I recently discovered a relatively new think tank headquartered in Northern California, The Breakthrough Institute. It describes itself as dedicated to environmental pragmatism, continuous education, and “modernizing environmentalism for the 21st Century.” Upon reading several of their essays published in The Breakthrough Journal, I immediately fell in love with their purpose and way of looking at things. In an era when the mainstream environmental movement succumbs to a philosophical dogma resembling charismatic religion, and asserts its unilateral claim to accurate science, it is nice to see rebels against the tide. I have no instinctive love for the underdog; but when the elites and mainstream are dominated by deeply flawed ideologists, innovative minorities usually have both a better vision for the future and a better grip on the reality of the present.
That said, two articles (both of which appealed to me very much) seemed to show a certain contradiction in Breakthrough’s thought and reveal them to be nothing more than a pseudo-scientific conservative hack society dedicated to trashing the assumptions of the mainstream environmental movement for the sheer sake of trashing them. This assumption came to me because I am used to listening to conservative talk radio (where hosts will assume upon themselves the most contradictory of statements for the sole purpose of destroying the reputation of the liberal elite) and seeking out hypocrisy.
Specifically, in two articles covering energy development and land conservation, the Breakthrough scholars respectively demeaned and lauded sustainability’s application to those policy areas. While the general green consensus on energy seems to be that we must develop sustainable energy that follows natural processes, wastes nothing, and is in harmony with the biosphere, Breakthrough argued that we must foster technological innovation to harness sources of energy further and further outside the biosphere. They argued that attempting to use biofuels like wood and ethanol ultimately destroyed huge swaths of forest cover and cropland unsustainably, and that wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal energy required immense transformations of the landscape which would ultimately prove detrimental to environmental health. Meanwhile, using classic fuels- oil, natural gas, coal, and, the authors hoped for the future, nuclear power- had a comparatively indirect detrimental effect on the environment, because they were not directly involved in the processes of the biosphere and thus their exploitation would not interrupt directly any of those natural processes. In a word, the authors argued that the human sphere and the environment are distinct entities, and that attempting to mix them through renewable energy use would have the unintended consequences of rendering the human economy less efficient and decimating the ecological processes of nature.
Meanwhile, the Breakthrough scholars take a seemingly opposite view in their article on land conservation. They posit that the intense focus on preservation of natural areas so adored by the modern environmental movement has succeeded in creating parks but failed in promoting healthy ecosystems; critical to healthy lands, then, is a balance between human interests and those of the environment. If preservation is regarded above all else, then recreation and exploitation might not be put in check, and preservation could succeed only in creating islands of (man-made) paradise amid seas of environmental devastation. They argue that instead, healthy ecosystems, wherein humans live on and utilize reasonably the land, are to be encouraged, and people ought to have a direct stake in the health of their environment. The old landowner’s saying that endangered species on property should be destroyed, lest the EPA impose regulations, is all too chillingly accurate. It must be counteracted through sustainable and reasonable use, and therefore the principle that the authors assert here is the natural unity between humans and the environment.
Most interesting of all is that these two principles- that humans should separate their energy usage from the ecosystem, and integrate their land usage with the ecosystem- fly directly opposite to the modern green consensus, which prefers an alignment of human energy usage with the biosphere’s processes and a strict separation between protecting the environment as a separate entity from the human sphere. It would seem that the authors are mere hacks attempting to trash the assumptions of the modern environmental movement.
But upon further thought, I realize two things- first, that the contradictory assumptions about energy use and land use do, in fact, seem to have historic precedent (I won’t get into this- I will only mention that pre-industrial energy was basically entirely organic in the form of wood and animal feed, and reaked havoc on every ecosystem it touched, and that Teddy Roosevelt, America’s greatest conservationist, very much believed in and practiced the alignment and balance of human and environmental interests in land use.)
But second, I realized that there is not actually anything wrong with two related but distinct fields operating on wildly different principles- energy use on division between the human and the environment, land use on their integration. I study domestic public policy, and if anything informs my view on it, it is the balanced dialectic between those policy areas that require national centralization and coordination (i.e. defense, constitutional law, the establishment of a market system, wide-level infrastructure, managing relations between parts, etc.) and those best conducted at lower, more local levels (basically everything else, from social laws to the stimulation of local industries to small-level infrastructure to low-level economic controls, and everything in between.) These two contradictory principles are not recognized universally but do, in the American system, tend to work reasonably well. While the principles of the environment and the principles of human society might be constants, their manifestations are ever-changing and ever-different; and therefore the principles informing policy of all types and levels must be entirely flexible enough to firmly adapt to them.
I copy below the Breakthrough Institute’s articles’ important passages:
On Energy Usage:
“”In the cliché of wildlife documentaries, “nature wastes nothing” and thus achieves a sublime abundance.
In truth, nature wastes almost everything, from solar energy to seeds, and its default condition is therefore red-fanged competition for scarce resources. The resources of ecosystems are thus already spoken for; there are no lands that are not used by something for some purpose, no caches of unexploited energy piled up in the margins that we can tap without depriving other organisms, human and non-human, of their sustenance.
That’s why modern civilization has grown by going beyond the circle of life for resources that lie far outside ecological boundaries. When firewood and whale oil ran short we did not conserve and recycle them; instead we dug for coal and petroleum and gas, retrieving colossal reserves of energy that were wasted by ancient ecosystems and had fossilized beyond the reach of biology. When rising food production strained soil fertility, we did not hoard compost and guano; instead we invented the Haber process that fixed nitrogen fertilizer out of thin air, thus creating an artificial nitrogen cycle that now rivals the natural one in its importance for agriculture.
In each case, ingenuity and technology unlocked enormous resources that biological processes cannot access, thus transcending Malthusian constraints on growth while easing the demands we placed on wild ecosystems. That these advances eventually drew excesses and externalities in their wake has made greens wary of that kind of Promethean development. Better, they feel, to live within the limits ecology imposes on development – and to accept an ethos of restraint and humility as both more responsible and more spiritually connected to the world around us.
Unfortunately, the bioenergy project exposes that agenda as a mirage. Retreating to a nostalgic ecological paradigm powered by energy systems that the developed world abandoned long ago – and for good reason – will merely increase the pressure civilization places on the planet.
We’re well advised to instead continue with what has actually worked in the past – to seek new technologies that transcend ecological constraints. The renewables movement is attuned to that strategy – wind power, solar power, and geothermal power are all serious efforts to access energy reserves outside the biological sphere. Unfortunately, their intrinsic limitations prevent them from meeting society’s need for abundant dispatchable power. Nuclear power, a reservoir of low-carbon energy that’s stupendously larger than the planet’s stock of fossil fuels, with arguably the smallest environmental footprint of any energy source, can meet that need if society can see past the myths and anxieties shrouding it.
Society can’t entirely sever itself from its roots in the environment, but neither should it organize itself as an elaboration of closed-loop ecology. To view ourselves as an organic part of an ecosystem, constrained to scrimping along on its resources as efficiently as possible, is to place too heavy a burden on ecosystems to sustain us. There is no way such a conception of civilization can satisfy the social imperative of economic growth and improved living standards and accommodate what green consciousness values most in nature – its otherness, its autonomy from utilitarian ends, and its purposeless effusions of beauty.
Environmentalists often talk of the “ecosystem services” the environment provides to society, but we must be equally mindful of the benefits that human technological genius can afford to ecosystems. Stewardship of the planet requires that we continue to unshackle ourselves from ecosystems, and ecosystems from us.”
On Land Usage:
“Conservation’s binaries — growth or nature, prosperity or biodiversity — have marginalized it in a world that will soon add at least two billion more people. In the developing world, efforts to constrain growth and protect forests from agriculture are unfair, if not unethical, when directed at the 2.5 billion people who live on less than two dollars a day and the one billion who are chronically hungry. By pitting people against nature, conservationists actually create an atmosphere in which people see nature as the enemy.
If people don’t believe conservation is in their own best interests, then it will never be a societal priority. Conservation must demonstrate how the fates of nature and of people are deeply intertwined — and then offer new strategies for promoting the health and prosperity of both. One need not be a postmodernist to understand that the concept of Nature, as opposed to the physical and chemical workings of natural systems, has always been a human construction, shaped and designed for human ends. The notion that nature without people is more valuable than nature with people and the portrayal of nature as fragile or feminine reflect not timeless truths, but mental schema that change to fit the time.
If there is no wilderness, if nature is resilient rather than fragile, and if people are actually part of nature and not the original sinners who caused our banishment from Eden, what should be the new vision for conservation? It would start by appreciating the strength and resilience of nature while also recognizing the many ways in which we depend upon it. Conservation should seek to support and inform the right kind of development — development by design, done with the importance of nature to thriving economies foremost in mind. And it will utilize the right kinds of technology to enhance the health and well-being of both human and nonhuman natures. Instead of scolding capitalism, conservationists should partner with corporations in a science-based effort to integrate the value of nature’s benefits into their operations and cultures.
Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people, especially the poor. Instead of trying to restore remote iconic landscapes to pre-European conditions, conservation will measure its achievement in large part by its relevance to people, including city dwellers. Nature could be a garden — not a carefully manicured and rigid one, but a tangle of species and wildness amidst lands used for food production, mineral extraction, and urban life.
Conservation is slowly turning toward these directions but far too slowly and with insufficient commitment to make them the conservation work of the 21st century. The problem lies in our reluctance, and the reluctance of many of conservation’s wealthy supporters, to shed the old paradigms. This move requires conservation to embrace marginalized and demonized groups and to embrace a priority that has been anathema to us for more than a hundred years: economic development for all. The conservation we will get by embracing development and advancing human well-being will almost certainly not be the conservation that was imagined in its early days. But it will be more effective and far more broadly supported, in boardrooms and political chambers, as well as at kitchen tables.
None of this is to argue for eliminating nature reserves or no longer investing in their stewardship. But we need to acknowledge that a conservation that is only about fences, limits, and far away places only a few can actually experience is a losing proposition. Protecting biodiversity for its own sake has not worked. Protecting nature that is dynamic and resilient, that is in our midst rather than far away, and that sustains human communities — these are the ways forward now. Otherwise, conservation will fail, clinging to its old myths.”
Take a look at some of the stuff at The Breakthrough Institute. It will be well-worth your time.
Part 1: The Problem
In the last days of February and the first days of March, 2014, the Russian Federation sent tanks and troops rolling into Crimea, while Russian warships blockaded the nearly insular peninsula. Ostensibly, the maneuver was meant to protect ethnic Russians from Ukrainian malfeasance; strategically, it was most likely part of a last-ditch effort to maintain Russian power in its soft historic underbelly, today the sovereign nation of Ukraine.
This comes as the Russians have repeatedly striven to overawe their European neighbors through implicit nuclear threats and pipeline diplomacy, while drawing their former Soviet comrades into the Muscovite orbit through security arrangements and multilaterals like the foreshadowed Eurasian Union. The trend is clear- though Russia might have crippling demographic and economic problems, and a corrupt political system, it is certainly doing what it has to do to perpetuate its life, and is acting as a great power.
To the East, China continues its seaward expansion, nominally checked by a coalition of Asian powers more or less backed by the United States. Its naval capacity grows every year, as its public servants strive desperately to reform its internal system in the favor of stability and growth. Beijing’s overseas interests expand ever more, as more Third-World nations enter the widening club of Sino-African/Asian/South American economic partnerships; if China’s infrastructure abroad were formally imperial, it would be an empire upon which the sun never sets.
This unprecedented strength, mixed with unprecedented anxiety, are leading the Chinese leadership down the paths of traditional great power politics. Their counterparts in Tokyo, seeing this, are doing the same.
Again to the West, the Iranian leadership slyly manipulates its power. No longer shackled by intense international pressure and isolation, finally breathing the slightly thinner air of diplomacy, the ayatollahs now fight, as Machiavelli counseled, both with arms and with laws. Through warzones like Syria and Lebanon they extend Shia influence, while they work covertly to weaken the Sunni regimes across the Gulf. Predictably, the sheikhs in Riyadh and the statesmen of the Knesset see a terrible threat in this, and work to counterbalance the scepter of Shia Islam, while the Turks quietly extend pipelines and contacts through the former Ottoman lands of the Middle East.
Sensing pressures from both sides and from each other, Pakistan and India have worked to expand their capabilities and improve their chances of weathering the next preemptive strike. Pakistan, fearing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, has sought to beef up its forces at the expense of its failing state, while India, sensing China’s rise as an Indian Ocean blue-water navy, has expanded its own naval capacities to break out of the String of Pearls and establish itself as a naval power in its own right. The military buildups of the subcontinent are little different from similar buildups in the last century.
Turning to Europe, we see a fraying international system, eroding due to incompetence and decadence at the highest levels in Brussels and greater regionalism and nationalism among and within the various members of the European Union. But it is clear where the power lies. France intervened, on its own, in at least three different African countries in the last couple of years; while not necessarily indicative of a Richelieu-esque return to power politics, the recent adventurism certainly seems to display a newfound willingness to engage in power plays. And Germany is increasingly revealing itself to be the Master of Europe, capable of manipulating the EU’s remaining economic mechanisms to ensure its own health at the expense of lesser states. In an ancient land where international politics was supposed to be a thing of the past, history has returned.
And there is one nation as-of-yet unmentioned, one nation whose transgressings of international order quite easily dwarf those of most of these other powers. That nation is the chief hegemon of world power, yet it has forgotten how to rule; for whereas the polities of the Old World have endeavored to conduct foreign policy in their strategic interests, never blinded by the false light of a liberal world order, their western heir has engaged in wishful thinking to the highest degree, both in its diplomacy and, yet more, in its interventions. Its people have forgotten their responsibility, and its leaders have all but abdicated it.
The rise in power politics all around the supercontinent of Eurasia, mixed with the strategic decadence of American foreign policy, point to one inevitable conclusion: the United States is not implementing a successful grand strategy, and the world is responding.
It is not that there has been no tradition of successful American foreign policy. Far from it. The United States has been attacked less than most other great powers, and more importantly is at the head of the international system, possessing the most dynamic economy, the strongest military, and the most vibrant culture. Prudent and vigorous management of its place in international affairs, constrained by various pressures, drove it to attain this pinnacle by the end of the Second World War; and through the Cold War it generally maintained a successful strategy. But with the fall of the Soviet Union and the elimination of the last meaningful threat to American power, the discipline of older days was forgotten, replaced by a tendency toward oscillating extremes of democracy-export interventionism and cowardly, imprudent isolationism and international legalism. We inhabit that era today, and pay the price.
The general American grand strategy has always been, and to a degree still is today, one of mixed idealism and realism, not unlike the formulation of our constitution. Successful American foreign policy has generally been quite realistic, striving to maintain balances of power at critical points around the world, setting nations against each other, so that no nation can usurp the balance of power, become a hegemon in its region, and potentially threaten American global dominance. At the same time, the United States inherited the burgeoning global trading and finance system built by the British, and as the British Empire and its imperial navy slipped away, Americans stepped up to claim and maintain it. This has ensured a general global insistence upon transoceanic communication, which in turn has led to freer markets and, oftentimes, more open societies with greater regard for the rules of the supposed ‘international community.’ This liberal world order has been possible only because of American dominance of the seas. The United States is a benevolent hegemon, at its best. The two foreign policy ideal types listed above- power-balancing and trade-route-securing- might be called, respectively, the Realist tradition and the Liberal tradition in American foreign policy, grouped together into consummate marriage in what might be called “Pragmatic American Realism.” This has been the baseline of U.S. imperial foreign policy.
At the same time, there has been a very idealistic component to American foreign policy, one which has led to the oscillating extremes of isolationism, messianic interventionism, and legalistic internationalism. From this tradition spring the high regard for human rights, democracy, capitalism, and good government that have always given the United States a sense, and an essence, at times, of moral legitimacy in its foreign policy. Thinking with the interests of all Mankind at heart, American foreign policymakers have believed themselves to be bringing goodness into the world, while at the same time expanding American interests, and when these experiments have blown up in their face, they have receded into a continental shell, content to be a City on a Hill, and inspiration for the world and nothing more. This image of benevolence contributes very much to American soft power.
Nothing could be more hypocritical. Throughout its history American foreign policy has been as brutal as any other nation’s foreign policy, from the genocidal excesses of the Indian Wars to the subjugation of various Latin American peoples throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries to impious land grabs like the Mexican War to true colonialism and imperialism in the Philippines and Cuba, to the firebombings and atomic bombings of the Second World War, to the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians in every war before and since that greatest war in all of history- America has bloodstained hands and a bloodstained soul. The price of empire- and the order, stability, security, prosperity, and society that come with it- is not sacrifice, but guilt.
Moreover, what cold, ruthless strategy remains in the American arsenal today- most notably the indiscriminate use of drone strikes and the dramatic expansion of special forces operations- appears to indicate to many around the world and in the United States that America no longer has the moral authority it once claimed. Regard for human rights and democracy means nothing for a country willing to discount both in the name of security, so goes the argument.
Part 2: The Proposal
Perhaps it is time for a reexamination of all the traditions of American foreign policy, in the interest of discerning what can be kept and what must be updated, in a brutal world whose laws do not change, but whose composition of power rises and wanes with the moon.
It may be a leap of reasoning, but it seems as though it may be time for the United States to stop treating non-liberal, non-democratic regimes as though something was wrong with them, as though they went against human nature. The success of the Chinese and German and Japanese models, as well as the reasonable survival success of those of India and Russia, are empirical evidence that there are, indeed, models of social organization other than the traditional western liberal capitalism-and-welfare open societies we Americans love dearly. The fact that a government is not elected does not mean that it is not legitimate. Elections are no sure sign of good governance. It would seem that the measure of a good government lies not in various measures of democracy and liberalism, but in relative levels of security, order, prosperity- those basic public goods which only government can ensure- as well as general responsiveness to citizens’ needs and prudent management of the nation. Ends, not means, are the measure of success, and it seems that nations striving to attain security, order, and prosperity should not be condemned by the ‘international community’ for doing what states must do to ensure a more perfect polity. Such is the utmost hypocrisy of the Western states, whose industrial economies were formed in exactly the ways which they condemn and en-sanction when practiced by Third –World leaders.
To this end it is imperative that American foreign policy cease its endless, irrational focus on exporting democracy and holding other nations accountable to our values and our standards. As the increased global engagement of the Nixon-Kissinger years demonstrates, much more can be accomplished through diplomacy than through Manichean insistence upon standards.
Perhaps a new grand strategy ought to be conjured, one which rejects the idealistic faith in global governance and crusading for human rights and democracy of American liberalism, and modifies the tradition of Pragmatic American Realism in the interests of responding to irrevocable global shifts.
This new grand strategy would involve a fundamental realignment in world order. Rather than an imprudent domination, American grand strategy would seek a more Metternichian state of affairs- the recognition of great powers in every region, a condoning of their legitimacy, a general approval of their hegemony in their respective spheres, including among other nations, and a Concert of Great Powers willing and able to negotiate disputes between themselves as equals. Certainly, they’d pursue their interests just as viciously as before, and plot behind each other’s backs; but without the moralistic dualism spewed by the United Nations, it is ever so likely that their relations with each other would be more cordial and civil, their squabbles and wars less intense.
Furthermore, this need not be a formal institution- just implicit and informal recognition and respect on the part of all powers. In circumstances where Russia invades a part of the Ukraine, or China quells an uprising in Xinjiang- things whose parallels the United States would assuredly do, were it in the same situations- the response of US diplomats would be not condemnation, not preaching, but a candid and dispassionate acknowledgment of the other nation’s rationale in pursuing its interest.
This cannot be stressed enough- the moralistic nature of American diplomacy, in this circumstance, would necessarily be required to give way to a quiet, understanding, and accepting toleration of the behavior of other great powers. Meanwhile, the United States would continue to pursue its interests dispassionately, in the expectation that other powers would similarly recognize American rationale. When we all realize and admit we are merely pursuing our interests, doing what we must do to preserve our nations, it seems all will be clearer.
Now this does not necessitate the end of the liberal world order. Indeed, a primary counterargument to this concert system would be the fact that it encourages the rise of other powers, whose power thus would challenge American dominance and therefore America’s ability to maintain a liberal world order. This is a powerful argument. But, it may be added, there are common interests in the maintenance of world order by all the powers of the world- and for the most part, the successful states prize good governance, stability, and trade. While the world order, in this situation, would be quite different from the democracy and liberalism-based world order we know today, it would be more or less the same in structure and allow for the advancement of all societies among their own lines. Ideological diversity can be disastrous, but in a climate of tolerance it brings out the best in each polity.
Neither does this necessitate the end of liberal democracy as a powerful force on the global scale. The nations of the Anglosphere- the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand- all are linked in their common cultural heritage and their reliance on and investment in the global commercial system for their prosperity. Together, they constitute the most powerful unofficial long-term alliance the world has ever known, and in their own ways they can do much to develop liberalism and democracy- to use wisely their power, and perfect the ideal of liberty. The classic Jeffersonian notion of America as a Shining City Upon a Hill, its values things to be emulated and not to be exported, does much to explain how best to bring American values to the world (if they should be brought there at all.) And what other nations might choose to keep what democracy they have, especially those in Europe and Latin America, would most certainly be free to develop as they wish with the full support of the Anglosphere.
It could easily be argued that a return to great power politics and concert systems will exacerbate the chances of world wars. This is undoubtedly true, and a risk that statesmen must take, a guilt their consciences must bear. All previous epochs of great power competition have been marred by bloody wars and wastes of human life. But while this legitimate claim is true, also true is the fact that there is not much that can be done to reverse the present status quo, which is trending towards great power politics and national spheres of influence irreversibly already. At a certain point, the best way to deal with the troubles of reality is to accept them and manage them prudently, knowing full well that they cannot be eliminated or abolished.
But this final consideration brings us to a critical issue- should the United States go about changing its grand strategy to this new concert system? My answer is, “Let’s talk about it.”
There is a lot to be said for maintaining the present grand strategy of the United States, minus its naïve trust in international law and its immature insistence on the paramount nature of human rights. Pragmatic American Realism, blending power-balancing with the maintenance of a liberal international order, has the blessing of being a proven strategy that works, and one which prevents our rivals from rising to dominance in their respective realms. By preventing them from rising to dominance, we prevent them from challenging us and provoking major wars. Our policies in the Korean War, the Iran-Iraq War, the India-Pakistan situation, and the present East-South China Seas situation all demonstrate American resolve to continue using this time-tested method: maintaining natural balances of power in various strategic regions and maintaining our hegemony in ours. And it is true that this is probably the best way to maintain world order, short of actual world domination and formal legal control.
But all Americans must ask themselves two questions. First, will America be able to realistically maintain its commitment to such balancing, both active and passive, in its political, economic, military, and diplomatic establishments? Second, can Americans be trusted to have the prudence, historical awareness, and geopolitical tact to manage things in this way without succumbing to the Scylla of isolationism, the Charbydis of messianic interventionism, or the Sirens of international legalism?
If the answer is yes to both of these questions, then the present system and the present grand strategy are perfectly fine, and just need polishing up. I hope this is the case.
But if the answer is no to either or both- if America has so far declined, and her statesmen have been so far degraded, that she is no longer either powerful or wise- then it may be time to relinquish American Exceptionalism and the time-tested strategy of Pragmatic American Realism, and revert instead to the cynical concert politics of the Old World. A diminished global role would be preferable to decadence and ultimate collapse, in maintaining an empire we cannot hold.
But there is a third way, in the event that our institutions have indeed rotted, that our nation has indeed declined, that our statesmen have indeed diminished in stature. In this third way, we can keep Pragmatic American Realism even in a global and national situation in which Pragmatic American Realism becomes unsustainable.
That way is national improvement. But that is another essay entirely.
This morning as I wandered the streets of Fredericksburg sipping a frozen white mocha with a raspberry shot, I looked around for open shops. Unfortunately most of them, other than the restaurants, did not open until noon. The Cat’s Closet, Riverby Books, the endless rows of antique shops stuffed to the gills with eclectic objects, all were closed to me. But then I passed in front of The Collector’s Den, a much lower-quality antique shop whose entire inventory, it seems, has been collecting dust for decades. Nonetheless, it was the only store I saw open, so I entered and immediately proceeded to look for books.
No candles, lamps, or bulbs lit The Collector’s Den’s interior; the sunlight streaming in from the windows was the only source of illumination, leaving an eerie but surprisingly bright level of lighting inside. The musky scent of cigar smoke filled the single room, while shelves and bins overflowing with buttons, pins, silverware, and bullets took up most of the floor space. Racks on the wall held old glass bottles, stacks of Civil War era portraits, porcelain statues of grotesque creatures, and antique editions of Playboy Magazine (each covered with a card reading “Keep card on magazine!” of course.) A shelf of rotting novels and comic books took up the back, while more valuable items lay under the front desk’s glass top. I noticed some swords and guns on the walls; I didn’t bother to check the prices.
The owner, a sullen old man with a hunch in his back, reclined in his chair behind the desk. He did not greet me. As I lost myself in the innumerable treasures the store offered, seeking and searching for a patriotic button I could proudly wear, or a portrait of some statesman or other I could hang on my wall, two other old men entered separately. One donned a tannish airman’s jacket and spoke with a gruff rasp in his voice. A patch on his chest revealed him to be a retired Federal Marshal; he certainly looked the part. The other sported a poofy white beard and a dandy, eccentric mode of conversation I mistook for British. Through the conversation that followed I learned that he was a citizen of New Zealand. This was a wise man.
The three patriarchs greeted each other like old friends and began to discuss issues of politics and policy, chiefly focusing on the American response to Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea. The conversation oscillated around various other issues, but it was entirely colorful, profound, and deadening at the same time. I recall the New Zealander saying, in his thick, semi-Australian accent, “Moments before I entered this property I had had my lunch, and I hope not to discover that your comments afflict me with indigestion!”
As the reader has probably inferred, I had a good time eavesdropping on these gentlemen as I browsed. They had pithy points of view, not all of which I found myself in agreement with; but they presented them compellingly. After my wanderlust had been sated, I walked up to the counter and joined in their conversation, and it continued as it had previously. But it slowly gravitated towards another subject, one much closer to home.
The New Zealander evidently was convinced that the United States was and is a powerful nation, endowed with mighty resources and infrastructure and established under noble and practical ideals. Yet in its present iteration, he argued, it had forsaken all its blessings and fallen into a despicable state of license and decay. Its name had become a joke outside its borders, and the institutions and ideals it sought to represent for the world grew discredited with every minute of American weakness. Powers around the world with less benign and internationalist visions of international order, like Russia and China, had been able to initiate their assertions of their own power precisely thanks to the fact that they were no longer kept in balance by America. In fact, argued the old man, it had been DECADES since America had known true leadership and true virtue, and the absence of those commodities in the 21st Century has caused the actual decline of the United States of America at home and abroad.
There were many causes of this, said the New Zealander, but for the most part, all the structural, political, bureaucratic, economic, and environmental problems were merely trees growing in the dirt, and not the dirt itself. Such problems as listed above are indeed present in every situation, and are never ‘solved’ but are attacked and managed. A deeper poison lurked in American society; and the New Zealander defined this as the decline in regard for such virtues as Honor, Duty, and Discipline in favor of Equality, Entitlement and Tolerance- qualities not bad in themselves, but certainly unfit to stand as the paramount moral compass of a free nation, or any nation. The virtues of empire, replaced by the traits of the imperial self.
The New Zealander lamented again and again of his own country’s poor moral quality, but lamented harder for America’s: for New Zealand had never possessed anywhere near the responsibility the United States does. The very existence of the liberal international order, he asserted, was threatened by America’s descent, its willful forgetfulness of the virtues that made it great. He iterated several times to me, “Americans are not free.” Where freedom exists absent of responsibility, no liberty can be, and we are slaves to our passions; and none who is a slave to their passions and appetites- a slave to the imperial self- can truly be called a free citizen.
I told him of my experiences, my philosophy, and my plans; I detailed to him my admiration of the nationalist and pragmatist traditions of Alexander Hamilton and Theodore Roosevelt, and assured him that I was not alone; I relayed to him my conviction, that beyond all my other goals in life, I could best serve my country by doing everything in my power to revive that great nationalist tradition and reestablish the traditional regard for virtue and civic pride characteristic of all great republics. To this he replied that his heart had been warmed, though his cold eyes told me he still despaired of the present state of Western Civilization.
It is not for the old, however, that I hold the ideals I hold, or strive towards what I strive for. I fight for what many of them hold true, but they will all be dead and gone soon enough. Nor do I fight for unborn posterity, whose times will inevitably see challenges whose nature I could never dream of. No, I live my life and fight my fights in the service of the present generation of Americans and all who will be alive while I live. I fight for my time, that we may live up to the standards set by ages past, and inspire those ages yet to come.
The conversation with the ancient New Zealander brought to my mind an admonition against hubris which has been repeated by the wise men of all the ages. Though there are many who would assert that we live in a time when Man has conquered all, that our lifetimes have seen the ultimate pinnacle of human achievement, and that we can only continue to improve the human condition till perfection, it would be prudent to take a humbler view. Good things exist, good things abound, in our world today, and we ought to be grateful; but they need not be like this forever, and a subtle inside rot fells the tree which the logger’s axe cannot nick. Decadence is a problem endemic to all societies at all times; but at certain times it is more powerful than at others. And it is certainly very powerful in American society today, due in no small part to the unbalanced depravity of virtue which characterizes the present state of American popular and political culture.
It is obvious to me that America faces a values crisis, a crisis of civic participation, a challenge to national coherence. It is not between left and right or between various wagers of the culture wars; the root of the matter goes yet further. At its basest level, the challenge is between those who knowingly uphold personal responsibility and national duty as the highest aspirations of a republican citizen, and that vast majority of others who unknowingly undermine these virtues by placing ascendant, on their moral totem poles, some combination of liberation and self-expression. It is not a question of bad people and good people. It is something far more sinister and subtle- something which is in fact encouraged by the very system of a free, open society. The seeds of freedom’s destruction are in its excess. The question we face, then, is one of those who, in their liberty or hardship, have ceased to care about the virtues of citizenship, and those whose civic pride remains untarnished. It is a question of mobilizing to change the culture of the United States of America, in an effort to restore personal responsibility and civic participation to their rightful places in the public conscience.
I am actually quite optimistic about the future of America; the present crises present untold opportunities, and we, in our ingenuity, will not fail to innovate our way out of what would cripple other nations. Our geographic and environmental advantages remain with us, as does the basic integrity of our institutions. The threats facing us- and I speak here not of dangers from without, but of dangers from within- are nothing we cannot triumph over. But it is time that we open up a discussion as to what our values as a society ought to be, for the current nebulousness of our political culture and the cultural trends of society at large do not bode well for our near future as a nation. One way to start could be to take Viktor Frankl’s advice and establish a Statue of Responsibility on the west coast as a balance and concomitant to the Statue of Liberty in the east.
I have written elsewhere and will continue to write on the new focus necessary in American politics, a reorienting towards the statecraft of Alexander Hamilton and Theodore Roosevelt. One piece of that program invariably must be a new sense of American nationalism, of American Exceptionalism tempered by a cautious, prudent Realism. But as every Boy Scout learns, a nation is only good as the quality of its citizens. This quote from Theodore Roosevelt, I think, summarizes the new attitude necessary for the rejuvenation of good American citizenship:
“Alike to the nation and the individual, the indispensable requisite is character.“
I copy here a meditation on Republican foreign policy taken from Colin Dueck’s book ‘Hard Line,’ a compendium and analysis of the Republican Party’s foreign policy ideas since World War II. Republicans of the present and upcoming generations would consider these words wisely.
GOP realists [in the 1990s] sought to preserve existing U.S. alliance commitments in Europe and Asia and sought to preserve regional balances of power on those continents. They did not expect international competition to disappear with the end of the Cold War or with the spread of market democracies. They were generally skeptical of humanitarian intervention in locations peripheral to American national security. They argued for the selective use of force to safeguard vital U.S. interests but were otherwise wary of strategic overextension. They had no objection to the use of multilateral institutions, foreign aid, and diplomatic exchanges to promote US goals- in fact, they supported foreign affairs expenditures- but they saw such policy tools as instrumental rather than as ends in themselves. They did not make the internal political fate or complexion of other countries their main cause of concern but focused on concrete U.S. interests abroad, whether economic or geopolitical. Once American credibility was committed to a given policy, whether or not GOP realists agreed with the initial decision, they tended to favor the robust use of power to ensure success. Republican realism during the Clinton era was best represented in the views and statements of former U.S. foreign policy leaders such as James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, and Henry Kissinger- veterans, not coincidentally, of the Nixon and Bush administrations. It was also the basic perspective of leading GOP senators expert in foreign affairs, notably Richard Lugar and Chu Hagel. Republican realism was the implicit outlook of many career U.S. diplomats and soldiers such as Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993. It furthermore gained support from numerous first-generation neoconservative intellectuals such as Irving Kristol…
…Republican and conservative realists were frequently uncomfortable with the initial arguments for war in Iraq, but formed no coordinated opposition to it. In a way, that lack of opposition captures a central fact about Republican foreign policy realists today: they simply do not have the organization that other conservative foreign policy factions (anti-interventionists, hawks, nationalists) possess. Journalists regularly refer to respected elder statesmen such as Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and Brent Scowcroft as if they headed a coherent party faction, but in truth they do not. Instead, they speak for a tendency, they speak for themselves, and sometimes they do not even agree with one another. For example, in December 2006, Baker’s position favoring U.S. disengagement from Iraq was commonly taken as the ‘realist’ position, yet Kissinger urged Bush to persist and fight it out. Republican realists have their own think-tank, the Nixon Center, and their own journal, The National Interest, but they do not carry a political weight in the GOP or conservative circles comparable to that of more influential journals and think tanks such as The Weekly Standard, The National Review, the Heritage Foundation, or the American Enterprise Institute. The leading lights of Republican realism mentioned above are all in their eighties. Few prominent young foreign policy realists have surfaced or been cultivated within the Republican Party. GOP politicians with strong realist leanings, such as Senator Richard Lugar, have offered worthy public service but have not found national electoral success, and have tended to retire in recent years. Nor have the conceptual bases of Republican realism been especially well thought out or presented within the political arena. All too often, in popular commentary, foreign policy realism is simply taken as a lack of concern for morality, or a directionless pragmatism. There certainly exists a well-established school of realism in the scholarly study of international relations, offering rich insights into the nature of world politics, but most such work today is either too abstract to be of much interest to policymakers or is done without any clear connection to conservative thought.
Still, even with all of the above disadvantages, Republican realists possess a few crucial and perennial strengths. The first is simply the merits of their arguments. Republican realist analyses and recommendations regarding US foreign policy are sufficiently well attuned to actual international conditions, often enough, that presidents of either party end up being forced to take their advice, if only out of sheer necessity. Second, many of the Republican civil servants who carry the responsibility of real-world expertise and implementation- whether in America’s armed forces, the State Department, or US Intelligence Services- incline toward realism in international affairs. Third, the general American public appreciates and rewards practical success in foreign affairs, and is less messianic or moralistic in this regard than is commonly suggested. Foreign policy idealism is to some extent a special preoccupation of party elites and party activists. We will have more to say about this a little later; for the moment, the point is that foreign policy realists do have certain built-in advantages, if they can get past the filtration effect of the nation’s chattering classes…
…The most pressing need right now is for Republicans to find a new balance or fusion of the various foreign policy tendencies in their own party, one that adjusts for some of the political and policy failings of the Bush years and in a sense more conservative rather than less. A greater emphasis on conservative realism in international affairs would represent such a rebalancing adjustment for the GOP, and it should be clear from the preceding chapters that such an adjustment would be entirely consistent with the actual practices of successful Republican presidents such as Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, and Theodore Roosevelt. The new conservative realism would begin from a principled and genuinely rightward philosophical basis. It would start by recognizing that the international political arena is in important respects a perennially anarchic and dangerous place, unlikely to ever be transformed by visionary schemes for international law, world disarmament, or global governance. Under such circumstances, the possibility of the use of force always looms in the background. The freedom, safety, and position of any nation-state are never entirely secure. This is all the more reason to approach transformational or revolutionary foreign policy proposals with a skeptical mindset, which is to say, the traditional conservative mindset. Conservatism has sometimes been described as the politics of reality. Conservatives pride themselves on their gritty resistance to sweeping, messianic promises of guaranteed progress from politicians when it comes to domestic and socioeconomic matters. That very same tough-mindedness must be applied to foreign policy. There are no permanent solutions to the problems of international security, just as there are no permanent solutions to problems relating to the balancing of freedom, authority, and justice in domestic politics. The preservation of a viable, ordered liberty in even one country is not a foregone conclusion; it requires constant vigilance and care. Conservatives should therefore approach universalistic or perfectionist ideas regarding perpetual peace in world affairs with the same skepticism that they rightly apply to such issues in domestic affairs: They should consider the risk of unintended consequences, and think, like Hippocrates, to first do no harm.
A new conservative realism in foreign policy would lead to several broad guidelines. The first of these guidelines is offered in the spirit of getting our priorities straight. For the past twenty years, American attention in foreign affairs has tended to focus on the internal politics of smaller countries such as Yugoslavia, Somalia, and Iraq. Debates of US intervention in such cases are then wrongly conflated with broader and more fundamental questions. The truly fundamental question about American foreign policy is whether the United States will continue to be dominant internationally, and here the answer must be yes. Contrary to some gloomy prognostications at the moment, and even accounting for the recent economic recession, the United States possesses multiple and enduring advantages that enable it to play a predominant international role. It has the largest gross domestic product of any country in the world, immense natural resources, and significant technological advantages over major competitors. It has by far the most powerful and advanced armed forces in the world and is unmatched in conventional military capabilities, bolstered by a worldwide system of bases. It has a large, dynamic, well-educated, and growing population, capable of integrating large numbers of immigrants- an unusual combination of qualities among the world’s leading powers. It has an exceptionally robust civil society and a basic political stability and cohesion that some major powers lack. It has the most favorable geopolitical location of any great power in modern times, distant from major political rivals and also less threatening to them. It is at the very center of a global system of international alliances and institutions created in the 1940s with the hope of nurturing a more liberal and prosperous world order outside of America’s own borders- a hope that has already been vindicated beyond even the most optimistic expectations of that decade. Altogether, the United States continues to have a wide margin of superiority over any potential rival, to an extent that is historically unique…
…The reality is that U.S. predominance has made the world safer, more democratic, and more prosperous than at any time in human history. This condition of predominance serves not only U.S. interests but also international interests in a world order that is astonishingly free, wealthy, and peaceful by historical standards. The first priority of conservative realists should therefore be to safeguard American primacy internationally, and avoid any policies that carry a strong possibility of eroding its basis.
My views on the relationship between civilization and the environment have been fluctuating for the last couple of weeks, as enlightening conversations with various intelligent people tend to have that effect. I do not hold the things I have written here to be entirely true; they are mainly important considerations to be pondered over in the search for the truth of the matter. More will follow.