(Text version follows)
< !DOCTYPE html>
An American Conservative Declinism
Another foreign policy dialogue
- We begin where Tim Kowal, a politically active California attorney and blogger, quotes a familiarly excessive and derogatory attack on the President.
- The quote concerns a sidebar, or sidebar to sidebars, on the Crimea crisis, the notion that events prove former presidential nominee Mitt Romney right to have designated Russia as America's "number one geopolitical foe" in remarks for which he was harshly criticized by President Obama and supporters. I am more interested, however, in the assumptions underlying this argument:
- Kowal begins with a recitation of familiar abstractions or premises in summary form…
- One thing that separates Kowal from many on all sides of political discussion is his willingness to make a reasonable concession – or stipulation:
- I am suggesting here that, if interventionists (in effect, the contemporary American "right" minus isolationists) cannot explain to us what specifically we lose or risk as a result of our supposed failures, they give up any chance of being persuasive now, and at best reinforce their status with a view to some future epoch of renewed popular sensitivity to foreign dangers and renewed willingness to act.
- Kowal here adopts as his own position one frequently attributed to the President and his party by Kowal's usual allies, who will assert that a "managed decline" policy amounts to self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of a weak if not treasonous president.
- Here I am referring in general terms to original American revolutionism, an ideology of renovation and re-ordering of the world via a republican, in more modern terms liberal-democratic, idea. From this perspective, the general acceptance of liberal democracy, as effectively the final historical form of just governance, would represent a human and global triumph, not merely or specifically, and certainly not exclusively, a triumph for and by the United States of America or for the inhabitants of North America or an American nation. As citizens of a "state-nation" rather than subjects of a "nation state," proponents of an egalitarian and "federative" concept (Jefferson) rather than of a particular ethno-national or monarchical, aristocratic, theocratic, Old World, racial, etc., destiny, Americans advance ideal or messianic Americanism as and on behalf of world citizens, on behalf finally of the human species in its entirety, just as the American state gathers and amalgamates all peoples of the world.
- In other words, a "last American century" would allow for a return to the American constitutional ideal, contingent on a final triumph not by one American nation over all of the others, but by a triumph of the republican concept itself over the national concept.
Put abstractly, the idea of course sounds utopian if not apocalyptic, but world history as such is already an articulation of absolutes: To discuss world history is to discuss the fate of the world, and the fate of the world is the articulation of collective and eternal destiny, eventually a religious or absolute moral subject.
- Here Kowal diverges substantially from the views of many neoconservatives and other proponents of American material power as a good in itself that not only must but should continually expand, bringing freedom to ever more people, for their sake as well as for ours. (The widely misunderstood "end of history" paradigm, as global triumph of the "new order of the ages," means simply that it will always be easier to sneer at the W-Bushian formulation, offered in terms of a divine gift, than to construct a clear, coherent, consistent, and morally acceptable alternative; that effectively no one will sustain an argument against it except by recapitulation of its basic premises.)
- An American sense of mission is a simultaneously wholly pragmatic and wholly ideal mission – of the final indistinction of pragmatism and idealism, as of the final and primordial equality (as indistinction of class and national differences) of human beings as human beings (all "men" self-evidently created equal).
- The hawks who can neither explain the costs of inaction nor calculate the risks of intervention find themselves in a world seemingly devoid of comprehensible meanings or accessible and familiar modes of meaning production: However, unlike those who revert to, in short, crypto-fascistic or reactionarily nationalistic alternatives – American policy under one another set of warrior and tribal principles, a "declinism" of moral concept – Kowal turns to a more rational basis for policy:
- So, the relative decline of the American state-nation might be tolerable from the perspective of the universal liberal-democratic ideal if that decline does not result in a critical relative empowerment of "evil" regimes. From this perspective, "evil" regimes would be those regimes whose triumph would equate with foreclosure of the liberal-democratic possibility.
- I'm returning here to the "last American century" premise and the idea of a moral or religious mission alongside and in some way overriding any simply material or economic one. Kowal is, after all, imagining Americans, over generations one presumes, somehow accustoming themselves to an experience or at least the appearance of national-political decline, a process presenting unique difficulties and dangers, and continual opportunities for demagogy, not least from among Kowal's usual political allies – as in the article that Kowal tweeted at the beginning of these exchanges.
- "Action flick lines" obviously suggests an appeal to classically masculine concepts of warrior virtue, here in a sacrificial mode. The positive "spin" that has worked in the past takes a form that Kowal is, I believe, somewhat committed to oppose: Wilsonian and Rooseveltian liberal internationalism, even as sustained during the Cold War under Republican presidents.The problem in the "Age of Obama" may be adaptation of liberal internationalism, which was developed as an official narrative for history's greatest global power on the rise, then elaborated over a long period of neo-imperial consolidation, to the circumstances of seemingly inevitable relative material decline at the state-national center.