Libya and the End of the American Imperium

Watching the array of opinion on Libya play out over the screen of public pronouncement and positioning has been a marvel, a kind of international and inter-ideological performance art – the Western political mind CAT-scanned, back lit, and thrown onto a blotter. It looks a lot like a Pollack.

We’ve got the neocon “freedom agenda,” conservative assertions of superpower might, humanitarian interventionism, (Scoop) Jacksonian solidarity with “freedom fighters,” Realism, Internationalism, liberal handwringing (“Yes, but”) moral crusadism (“We must save them”) ethical conundrumism (“If Libya, why not Bahrain?” or “First we do business with him, then we attack him?”) Left anti-Imperialism, and Right isolationism.

If I missed a variation, please do let me know. But see how the colors run all over each other?

This is the Western world’s political consciousness, a snapshot of its mental activity, at a particular point in history. What point? The post American Imperium.

Not everyone acknowledges our arrival at such a point. Some may think it a self-fulfilling idea. Still, it is in the air, and how does one think about it? (And what does one mean by it?)

By far the best work that Andrew Sullivan has done in recent years, amid his sometimes far lesser work, has been to delineate how what passes for political conservatism in the United States today departs from any kind of conservative temperament and any truly conservative political philosophy naturally emergent from it. A couple of weeks ago, writing in James Fallow’s place at The Atlantic, Sam Roggeveen, of Australia’s Lowey Institute for International Policy, offered a series of posts making a challenging case for what he argued is a more natural conservative position with regard to international institutions than currently exists in the U.S. – a position that makes great sense in a mutlipolar world and that might even be taken for progressive.

The benefits of an international society — a law-bound international order marked by authoritative institutions and universally recognized traditions – may not be readily apparent to Americans. After all, systems of laws has little attraction for those with the resources to protect themselves in an anarchical world. But in the multipolar order to come, international society will be far more important to the U.S.

Now, realists are not necessarily against the idea of international institutions such as the UN. As I said in the previous posts, they see such bodies as a useful stage for the international power struggle — a way to manage competition. But that misses their deeper purpose, which is to tame or sublimate the power contest. In my previous post I quoted the English conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, and here he is again on the importance of constitution. It is the conservative’s desire, Scruton says,

…to see power not naked in the forum of politics, but clothed in constitution, operating always through an adequate system of law, so that it’s movement seems never barbarous or oppressive, but always controlled and inevitable, an expression of the civilized vitality through which allegiance is inspired.

With Libya in mind, Sullivan sympathetically responded to these ideas, before the intervention.

What’s striking to me is how many American conservatives actually long for the exercize of brute force or constant executive action in the face of a dramatically changing world. This they call strength – even after the debacles of Bush’s executive whims. They see the role of an American president as mastering the world, controlling events, forcing everything through the prism of post-war American hegemony. But that hegemony is over, partly because of America’s success in defeating the Soviets and China’s and India’s successes in forging a new economic order. The kind of hegemony Nixon or Reagan enjoyed was an accident of history. It will not be regained, by the laws of economics, and demography.

Rogeveen ended his second post on the topic by recognizing that

if there are any conservatives left reading this post, they may well be thinking that this all sounds rather … well … progressive. In my next post, I want to explain why conservatives can’t just dismiss this as a lefty CINO (conservative-in-name-only) plot.

Here is how Rogeveen fleshed out this observation in the third post.

So my argument is that America’s best option is to accommodate the rise of China and other developing countries, and that the transition to multipolarity will be much smoother and safer if the U.S. recognizances the meliorative effect of an international society. But for the American right to recognize the necessity of such a shift in U.S. foreign policy would require a presently unthinkable cultural shift. American conservatives are used to looking on international institutions, particularly the UN, with great suspicion.

This represents a curious inversion of the positions that right and left take when debating the importance of law and tradition in the domestic realm. In domestic politics, the attack on institutions and traditions tends to come from the left, and is made largely in the name of freedom — authoritative institutions and traditions, it is argued on the left, impose restrictions on how individuals can express themselves, and tend to favor the interests of elites over the powerless.

The conservative response is that, in fact, traditions and authoritative institutions are a precondition for the exercise of liberty. Freedom is not a natural condition of mankind but a historical achievement brought about, in part, by those very institutions and traditions. And without a common assent to the authority of national institutions such as a legislature and the courts, there would be no basis upon which to debate political differences.

So the right’s attitude to international laws, institutions, and traditions stands in contrast to how it views the role of law and tradition in the domestic realm. This can mostly be explained by nationalism and the fear of a creeping “one-world government,” and there is substance to the charge that international institutions such as the UN can undermine state institutions and erode sovereignty. To the extent that the UN, for instance, poses such a threat, it is because the UN in certain guises is an idealistic institution, one with defined aims toward which it encourages the international community to move — the UN’s Human Rights Charter is an excellent example.

But in other guises, the UN is a proceduralist law-making body, of the kind which conservatives can easily support. In fact, by far the stronger tendency within the UN is toward proceduralism. Although the UN had strong purposive and even utopian influences in its genesis, these were soon overwhelmed by bodies such as the Security Council, which still have a strong proceduralist character. In this proceduralist guise, the UN is no threat at all to national sovereignty, since its purpose is not to constrain sovereignty or guide states toward a particular idealistic vision in which the state withers away. Rather, it is merely there to provide the institutional framework in which states perform their freely chosen actions.

Now, a crucial distinction for Rogeveen, going back to the first post, is between what he calls the Realist conception of international institutions as existing to “manage” the international power struggle and competition and what he argues, with Roger Scruton, is a more naturally conservative intent to “tame or sublimate the power contest.” This is fascinating and subtle, and one consideration is whether it is too subtle to be real. One may also find a distinction in this between national and international representations of conservatism as Rogeveen explores them above in his third post.

Quite arguably, modern day conservatives do believe that within national bounds, law and institutions do tame and sublimate the power struggle, but that internationally, where these elements will inevitably be weaker due to greater allegiance to national structures, the best they can ever do is manage the struggle. What follows from this is the sense, which conservatives do have, that to believe that the sublimation can succeed internationally is dangerously idealistic and, as conservatives would have it, indeed, progressive.

I also think Rogeveen significantly misreads the current situation in the U.S. Quite arguably, also, one of the manifestations of political conservatives’ departure from a true conservative temperament is the loosening of their political allegiance to even national institutions. Increasingly, American conservatives, and this includes Tea Partiers, express diminished regard for American institutions and laws. Their proclamation of respect for institutions is increasingly to ideal ones, and not the real ones. Thus we get that idealization of the Founders – conceptually institutionalized as to their originating ideals – rather than to existing institutions. We see allegiance to the conceptual “institution of marriage,” rather than to the naturally institutionalized – through evolving law – changes in social mores. The Supreme Court is not respected as an institution, but reviled, once, for liberal activism in place of what should have been, conservatives argued, an institutional conservatism (including regard for precedent); then, when political conservatives reached the court and ruled not conservatively, but in an expression of conservative activism, the court (but really the prevailing political force on it) was in favor again.

West face of the United States Supreme Court b...
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What Rogeveen misses is that the American conservative position on international institutions is not an aberrational departure from what American conservatism is domestically, but instead a representation of where it has already headed domestically. Even in the U.S., conservatives view the law and institutions not as systems for sublimating the power struggle, but only as tools for politically managing it to their ends.

In a similar realm of potentially unreal subtle distinction is that which Rogeveen offers between the U.N. as an “idealistic institution” and a “proceduralist law-making body.” As the latter, the U.N. exists as the bureaucratic monster par excellence (rivaled, perhaps, by the European Parliament). Bureaucracies have a way of manifesting themselves, in their procedural law making, as their own self-perpetuating ideals. One need only imagine what the merely “proecduralist” U.N. would have attempted to do to Israel already were there not Security Council power politics management in place to prevent it.

On the other hand, with regard to subtle distinctions, internationally, management of competition may not be all that practically different from the taming of it. We can be behavioralists on this score. The more a nation acts, in its interest, with regard to international institutions, the less it matters whether in its non-existent heart it really respects them. But what Rogeveen argues is that beyond Realism as an international political philosophy, Internationalism can function in a naturally conservative way toward managing the rough beast of humanity and the nations it inhabits. And this is where Libya is ground for consideration.

The hard chargers for headlong U.S. intervention, on its own if necessary, coming from both the Right and Left, were and are operating out of a quickly passing paradigm. So, too, are the reflexive isolationists and anti-Imperialists, who must pass stations at a slew of practical and moral questions to maintain their full speed on one track to one stop only. And while it could be that one of the goddamn fools (if you’ll excuse the academic jargon) currently being discussed as potential GOP presidential candidates will somehow win, and delay the inevitable with the reactive lurch of an American behemoth attempting to maintain its straddle of the earth, the change will come. The U.S., in its own interests, must begin to exercise the power of its greatness, except when absolutely necessary otherwise, not in unilateral dominance, but in group leadership, which may even mean choosing to recede at times from the forefront.

The only advocate of a course of action – with a policy necessarily, wisely evolving with changing circumstance – who has acted with a vision of the future, of the changing international order, has been President Obama. It is a vision progressive in its contribution toward building international institutions. It is the vision of a man temperamentally conservative in his unwillingness, when avoidable, to ignore existing institutions and prevailing conditions in the pursuit of radical goals. This is a truth about Obama that those who reflexively revile him have been unable to recognize. It is a vision that will strengthen the U.S. in the new, additional ways in which it needs to be strong for the future.

That is if the branch swingers don’t toss their banana peels all over the canvas.


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