Showing symptoms of a widespread terminological or conceptual allergy, Daniel Drezner tweeted back at my characterization, as in the title of this post, of his recently articulated thesis on the state of everything ca. 2014 – “The Year of Living Hegemonically” – to accuse me of a failure of “comprehension.”1
I see no reason other than autonomic mental reflex to explain why Drezner apparently considers his or his editors’ notion of “living hegemonically” to be innocuous as compared to “being neo-imperial.” Indeed, though I might differ with aspects of Drezner’s analysis, which in my view somewhat contradicts its own emphasis on a “waning” of American power, his final paragraph articulates a perspective on America’s spontaneous ascendancy – exceptionality prior to any exceptionalism, the relatively passive or seemingly unconscious or unconscientious acceptance of historical election to global-political office – on which I have also written many times:
…[G]iven the depths of its domestic political dysfunction, one can only imagine what America’s rivals must think. In 2013 alone, the federal government couldn’t evade a stupid, counterproductive budget sequester, a government shutdown, and brinksmanship with the debt ceiling. There was no agreement on immigration reform, much less on policies such as climate change, education, or infrastructure. Despite mounting gridlock and policy own goals, however, the United States ends 2013 with a rapidly declining federal budget deficit, a surging energy sector, and accelerating growth in the economy and employment. President Obama was justified in noting that 2014 could be a breakthrough year for the United States. The most brilliant strategists living in Moscow, Beijing, or Tehran can’t displace the structural strengths of the United States.
Drezner’s framing of the current global conjuncture recalls Carl Schmitt’s compact formula for the American role in global affairs, during the fall of the Eurocentric order that it precipitated, a formula that also applies to the American constitutional system across its periodic re-articulations or re-foundings: “political absence, economic presence.” We need to note immediately that an ideology of political absence, of final political passivity, neutrality, disinterest, or unself-consciousness, would not be and has very evidently not been an actual political absence: Perhaps most of all during periods of isolationism or “withdrawalism,” the economic (or material) presence that an absence of intentionality seems to facilitate has remained of great, perhaps the highest conceivable, political importance. Much of Schmitt’s most striking analysis in The Nomos of the Earth concerns the inestimably disruptive effect on everyone else’s politics of a politico-economically, eventually politico-militarily and therefore culturally preponderant state, a world-historical power as per Hegel, that sees itself or its ethos as above politics or policy, as constituted by and therefore constituting universal and “self-evident” truths, an attitude that tends to operate on the level of unconscious presumption in the work of all of its best and brightest.2
To the extent Drezner’s observations are valid, they would confirm that neither the ascension of the United States of America to global leadership nor its becoming conscious of itself in that role has neutralized the formula. Neither on the rise nor in ascendancy does the U.S.A. need to understand what it does or is, or even to do it or be it very well. Its governance does not need to be exceptionally skillful or thoughtful to succeed exceptionally well. Or: The American destiny remains exceptional, however incoherent or primitive American exceptionalisms. On a similar theoretical basis, de Tocqueville was able both to foretell the future of the North American democratic empire with impressive accuracy, and to analyze its early development with unsurpassed moral clarity: A nation-state too fully conscious of itself, too capable of elaborated self-governance, too consequential in the realization of its preferred self-understandings could not have conquered a continent and its prior inhabitants, nor have gone on to conquer the world, leaving the ideologically more self-consistent powers and all of the Old World behind, where not in ashes prior to their re-constitution in its refracted image. By this formula or according to the hypothesis it encapsulates, America came to world imperial or neo-imperial primacy, or hegemony, not because “we” operated according to a collectively acknowledged and conscientiously implemented “interest” in “dominating” “them,” according to any greatly significant articulated policy or strategy of domination for its own sake3, but because an American way all but indistinguishable from an American state of being simply was and remains dominant (by now “hegemonic”), and self-evidently, or so all the smoking heaps of rubble and stinking heaps of corpses, alongside the rapid Americanization of global “monoculture,” seemed, and seem, to testify.
Up until now, perhaps for a while longer, America has not merely survived or been able to afford repeated descent into “depths of… domestic political dysfunction,” or a lack of a coherent and effective strategy for the conduct of world affairs: It has flourished – some would say “despite,” but an American theory of politics might say “because” of its congenital and self-reinforcing imbecility.4 To use Drezner’s terms, America is structurally undisplaceable. Of course, Americans may attempt and will from time to time employ consequential policies and strategies whose effects are by no means insignificant to self and others. As has often been observed, when the imperial power sneezes, lesser powers are stricken by pneumonia. In addition, aggregate consumption and lifestyle choices by the masses of citizens nearer the center or linked to it are experienced as primordial matters of life and death for the masses less favored. The latter or their leaders – all the other guys and gals, the losers and the second-raters, the backworldspeople – are the ones who truly need policy and strategy: The Neo-Empire or Empire of Liberty is its own strategy and is by “being there” already the final determinant of every policy and politics (thus the quandary that would-be “strategists” face even defining what “strategy” is or can mean for American war college curricula5). Hegemony is. It simply “lives hegemonically.” All else on Earth if not necessarily in Heaven (nor necessarily not) is secondary, perhaps usefully diversionary, since an achieved new consensus, as we occasionally set out to remind ourselves, would be counterproductive compared to our actual, virtually inarticulable but pre-eminently successful one, and possibly the sole true danger to it.
- Drezner does not apparently comprehend that I was comprehending his comprehension as possibly valid, and certainly richly arguable. In other words, from my point of view, he was disagreeing with and disapproving of himself through me. [↩]
- Put differently, the secret or mechanism of that actual preponderance, of its being or realization, is its disconnection from particular ideas: which is very much its paradoxical idea, paradoxically realized. [↩]
- “Manifest Destiny” like other openly imperialistic formulations would stand in this context as a reflection on a process already well under way. [↩]
- That this actual or spontaneous rather than conscious and conscientiously implemented strategy has so far succeeded does not mean that it or we will forever be successful, but that the same history of success that cannot yet be distinguished from history altogether may mean that we will be terminally unprepared to accept – to recognize, affirm, and adopt – any other strategy or form of strategy, or, to say almost the same thing, any strategy at all. The day that we do will be the day we have become someone else. [↩]
- See, e.g., Adam Elkus on “The Metaheuristics of War,” a post that, on the basis of all of the best and latest thinking, seems to propose a strategy of no-strategy, strategic idea of no strategic idea, fantasy of pure empiricism, madness of total rationality… [↩]