Neo-Imperialism

2016March03-07

Notes on understanding the 2016 presidential campaigns in world-historical context.

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03-10

How can a nation survive, can its institutions function, can it prosper and triumph, can the People experience or aspire to satisfaction without recourse at some point to such “tribalism”? The President cannot answer, because no one can.

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03-13

The world cannot afford the diminution of U.S. power, but U.S. power is diminishing.

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Obama seemed to be hoping that a legacy of American "credibility" on such threats would be sufficient to make this one work, without acknowledging - perhaps according to all the best and latest political scientific critiques of "credibility" - the possible damage to American credibility that his own policies had reinforced.

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"No good options" at some point becomes a rule of moral abdication - a declaration of incapacity to distinguish between worse and better, or of paralysis. Obama himself seems to oscillate between the two views: On the one hand, since there is no good option, judgment has to be suspended, but on the other hand he wants to view or wants us to accept inaction or maximal distance as the better option, so "as good as we can get if not perfect."

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03-14

"It is sadly ironic that the president’s commitment to inaction has undermined his vision of an international system in which military restraint and a smaller U.S. footprint would produce a more stable and peaceful international order."

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03-15

"...[H]ad it laid waste to Assad’s air force, field artillery, Scud missiles, and rockets, the strike would have emptied Assad’s victory speech of substantive content. Yes, the chemicals would have remained in place, and perhaps so too the Assad regime. But instruments of mass terror would have been neutralized, the migrant crisis afflicting Europe might have been averted, and tens of thousands of people now dead would still be alive."

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03-16

The further question concerns the American Republican, or conservative, or rightwing concepts - separately or all together - in relation to the evident crisis of the Republican Party. The coalition that appears to be deconstructing itself before all of our eyes - conservative intelligentsia and base disgusted at their mirror reflections, each other - is not just the Bush coalition, but the Reagan coalition.

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03-17

"It is a tragic irony: A president elected and reelected on a platform of ending wars in the Middle East has reproduced, at the end of his presidency, the very situation he inherited, decried, and swore to avoid: an escalating war against a vague terrorist enemy, with no geographic boundaries, no clear military or strategic objectives, and no principles or policies that might stop the slide down this slippery slope."

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03-18

"What is missing from the Obama doctrine is a strategic view of the role of US leadership in sustaining global order. Analysis drifts into an excuse for paralysis, but inaction carries as many dangers as intervention. Mr Obama’s realism bleeds into fatalism. To observe that the US cannot solve every problem in a disordered world should not be to conclude it is powerless. Disorder is contagious and does not respect neat lines drawn around core national interests."

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If the systematic application of the desired policy leaves even its proponents bitterly unsatisfied with and haunted by the tragedies and catastrophes it either produces or does nothing to avert, then its prospects may be dim. The main question may be which will prove intolerable first, the growing dissatisfaction, or the next catastrophe.

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03-24

Diehl assesses the Obama Doctrine, or Jeffrey Goldberg's Obama's Obama Doctrine, as, in a word, neurotic - as much a psychological construct or defense mechanism as a policy - enabling the President minimize the importance of any setbacks, the alternative being emotionally intolerable.

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April04-05

Critics erroneously compare Libya today to any number of false ideals, but this is not the correct way to evaluate the success or failure of the intervention. To do that, we should compare Libya today to what Libya would have looked like if we hadn’t intervened. By that standard, the Libya intervention was successful: The country is better off today than it would have been had the international community allowed dictator Muammar Qaddafi to continue his rampage across the country.

Critics further assert that the intervention caused, created, or somehow led to civil war. In fact, the civil war had already started before the intervention began. As for today’s chaos, violence, and general instability, these are more plausibly tied not to the original intervention but to the international community’s failures after intervention.

The very fact that the Libya intervention and its legacy have been either distorted or misunderstood is itself evidence of a warped foreign policy discourse in the US, where anything short of success — in this case, Libya quickly becoming a stable, relatively democratic country — is viewed as a failure.

Source: Everyone says the Libya intervention was a failure. They’re wrong. - Vox

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04-18

Revitalizing American exceptionalism begins with the unique role the United States plays in shaping and upholding international order. Since the end of the Second World War, the United States has led allies and partners in maintaining a global order aimed at reducing the prospects of great power war, opening markets to trade and investment, maintaining monetary stability, and creating institutions and norms to manage interstate relations.

Underwritten by American military, economic, and soft power, this order — for all the deviations from it — has served U.S. interests remarkably well. It has also served the interests of most of the world. In part because of the economic and political stability this order helped engender, the past seven decades have seen a dramatic economic expansion, the longest period of great power peace in modern times, and an expansion of democracy in areas where it had never previously taken root.

Sustaining this order has required American power, expressed through global leadership that is widely perceived as legitimate. The United States has not acted alone, but no other nation could have led the effort. No other country can do so now.

Source: It’s Time to Start Talking About American Exceptionalism Again

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The purpose of America's post-WWII foreign policy was to clarify a complicated and often dangerous world for the leaders of a large republic responsible for the life, liberty, and prosperity of its citizens by ensuring a degree of stability abroad. These are our allies, it said, and these our adversaries, for we know them by their actions and affections. Did it sometimes lack nuance? Yes, because it wasn't meant to be a work of art but a guide to making life and death decisions.

The "playbook" Obama disparages provided Kerry with what was surely his finest moment as secretary of state. When the Syrian despot tested not only an American president's promise but the moral content of the international order, America had to act, Kerry said, and lead. "History," said Kerry in a stirring speech on August 30, 2013, explaining why it was necessary to strike Assad, "would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator's wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency."

Obama hadn't let his secretary of state know that he wasn't going to strike Assad, making a fool of Kerry. But Kerry's incoherence since then, his efforts on behalf of Zarif and Lavrov, his romance with monsters are evidence of something much more ruinous. In dismantling the global order backed by American power and leadership, Obama has left the world, including his secretary of state, unmoored.

Source: A World Unmoored | The Weekly Standard

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04-20

Goldberg: But you still believe a limited strike would have been the right thing to do?

Gordon: I believed it, and I said so at the time. And this is what I thought the president thought as well. The president made clear that the regime’s use of chemical weapons in August 2013 was an example of what he meant when he warned against CW use. And remember, he said in the Rose Garden, even after he decided to go to Congress, right, he said—here’s the quote, “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price? What’s the purpose of the international system that we’ve built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world's people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced? Make no mistake—this has implications beyond chemical warfare. If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules?”

Goldberg: So your position is still a yes on a strike.

Gordon: Yes. But without denying the president’s concerns about a slippery slope. I think it would have been possible to say that this is not about changing the regime in Syria, it’s not about going to war in Syria—but when the United States says you can’t use chemical weapons, you can’t use chemical weapons. I accept that there was some risk of a slippery slope if he used CW again. But Assad would also have had to run that risk, and that’s just the dynamic that you’re in, so we needed to plant in his mind that if he tested our resolve, well, he was running a pretty big risk, too. And that might not be in either of our interests, but it certainly wouldn’t be in his.

Source: Philip Gordon: Obama Should Have Bombed Assad Over Chemical Weapons - The Atlantic

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May05-05

[T]hese days American self-government is indistinguishable from self-incrimination. Our domestic policy is a nest of rent-seeking corruption, our social insurance system is an act of theft against posterity. And our foreign policy, described fairly, resembles the last weeks of a bloodthirsty crime family, led to its bitter end by demented octogenarians.

Source: Michael Brendan Dougherty: Trump vs. Clinton is a verdict on America

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05-07

When I asked whether the prospect of this same kind of far-reaching spin campaign being run by a different administration is something that scares him, he admitted that it does. “I mean, I’d prefer a sober, reasoned public debate, after which members of Congress reflect and take a vote,” he said, shrugging. “But that’s impossible.”

Source: The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru - The New York Times

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“He is a brilliant guy, but he has a real problem with what I call the assignment of bad faith,” one former senior official told me of the president. “He regards everyone on the other side at this point as being a bunch of bloodthirsty know-nothings from a different era who play by the old book. He hears arguments like, ‘We should be punching Iran in the nose on its shipments of arms, and do it publicly,’ or ‘We should sanction the crap out of them for their ballistic-missile test and tell them that if they do it again we’re going to do this or we’re going to do that,’ and he hears Dick Cheney in those arguments.”

Another official I spoke to put the same point more succinctly: “Clearly the world has disappointed him.” When I asked whether he believed that the Oval Office debate over Syria policy in 2012 — resulting in a decision not to support the uprising against Assad in any meaningful way — had been an honest and open one, he said that he had believed that it was, but has since changed his mind. “Instead of adjusting his policies to the reality, and adjusting his perception of reality to the changing realities on the ground, the conclusions he draws are exactly the same, no matter what the costs have been to our strategic interests,” he says. “In an odd way, he reminds me of Bush.” The comparison is a startling one — and yet, questions of tone aside, it is uncomfortably easy to see the similarities between the two men, American presidents who projected their own ideas of the good onto an indifferent world.

 

Source: The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru - The New York Times

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05-10
05-11

Put more simply: The failure of the neocon project led to, as a practical matter seemed to require, the replacement of neo-imperialism with xenophobia in Republican conservative rhetoric. To those capable of setting aside their judgments of the American approach to the world, the psychology involved may resemble the familiar pattern of unrequited love. Those on the Left will be constitutionally predisposed to put the idea in almost any other way, and may also operate under the belief that they or their constituencies are immune to the syndrome.

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05-30
June06-13

The post-Bush-doctrine Republican Party is no longer guided by an idealistic and impractical vision for defeating radical Islam. All it has left is a residue of fear and nationalism, ripe for manipulation by a demagogue. The logic of Trump’s conquest of the Republican Party is most glaringly obvious when it is splayed against the backdrop of the terrorist threat. He has taken control of an empty vessel and steered it toward its only possible course.

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06-16

While conservatives are more than within their rights to write off Trump, they would be neither wise nor justified to write off the Jacksonians. They may be disgusted with Trump’s antics, and they may find some Jacksonian positions inchoate, wrongheaded, or unfulfillable. But after the dust from this election settles, it will be urgently necessary to once again fuse patriotic, idealistic, and inclusive conservatism with Jacksonian nationalism.

Ideals need gut instincts and folk tradition on their side in order to be efficacious. The Jacksonian sense of common American identity enables self-governance, charity, and neighborliness; for many — including groups that the GOP has been trying to court for years, such as Hispanic Americans and single women without college degrees — it gives important meaning to life. And Jacksonian support will also be necessary to addressing our pressing foreign-policy problems.

For now, Jacksonianism lies closer to conservatism than it does to the identity-politics Left, and one may reasonably hope for a “best of both” compromise between intellectual conservatism and Jacksonian impulses. It will take some time to work out the details, but time is something we conservatives will have a lot of as we spend the rest of the 2016 presidential campaign in the political wilderness. Consider it the price of ignoring political reality for a generation.

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July07-06

Prior to his ouster, the United States was compelled to engage in military action against Hussein as a result of his provocations in 1991, 1993, 1996, and 1998. Those military actions were precipitated by little things like the invasion and annexation of neighboring territory, the attempted assassination of an American president, and the repeated violation of UN and American post-war terms. Hussein’s commitment to destabilizing the region and overturning the balance in the region in his favor was unflappable. The Middle East was in a perpetual state of warfare punctuated by acts of regional and global terrorism targeting Western interests well before 2003. To suggest otherwise is nonsense.

Trump’s praise for the alleged terrorist-hunter Saddam is a disgusting habit deserving of categorical condemnation from every sector of responsible American society. And in giving voice to a sinister non-interventionist conceit—that Saddam’s victims died in service to “stability” and Western comfort—Trump is also holding up an unforgiving mirror to those who would prefer to avoid the reflection.

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07-09

There is a lot of anger about the postwar descent into chaos, but much of that anger in Iraq is being directed towards the corrupt Iraqi political class who killed our dreams and aspirations, not the clueless, sometimes well-intentioned, foreign invaders. Here in Britain, there seems to be nostalgia for pre-2003 Iraq. People either do not know or have too quickly forgotten the horrors of the Ba’athist regime.

Saddam’s endless wars with Iraq’s neighbours and his genocidal campaigns against his own people are bizarrely seen by many in the west as part of an era of “stability” and “security” for Iraqis. Stability imposed with chemical weapons and security achieved with mass graves. We would need to stretch the definition of those words beyond reason and meaning before we could ever apply them to pre-2003 Iraq.

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07-25

...[W]e’re currently witnessing rapid shifts in: the geopolitics of Europe and the Middle East, the politics of U.S. and Russian hegemony, the demographic makeup of the United States, the way we buy things, the way we communicate. The reality is that Hillary Clinton is the last globalist, the last interventionist, the last corporatist left in the race. The American tradition for a century has been globalist, interventionist, corporatist. But traditions can end, parties can change, ideologies can die out. We are living through the end of an inflection point that started 15 years ago. Do not underestimate that what happens next could be something you’ve never seen before.And yes, it could be that this year has been a fever dream rather than an unraveling, that the political process will right itself, that the next thing will look a lot like the last thing. But if it isn’t, if the jaggedness doesn’t recede, if something doesn’t break, if things continue to be so disorienting, if you always suspected that this was coming, well, Stephen Miller and I have one last question for you and, baby, we want to hear you scream:

Are you ready for a new era of American history?

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October10-11

For many U.S. politicians and pundits, forceful action in virtually any arena is its own reward. In Syria specifically, many interventionists have argued that the United States needs to be more deeply involved in the war because this will give it more diplomatic and military leverage.  Leadership and involvement, in this view, has value in its own right independently of outcomes on the battlefield. Russia would take U.S. diplomacy more seriously if it saw American political capital invested in the game. American allies, whether in the Gulf or among the Syrian opposition, would be more inclined to follow Washington’s lead if they saw its power more fully deployed.  American proxies would be stronger on the ground, or at least have more spoils of patronage to show for their alignment, and be better placed to push back jihadists within the ranks of the insurgency. By showing leadership and paying costs, the United States would gain diplomatic advantages and, perhaps, win the respect of Arab and Muslim publics.

Critics doubt many of these assumptions about the likely outcome of action. They look at the lessons of Iraq and see few benefits and enormous costs to deeper military involvement in such a war. The lessons of Iraq and Libya loom appropriately large. History suggests that few of the proposed benefits are likely to materialize, while the costs and unintended consequences of action typically far exceed predictions.  U.S. allies and adversaries would not simply step aside as Washington entered the fray. Allies would continue to push for more and more support, and to shape American policy choices, while adversaries would continue to move to check American advances and counter its moves.  Deeply divided Arab and Muslim publics deeply conditioned to question American policies would not likely welcome the U.S. military role, whatever they say today, and jihadists would certainly not stop fighting. Such reservations explain why the Obama administration has been so deeply wary of being dragged down the famous slippery slope from limited actions into direct military involvement.

But that, nonetheless, is where Syria policy seems to be headed.

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10-19

If the United States announced tomorrow morning that it would no longer use its military for anything but to defend the borders of the homeland, many would instinctively cheer, perhaps not quite realizing what this would mean in practice. But that is the conundrum the Left is now facing. A world without mass slaughter, of the sort of we are seeing every day in Syria, cannot ever come to be without American power. But perhaps this will prove one of the positive legacies of the Obama era: showing that the alternative of American disinterest and disengagement is not necessarily better. For those, though, that care about ideology—holding on to the idea that U.S. military force is somehow inherently bad—more than they care about actual human outcomes, the untenability of their position will persist. That, too, will be a tragedy, since at a time when many on the Right are turning jingoistic or isolationist, there is a need for voices that not just believe in U.S. power, but believe that that power—still, for now, preeminent—can be used for better, more moral ends.

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10-26

Whatever its merits, the United States’ limited involvement in Syria granted Russia a powerful first-mover advantage, which in turn has complicated US policy options, granted a strategic foothold to a historical rival, facilitated mass atrocities, and undermined the concept of an international liberal order. The belief that Russia valued US and international goodwill more than its hard geopolitical interests turned out to be wrong. The assumption that what the United States saw as a “quagmire” would be judged similarly by Russia was arrogant and misplaced. Despite US warnings that destruction and loss of human capital will make ruling Syria impossible to govern, Russia seems unfazed and comfortable operating in this environment.

The next US president should understand that Russian and US worldviews and interests are different. The former are probably irreconcilable. The latter may not be, but only if the cost to the regime and its allies is raised directly or by proxy thereby compelling Russia to recalculate its investment in the Syrian regime. If the incoming administration decides that none of the various policy options for doing so are worth the risk, or that the negative fallout from Russia’s involvement is acceptable, so be it. The arguments and analyses are well known by now. What US leaders cannot do, however, is ignore over five years of incontrovertible evidence and risk yet another half-decade pretending Russian behavior in Syria and its regional and global effects will change if US policy in Syria does not.

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November11-04
11-13

[T]he broader failure of the left was the same one made in the lead-up to 1914 and the Great war, when, in the apt phrase of the British-Czech philosopher, Ernest Gellner, a letter sent to a mailbox marked “class” was mistakenly delivered to one marked “nation.” Nation almost always trumps class because it is able to tap into a powerful source of identity, the desire to connect with an organic cultural community. This longing for identity is now emerging in the form of the American alt-right, a formerly ostracised collection of groups espousing white nationalism in one form or another. But even short of these extremists, many ordinary American citizens began to wonder why their communities were filling up with immigrants, and who had authorised a system of politically correct language by which one could not even complain about the problem. This is why Donald Trump received a huge number of votes from better-educated and more well-off voters as well, who were not victims of globalisation but still felt their country was being taken from them. Needless to say, this dynamic underlay the Brexit vote as well.

So what will be the concrete consequences of the Trump victory for the international system? Contrary to his critics, Trump does have a consistent and thought-through position: he is a nationalist on economic policy, and in relation to the global political system. He has clearly stated that he will seek to renegotiate existing trade agreements such as Nafta and presumably the WTO, and if he doesn’t get what he wants, he is willing to contemplate exiting from them. And he has expressed admiration for “strong” leaders such as Russia’s Putin who nonetheless get results through decisive action. He is correspondingly much less enamoured of traditional US allies such as those in Nato, or Japan and South Korea, whom he has accused of freeriding on American power. This suggests that support for them will also be conditional on a renegotiation of the cost-sharing arrangements now in place.

The dangers of these positions for both the global economy and for the global security system are impossible to overstate.

From: US against the world? Trump’s America and the new global order

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11-27

In the terms coined by Walter Russell Mead, Obama is a Jeffersonian, while Trump is a Jacksonian: The former believes that the United States should perfect its own democracy and go “not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” whereas the latter believes that “the United States should not seek out foreign quarrels” but that it should clobber anyone who messes with it. What unites Jeffersonians and Jacksonians, in spite of their substantial differences, is that both support quasi-isolationism — or, if you prefer, noninterventionism — unless severely provoked.

Obama has been intent on pulling the United States back from the Middle East.Obama has been intent on pulling the United States back from the Middle East. The result of his withdrawal of troops from Iraq and his failure to get more actively involved in ending the Syrian civil war has been to create a vacuum of power that has been filled by the likes of the Islamic State and Hezbollah. Undaunted, Trump has said he wants not only to continue the pullback from the Middle East (he wants to subcontract American policy in Syria to Putin) but also to retreat from Europe and East Asia. He has suggested that he may lift sanctions on Russia and pull U.S. troops out of countries (from Germany to Japan) if he feels they are not paying enough for American protection. It is quite possible, then, that Trump’s foreign policy would represent an intensification rather than a repudiation of Obama’s “lead from behind” approach.

American power survived eight years of an Obama presidency, albeit in diminished form. If the president-elect governs the way he campaigned (which, admittedly, is not necessarily a safe assumption), there is good cause to wonder whether U.S. ascendancy will survive four to eight years of Trumpism. The post-American age may be arriving sooner than imagined, ushered in by a president with an “America First” foreign policy.

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December12-06

The populist wave now cresting across much of the world is sometimes described as a revolt against globalization: immigrants failing to assimilate the values of their hosts, poorer countries drawing jobs from richer ones, and so on. But the root complaint is not about economics. It’s about justice. Why does the banker get the bailout while the merchant goes bankrupt? Why does the illegal immigrant get to jump the citizenship queue? What right does a foreign judge have to tell us what punishments our criminals deserve? Why do our soldiers risk their lives for the defense of wealthy allies?

Those of us who believe in the liberal international order (now derisively called “globalism”) ought to think about this. There are powerful academic arguments to be made for the superiority of free trade over mercantilism, or of Pax Americana over America First. But liberalism’s champions will continue to lose the argument until we learn to make our case not in the language of what works, but of what’s right.

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12-08
12-13

America aims to be as much and as little interventionist and militarist as required in order to avoid ever becoming as catastrophically interventionist and militarist as she, in competition or cooperation with potentially many others, could be.

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12-19

If Obama wants credit for not getting us into another war, the credit is his. If he wants credit for not being guilty of “overreach,” the credit is his. If he wants credit for conceiving of every obstacle and impediment to American action in every corner of the globe, the credit is his. But it is a shameful and incontrovertible fact of our history that during the past eight years the values of rescue, assistance, protection, humanitarianism and democracy have been demoted in our foreign policy and in many instances banished altogether. The ruins of the finest traditions of American internationalism, of American leadership in a darkening world, may be found in the ruins of Aleppo. Our ostentatious passivity is a primary cause of that darkening. When they go low, we go home. The Obama legacy in foreign policy is vacuum-creation, which his addled America-First successor will happily ratify.

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12-20

If members of the present younger generation in particular seem unable to articulate or comprehend the basis of a still operative policy consensus, they can hardly be faulted if their elders, even those running for the highest office in the land, can no longer do so either. We seem to be preparing and in effect demanding - perhaps cannot help but to require - a repetition, or at least a reinforcement, of the very old lesson.

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2017January01-17

The frontier was about being frugal with our assets. It was about pushing out over the perimeter, but only while tending to our own. It was about maintaining supply lines, however much that slowed us up. Above all it was about pragmatism. Such were the wages of settling a parched continent on the far side of the Missouri River — America’s first adventure in nation-building in a hostile physical environment. And the further removed we become from the psychology of that original experience, the worse will be our encounter with the world beyond.

Indeed, our geography fiercely argues for a balance: be wary of nation-building, but remember the global responsibilities of a maritime nation. After all, it was only by conquering a great desert that we became a sea power — since without reaching the Pacific Coast we never could have built our 300-ship Navy. And it is that Navy, our primary strategic instrument given that nuclear weapons must never be used, that guards the great sea lines of communication along with access to hydrocarbons for our allies, thus allowing for a semblance of global order in the first place. America, precisely because of its geography, is fated to lead.

From: Why Trump Can’t Disengage America From the World - The New York Times

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We have to accept we’re in a war and that we have a lot to lose. We need to look at this war differently, both geographically and strategically. For example, it’s hard to understand Ukraine and Syria as two fronts in the same conflict when we never evaluate them together with Moscow in the center of the map, as Russia does. We also need a new national security concept that adds a new strategic framework, connects all our resources, and allows us to better evaluate and respond to Gerasimov-style warfare: we have to learn to fight their one war machine with a unified machine of our own. This will also strengthen and quicken decisionmaking on critical issues in the US — something we will also need to replicate within NATO.

Exposing how the Kremlin’s political and information warfare works is a critical component of this strategy, as is acting to constrain it. We must (re)accept the notion that hard power is the guarantor of any international system: security is a precondition for anything (everything) else. That the projection of our values has tracked with and been amplified by force projection is no accident. Human freedom requires security. NATO has been the force projection of our values. It hasn’t just moved the theoretical line of conflict further forward: the force multiplication and value transference has enhanced our security. This is far cheaper, and far stronger, than trying to do this ourselves.

It’s also important to acknowledge that a more isolated, more nationalist America helps Putin in his objectives even while it compromises our own. We need to accept that America was part of, and needs to be part of, a global system — and that this system is better, cheaper, and more powerful than any imagined alternatives. For many years, the United States has been the steel in the framework that holds everything together; this is what we mean by ‘world order’ and ‘security architecture,’ two concepts that few politicians try to discuss seriously with the electorate.

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