A Referendum on the Global Security System and the American Presidency

bob asks some questions under the previous post that I think deserve to be highlighted:

[I]s there a global system, however unarticulated, that survives the scrutiny of competing points of view, of policing norms? Does the US have an exceptional status in this system that the  US accepts/craves that is outside the too imperfect normative structure of the UN? If it existed, does it still function well enough or is it broken? Is the Syria crisis in fact a crisis of the system, assuming it exists at all?

These questions seem mostly absent from the discussion except in the occasional “Do we really want to be the policeman of the world?” which maybe says it well enough if  “Does the world want us to be?” is added.

The only thing that makes Syria a crisis for Americans as Americans is that it is a crisis of the global system in which we have a share, and which connects us to Syria at all. I think the President’s maneuver – a maneuver about which I confess I’m of two minds at this point – makes bob’s main questions clear, and effectively the subject of a national-legislative referendum, even if they have not generally, as bob notes, been directly articulated. As for whether or not the system actually exists – that’s also up to us to decide, or virtually the same decision as whether or not at any given time, or over time, we choose to support its existence.

President Obama has demonstratively removed any sense of urgency from the operation he endorses, and has adopted a course of action that, for the most part, only his most ardent political enemies were demanding. However he phrases things in his further public statements, whatever specific, effectively ancillary arguments he or his people or his allies choose to highlight – defense of Israel, influence on Iran and North Korea, CWs in the hands of the evildoers, what kind of world we leave for our children, etc. – the President has put before Congress a vote on the international system in its America-centric or Neo-Imperial form, with his office, as it has developed, and the norm against mass annihilation of people, as interdependent critical features of that system, subject to simultaneous yay or nay.

A Commander-in-Chief of a world’s security force is necessitated by threats to world security. If we don’t believe in those threats, or if we believe in them but don’t care about them, or if we believe in and care about them but cannot handle them, then we have no reason to support such a force, and the C-in-C can over time work his way back to pre-Lincolnian status, soliciting wealthy donors for upkeep of the dilapidated mansion on the swamp, and all the dust-gathering monuments, and we’ll… see what happens, a prospect that might make me glad I’m not one of the young people yelling “bring it on!” who will have to deal with the results.

I don’t want to exaggerate the meaning of this crisis or of the particular political decision. It may take many votes to vote ourselves out of global office. In the aftermath of a down vote, we may have a chance to observe consequential movement towards abdication, decide we do not like it, and reverse course before irrevocable damage has been done.

We may need just such an experiment to persuade a new generation, here and abroad, that the empire is worth saving, or to persuade others that it was not or no longer is, after all, worth the investment in blood and treasure. We may need much more than a few years, and a few setbacks, to feel we have settled the issue. We may need to annihilate the system in detail to evaluate it persuasively – that is, after all, how science often works, destroying the test subject in order to learn its anatomy.

Such a process, effectuated in the world laboratory, might even be seen as entirely pragmatic, and quite ruthless, in both senses within the broad American tradition. It would also no doubt produce excellent diversion for those secure enough to enjoy the process passively, the best video game ever.


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  1. Part of the quandry is no longer knowing if the predicates for an exceptional US role are (still) sufficient to support it. The opinion of the US citizens => voters and some manifestation of world public opinion is one of these, but is not sufficient. The fourth generation war/net centric war environment may introduce/create too much complexity for the 20th century world system to adapt. The breakdown you attribute to the experiment possibly unfolding may happen in one form or another anyway.

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