‘Most of them aren’t being released, they’re being transferred to federal prisoners on the US mainland.’

    You mean this was really just an accommodation perception issue? The ever reliable, quicky, cheap fix is to do what they do with public schools on the nose. Change the name to Paradise Park or some such and give em a spunky new logo.

  28. gerard
    November 18th, 2008 at 11:48 | #28

    Gitmo was chosen as a locatition so that the US Administration could openly flaunt the fact that it could hold prisoners in ‘accomodatition’ that was untouched by the US Constitution or international law, and torture them with total impunity. that’s what’s changing (hopefully)

  29. Alanna
    November 18th, 2008 at 12:28 | #29

    I think the US’s power is declinin if moral decay is any indication. I think Obama is right. There is or has been an indiffierence to basic tenets of right and wrong so long as at least one market is better off – even if it is the arms market. I also think the U.S.’s own free market neo liberal ideologies are helping them to commit suicide. Lets see if they follow free market capitalism in the middle of a depression when they need jobs at home – how egalitarian will US citizens then be about global growth?. Unemployment is always the factor likely to turn economic policy in a completely different direction. In some way the US strikes me as having more production to lose from free trade, than to gain.

    On a discussion on the pros and cons of globalisation with a bunch of students I was brought to a halt by one who interjected “so why bother studying GDP when it really doesnt matter?”

    Good point I thought.


  30. frankis
    November 18th, 2008 at 15:00 | #30

    Ever the schoolboy sceptic myself I love the debating story.

    Is it true that America was already dead by the end of the 20th century? Mistakes of Empire are often punished but they depend upon the existence of the mistaken Empire. If not America’s then whose was the 20th Century?

    After two presidential terms of the 21st it’s clear enough they’ve been well on their way to disaster this time but, let’s hope, a parachute may have just opened.

  31. Damocles
    November 18th, 2008 at 17:29 | #31

    “You mean this was really just an accommodation perception issue? ”

    no, the issue was bush’s illegal detention of people off-shore where he claimed the US legal system didn’t apply.

    Seeing as he lost repeated Court challenges and the Supreme court ruled that the US legal system DID apply, continuing to keep the prisoners offshore was a pointless and needlessly expensive stunt.

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