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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Noted & Quoted

TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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[E]ven Fox didn’t tout Bartiromo’s big scoops on Trump’s legislative agenda, because 10 months into the Trump presidency, nobody is so foolish as to believe that him saying, “We’re doing a big infrastructure bill,” means that the Trump administration is, in fact, doing a big infrastructure bill. The president just mouths off at turns ignorantly and dishonestly, and nobody pays much attention to it unless he says something unusually inflammatory.On some level, it’s a little bit funny. On another level, Puerto Rico is still languishing in the dark without power (and in many cases without safe drinking water) with no end in sight. Trump is less popular at this point in his administration than any previous president despite a generally benign economic climate, and shows no sign of changing course. Perhaps it will all work out for the best, and someday we’ll look back and chuckle about the time when we had a president who didn’t know anything about anything that was happening and could never be counted on to make coherent, factual statements on any subject. But traditionally, we haven’t elected presidents like that — for what have always seemed like pretty good reasons — and the risks of compounding disaster are still very much out there.

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