The World American Dysfunction Made

Military policy is one of those subjects that requires certain bona fides to discuss them with any level of sophistication.  It crosses history, sociology, military history and strategy, each of which is a serious study in its own right, and yet all of which are necessary to forming an opinion on military policy worth listening to.  I certainly do not meet that standard.  I didn’t even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.  But I did just finish reading Robert Kagan’s brisk new book, The World America Made, and am more than happy to pass along some of his sophisticated insights.

What first got me eager to discuss Kagan’s book was an intersection between his observations about democracy’s struggle to take hold internationally and some discussions here about our own democracy.  I recently asked why many left-leaning, big-government types seem to care more about outcomes than process, and I also took issue with Justice Ginsburg’s statements suggesting our Constitution is outmoded.  While the discussion about outcomes may change with the times, the discussion about process doesn’t.  We might dispute whether the Constitution got rights right, but we don’t often tussle over whether powers should be separated, or whether life, liberty, or property should be deprived without due process of law.  And yet these procedural elements define the majority of the Constitution’s work.  Disparaging it suggests that we are no longer worried about slipping back into a tyrannical government in which power is concentrated in a small group of people and wielded for the benefit of friends of the elite.  (Depending on your definition, this may have already occurred.)

And yet, it may be America’s political dysfunctionalism—its antithesis to the “stronger, more energetic and efficient, and more capable” totalitarian governments—that made it such a successful world power since the end of WWII.

But Kagan argues it is extremely unwise to take democracy for granted.  Democracy is not a foregone conclusion; it is not our manifest destiny; and it is not the natural product of human political evolution.  By the end of the 19th century, Kagan recounts, there had never been more than five democracies among the world’s nations.  By 1900 there were suddenly a dozen, and that number doubled again after WWI.  But then a “reverse wave” washed over the world in the ‘20s and ‘30s, wiping out democracy’s four decades of gains by the eve of WWII.  What accounts for democracy’s reversal of fortune?  In the face of economic instability and social and political pressures of industrialism, “fascist governments look stronger, more energetic and efficient, and more capable of providing reassurance in troubled times,” says Kagan.  They are arguments that will sound familiar to observers of contemporary American domestic policy.

And yet, it may be America’s political dysfunctionalism—its antithesis to the “stronger, more energetic and efficient, and more capable” totalitarian governments—that made it such a successful world power since the end of WWII. “It is Americans’ evident reluctance to wield power, their obvious aversion to the responsibilities of ruling others—more than their commitment to laws and institutions—that makes the United States for many nations a tolerable if often misguided hegemon.” If the U.S. were an effective world leader, Kagan seems to be saying, its leadership might not be so unchallenged.  And liberal political and economic principles would be less established in the world.

The year 1945—not coincidentally, Kagan notes, the birth date of the American world order—marks the beginning of the end of great-power wars. “The power of the United States has been the biggest factor in the preservation of great-power peace.” The world’s great powers from then forward would comport themselves much differently because of the U.S.  Many nations welcome the opportunity to free-ride on America’s willingness to police the world.  After WWII, Europeans wanted the U.S. military standing between them and the Red Army and a revived Germany. NATO was Europe’s “invitation to empire” to the U.S.  By the ‘90s, the world America made saw the number of democracies explode to 120, covering half the world’s population.

There is no doubt that the U.S. could afford to significantly reduce its military budget without relinquishing its title as the world’s dominant superpower.  But making America a less-clear hegemon heightens the possibility for challenges. “One of the main causes of war throughout history has been a rough parity of power that leaves nations in doubt about who is stronger.…There is no better recipe for great-power peace than certainty about who holds the upper hand.”  As China accelerates its militarization while it poises to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy, a declining U.S. military suggests we could reach that “rough parity” sooner rather than later.

Moreover, deep cuts in military spending may prove short-sighted.  Although Kagan questions claims of American decline, no one can question China’s ascendancy.  That ascendancy poses a threat to liberal economies since China, though wealthy in terms of GDP, is poor in terms of per capita GDP.  “This will make for a historically unique situation,” says Kagan, since the world’s largest economies have typically also been the richest.  The mature economies of such nations have little to gain from protectionist measures.  “China’s protectionist phase,” on the other hand, “could coincide with its rise to dominance of the global economy.”  Says Kagan, “[t]hat would be unprecedented.”

Coming finally to the question of whether Americans simply spend way too much on military action abroad, Kagan has this to say:

Some of the costs of reducing the American role in the world are, of course, unquantifiable: What is it worth to Americans to live in a world dominated by democracies rather than by autocracies? But some of the potential costs could be measured, if anyone cared to try. For instance, if the decline of American military power produced an unraveling of the international economic order that American power has helped sustain; if trade routes and waterways ceased to be as secure, because the U.S. Navy was no longer able to defend them; if regional wars broke out among great powers because they were no longer constrained by the American superpower; if American allies were attacked because the United States appeared unable to come to their defense; if the generally free and open nature of the international system became less so—there would be measurable costs. And it is not too far-fetched to imagine that these costs would be far greater than the savings gained by cutting the defense and foreign aid budgets by $100 billion a year.

As I led with, I lack the bona fides to add or detract much from this.  So let me make a meta-observation.  I admit to being one of those conservatives who hisses at “big government” at home but cheers “big government” when it promotes our interests abroad.  Given Kagan’s observations, however, perhaps that’s not inconsistent.  True, America wields a big stick in the world.  But it wields it clumsily, taking imprecise whacks at different ideas for different reasons.   Despite an economic and military might that would make any dictator green with envy, the structural dysfunction our Constitutional democracy imposes renders our government chronically unenergetic, inefficient, and ultimately incapable of acting like a totalitarian.  Consider again Kagan’s description about America’s foreign policy, and how it comports almost exactly with what conservatives would like to see in American domestic policy:  an “evident reluctance to wield power, their obvious aversion to the responsibilities of ruling others—more than their commitment to laws and institutions.”

Big government engenders distrust not necessarily because it’s big.  It engenders distrust when it gets comfortable wielding power and sheds its aversion to the responsibility of ruling others.  That’s true of our nation’s role in governing the world, and it’s true of its role in governing us.

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85 thoughts on “The World American Dysfunction Made

  1. We might dispute whether the Constitution got rights right, but we don’t often tussle over whether powers should be separated, or whether life, liberty, or property should be deprived without due process of law.  And yet these procedural elements define the majority of the Constitution’s work.  Disparaging it suggests that 

    No.

    No one is disparaging the Constitution. No one is arguing that we should deprive people of life, liberty, and property without due process.

    In her interview, Ginsburg stressed the importance of essential political freedoms like the freedom of speech and banning of cruel & unusual punishment, and the separation of powers.

    Juan Linz has pointed out: “the only presidential democracy with a long history of constitutional continuity is the United States . . . [a]side from the United States, only Chile has managed a century and a half of relatively undisturbed constitutional continuity under presidential government—but Chilean democracy broke down in the 1970s.”

    So, newer democracies are more likely to adopt a parliamentary system. More recent constitutions often include positive rights, as well.

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    • I perhaps did not make the point clearly:  Justice Ginsburg’s focus on the lack of positive rights in the Constitution ignores the principal objective of our Constitution in defining the borders of government, not of individuals.  At any rate, here’s a link back to the discussion about positive rights:  https://ordinary-times.com/blog/2012/02/11/pondering-positive-rights/.  Most commenters agreed positive rights is generally a lousy idea.  As I recall, the only one passionate about them was Blaise, but declined to explain how they could co-exist in the negative rights world American constitutionalism lives in.

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      • I think you’re reading too much into Justice Ginsburg’s remarks.  She didn’t say anything about positive rights in her interview.  In fact, her major focus was seperation of powers.

        Justice Ginsburg recommended that egyptians look to modern constitutions, such as South Africa’s for inspiration, rather than to ours.  You, rather bizarrely, chose to read that as nothing more or less than an endoresment of positive rights.  A much more reasonable interpretation would be that, with 200+ years of hindsight, perhaps the US constitution isn’t very effective at what it sets out to do.

        Despite an emphasis on an independent Judiciary, most judges in the US are elected.

        Despite explicit protections for the accused we hold those we deem enemies in extra-territorial prisons, without charging them with crimes or bringing them to trial, and torture them.

        Despite a prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, we throw more people into prison than Stalin did.  We allow and expect them to be raped and mistreated by their fellow inmates when all they did was sell pot.

        Can you see why Justice Ginsburg might support a constitution that’s more complete and explicit about the rights of citizens and the structure of government?

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        • I think this misses the point a bit. Ginsburg’s comment wasn’t just about the little constitutional foibles that our system has, but about how grossly those foibles could be exploited in an unstable new democracy with a major fundamentalist party – such as in Egypt. It reads as classic American exceptionalism, and makes the conservative backlash even more surprising.

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        • Alan,

          I’m not trying to pin down Justice Ginsburg here.  Her remarks speak to a broader sense that constitutions ought to guarantee “human rights.”  That is what the project to rethink the sufficiency of our constitution is primarily about–rights, not process, as I discussed here:  https://ordinary-times.com/timkowal/2012/02/07/our-unlovable-constitution.  For example, the South African constitution you and she refer to guarantee the right:

          to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and
          to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that ­
          prevent pollution and ecological degradation;

          promote conservation; and

          secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.

          Not that I’m necessarily disagreeing with you on your points, but the human rights project is a different conversation.

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      • Thanks for your reply, and for the link.

        In this current post, you argued that Ginsburg said the Constitution is “outmoded”, indicating a lack of interest in separation of powers and in preventing deprivation of liberty without due process. Those assertions are false.

        As to the previous thread, which dealt directly with positive rights, our views on morals and rights have changed over time, in large part because of our economic development. Pres. Reagan signed EMTALA into law, requiring hospitals to provide emergency  care to anyone in need. This would have made little sense to the 4 million inhabitants of 1790’s agrarian, slaveholding US, but it seems to me that it’s the consensus in developed countries today. Reflecting that consensus in a constitution does not seem inherently objectionable, but I haven’t given it a whole ton of thought.

        I’m open to practical questions about positive rights. Does New Jersey get better results & clearer policy on education because it’s in their constitution, & subject to enforcement in the courts? An empirical question, and I don’t know the answer.

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        • Not “lack of interest” as much as lack of emphasis.  My thesis, here and elsewhere, is that we do better to focus on having appropriate rules set up than to change the rules to meet a certain outcome.  Here’s another passage from Kagan that touches on this point.

          The rise of supranational institutions and a cosmopolitan sensibility represent progress toward a more perfect liberal order. But what if this is wrong? What if an order characterized by peace, democracy, and prosperity depends on particular nations to uphold it? The internationalist Theodore Roosevelt argued as much in 1918, in response to the supranationalist visions of his day. “Let us refuse to abolish nationalism,” he said. “On the contrary, let us base a wise and practical internationalism on a sound and intense nationalism.”77 True liberal progress might be tied, paradoxically, to this atavistic concept of the nation, willing to use its power, in conjunction with other nations, to uphold an order that can only approximate but never achieve the liberal international ideal. It is when we try actually to achieve the ideal, to move beyond the nation to a post-national vision of liberal internationalism, that the whole project fails.

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          • Thanks for the reply.

            Just as it was false to imply that Ginsburg thought the Constitution was “outmoded”, or that she was disinterested in separation of powers or deprivation of liberty without due process, it is also false to say that she didn’t emphasize separation of powers. Ginsburg put plenty of emphasis on separation of powers. She talks about it around 5:45, and again around 8:10-9:30, among other places, in an under 20-minute interview.

            As to the new point you’re raising, about supranational structures, I don’t think anyone disagrees with Kagan.

            “What if an order characterized by peace, democracy, and prosperity depends on particular nations to uphold it? … True liberal progress might be tied, paradoxically, to this atavistic concept of the nation, willing to use its power, in conjunction with other nations, to uphold an order that can only approximate but never achieve the liberal international ideal.” Well, ok– that sounds rather like what the US, France, the UK, and other nations have been up to on Libya, Syria, and Iran.

            Who is Kagan arguing against here? I don’t think anyone with any hope of affecting anything is arguing that we should be looking to move beyond the nation-state to some new set of institutions. Is he taking issue with Ronald Reagan’s proposal that the UN have a standing army, “an army of conscience that is fully equipped and prepared to carve out human sanctuaries through force if necessary”?

            Maybe I am too hung up on the falsity of your statements about Ginsburg, and I’m not engaging with your larger point here about rules vs. outcomes, democracy vs. tyranny.

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  2. Tim, next time you’re going to drop a big one like this, give me some advance warning!

    I have a couple of observations, here, but no time to do them justice.  I’ll try to get around to this as soon as I can.

    I have a couple of issues with the quoted paragraph, in particular.  Have to get me a copy of the book…

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    • I’ll try!  The best our now-crawling 7-month old lets me get away with is stealing away at sporadic intervals when she dozes off for a few minutes.  Lately she’s up at late as the wife and I, and up before us!  So I never quite know when I’ll be able to fire off a post lately.

      I keep mentioning that I’m working on a post about the boomer generation.  The lack of definition of that project has led me into quite the morass, now approaching 12,000 words, drawing on at least a half dozen books I’ve now read to fee the beast.  I’ve named it Audrey II.  I’ll probably chop it up into a series so I can at least start getting it up on the site and off my desktop.

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      • Oh, man, I remember that.

        How’s the sleep pattern?  Heh; maybe you ought to write a parent experience post.

        Jack would not go to sleep without serious pattern matching.  Let me tell you, swinging on the porch swing while singing “Jug of Punch” in the middle of the night wrapped up in a pile of blankets ’cause it was unCalifornia-y freakin’ cold when he was 7 months was a nightly chore I don’t miss.  Even though it was good bonding time.

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  3. We might dispute whether the Constitution got rights right, but we don’t often tussle over whether powers should be separated, or whether life, liberty, or property should be deprived without due process of law.

    I disagree.  We do tussle over whether life, liberty, or property should be deprived without due process of law.  What about the latest defense authorization act which, in the name of fighting terrorism, grants the President the power to deprive people of life and liberty, all without due process?  What about the various state and federal laws that allow police to seize and keep property suspected of being used in a crime, even if there is no conviction?  What about all the robosigning and the use of forged documents in foreclosures?  Doesn’t sound like due process to me, yet the government just worked out a deal to let banks off the hook for doing it.  I don’t think due process is as firmly established in our culture and our politics as you say it is.  Otherwise more people, especially conservatives, would be up in arms about all these government abuses of law and power.


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    • One might say this makes the point for me.  That fact that everyone is concerned about what the requirement of due process of law means underscores its importance.  That is, the question is always what it requires, not whether it is required.  True, your particular understanding or my particular understanding of what it requires may not be “firmly established in our culture and our politics.”  But there is a political process and an independent judiciary to address those questions.  And how else should it be addressed?  A series of  specifics constitutional amendment addressing robosignings, etc. would quickly become unwieldy.

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  4. If the goal is a government that has: “evident reluctance to wield power, their obvious aversion to the responsibilities of ruling others—more than their commitment to laws and institutions.” then it’s not so much centers of power or diffusion of power, so much as responsibility for power that’s important. The US I would argue is more likely to act this fashion in the international stage because who is responsible for foreign actions by the US government is quite clear: The President.

    By contrast in domestic politics, the multiple poles of power, particularly between the legislature and executive, allow the two branches to effectively act irresponsibly and get away with it. The debt fiasco for example, and the historically low approval rates for Congress and its failure to act regarding the economy, plus the fact that they know the president’s more likely to suffer more as a result of inaction, shows this.

    On the larger argument of American international order: Let’s just remember the 19th century was long, but the 20th century was short. We may very well be in a “long 21st century” before another century of conflict.

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    • You’re right to point out the difference between American power abroad and at home:  one President (sometimes needing advice and consent of the Senate) versus bicameralism and presentment.  But the relatively short terms of presidential administrations coupled with political accountability (still important even when acting abroad) make it problematic for American presidents to embark on foreign operations that would require truly sustained commitments.

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  5. I’m very supportive of the process argument in general, but something about Kagan’s argument just doesn’t ring true to me.  But I don’t want to fire off a critique without further thought, so I’ll refrain, and stick to saying that this was a very well-written and thoughtful post, and thanks for bringing Kagan’s argument to our attention.

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  6. Two quick thoughts/questions about this before wading in:
    1. Kagan writes, in defense of Defense,

    For instance, if the decline of American military power produced an unraveling of the international economic order that American power has helped sustain; if trade routes and waterways ceased to be as secure, because the U.S. Navy was no longer able to defend them; if regional wars broke out among great powers because they were no longer constrained by the American superpower; if American allies were attacked because the United States appeared unable to come to their defense; if the generally free and open nature of the international system became less so—there would be measurable costs. And it is not too far-fetched to imagine that these costs would be far greater than the savings gained by cutting the defense and foreign aid budgets by $100 billion a year 

    as if the argument justifying US military spending can, or even ought to be, considered exclusively on an internal calculus. That is, if the US makes more money by spending the extra money on defense capabilities, then it’s worth it, end of story. Part of the argument against our high Pentagon budget, tho, is that we in fact can’t afford it. So even if the rather simplistic metric of $1 in Pentagon spending yields more than $1 in return, the argument makes no sense unless the return is in government revenue. Another problem is that if the US continues to act as world policeman by funding via tax dollars a huge military apparatus, then countries like Chine are effectively free riders on the system which accelerates the overall disparity in economic power between the two countries, and thus – if his thesis is correct – accelerating parity  between the two countries wrt military power. Yes? No?

    2. You wrote

    “Consider again Kagan’s description about America’s foreign policy, and how it comports almost exactly with what conservatives would like to see in American domestic policy:  an “evident reluctance to wield power, their obvious aversion to the responsibilities of ruling others—more than their commitment to laws and institutions.” ”

    I’m sure he presents evidence of this in his book, but I’m very skeptical of any reading of post-1945 US history which tries to justify the claim that the US was reluctant to wield power over other other countries and tell them what to do. There’s a long list of interventions – military, black-ops, economic sanctions backed by threat of military force, etc – which undermine the claim. So it seems to me (again, without having read the book) that this begs pretty basic questions about the role the US has played in establishing its current role in international relations, but also about the intentions and purpose of specific interventions, and begs them in favor of Kagan’s basic thesis: that the US is a benevolent (or at least benign) superpower stumbling along as best it can given inefficiencies caused by our love of democracy and reluctance to rule over others.

     

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    • Stillwater,

      (1) Kagan explains that yes, many countries free-ride off the U.S., but this ultimately inures to our benefit.  On the one hand, yes, it would be nice if we all pitched in pro rata.  But on the other hand, there’s the point about the need for a hegemon otherwise everyone starts jockeying to see who’s #1.

      You make an interesting point about China.  Yes, it’s free-riding.  But it’s also starting to poise itself to compete with the U.S. navy in order to prevent free trade.  Again, though strong in GDP, China is otherwise a poor nation, and thus protectionism suits it in the short term.  So perhaps you’re right:  China is free-riding on the protection for liberal economic systems that the U.S. provides, up until the time it goes on to cannibalize that system for its own protectionist ends.

      (2) Yes, Kagan provides more support for the conclusion that I quote here.  He readily concedes that American policy is certainly not always benign or benevolent, and cites a series of instances where the U.S. supported the bad guys.  Even still, these instances are largely seen as unsavory means to more important ends of international stability to the larger end of hemming in bigger bad guys.  But no, I don’t get the impression Kagan is starry-eyed about American benevolence.

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      • Tim could you expand on this preventing free trade being in China’s interest thing? From my own (admissably unexpert) view China is specifically and especially dependant on free trade to continue to fuel it’s consumer goods manufacturing economy. Only stable transportation routes and tarrif free trade associations allow it to continue to industrialize as it does. Additionally it imports a massive amount of the raw materials it needs (again dependant on free trade). I don’t see where or how China would ever be interested in having less free trade; they have a massive population and a comparatively tiny amount of land and resources. Whether they become a autocratic military state or a pluralistic state with an increasing standard of living they’ll urgently need imports.

        I also am mightily bemused at the alarmist tone regarding China’s military development. As I recall their latest naval surge consists of a retrofitted second hand Soviet aircraft carrier yes?

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        • As I recall, Kagan doesn’t offer reasons why China specifically might become more protectionist, other than the general historical arguments that poorer countries tend to be more protectionist. I think Kagan would argue that China is complicit with liberal economic policies because (a) it is mightily benefiting from them, and (b) it couldn’t lightly challenge these U.S.-backed policies without significant fallout.  From there, I won’t presume to offer reasons of my own, since I really have no educated idea.

          Here’s more from the passage I quoted in the OP:

          Chinese leaders, however, may face a different set of problems and temptations. As heads of a poorer and still developing country, they may prove less willing to open sectors of their economy. They have already begun closing some sectors to foreign competition and are likely to close others in the future. The pressure to find better-paying jobs for their people climbing out of poverty into a large lower middle class could lead them to protect certain industries that provide those jobs. A more protectionist China would be neither evil nor unprecedented. Many nations go through protectionist phases during their economic development. The United States certainly did. The problem is that China’s protectionist phase could coincide with its rise to dominance of the global economy. That would be unprecedented.

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          • In other words, there’s no particular reason to expect China to be any smarter about trade than the great majority of the world’s countries have been throughout the great majority of history.

            I’d be inclined to agree with that.

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            • I think it’s fair to say that the PRC’s leadership finds a lot of appeal in mercantilist policies now and that it will increasingly base it’s foreign policies on making what it sees as advantageous trade for itself rather than mutually beneficial trade in the forseeable future – mainly focused on natural resource acquisition.

              Nob would probably have a much more nuanced opinion than I do, but from here it seems that the Chinese view is that in order to provide for it’s own security and prosperity – it needs to control significant and reliable sources of mineral wealth.

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            • Yes that’s some better reasoning than I’d originally expected. On the other hand, though, I suspect that China will be historically unique when (if!) it rises to power in that it’s commercial success will be deeply dependant on global trade ties. China simply doesn’t have the internal resources to be an economic superpower without importing epic masses of raw material from outside. That’s significantly different from the other historic rising powers who could afford to b protectionist because they produced their economic output using both internal labor AND raw materials. I mean short of invading all of Eastern Russian and Mongolia they just don’t have the resources to go it alone and I’d think that’d act as a huge brake on any extreme protectionist impulses they may have.

              Also, in the long run it seems to me that China has a demographic chrisis of epic proportions on its hands via their one child policy. I frankly remain deeply skeptical that a rise to global superpowerdom is even plausible for China.

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              • I’m also highly skeptical that it will come to pass for very similar reasons.

                I’m just theorizing as to what the Chinese see as their best bet to make it happen. They seem to be turning a massive chunk of their economic growth into trade for access to resources that they think are going to be reliable (ie the world’s tyrannical regimes that the West uses economic sanctions for political pressure). It’s not like by freeing up their consumer economy that oil and iron will magically appear.

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      • but this ultimately inures to our benefit.

        That’s the assertion, of course. My comment was a challenge to that. If the US cannot afford it’s current level of military spending, then it stands to reason that we’re already not seeing the financial return the argument assumes. So increasing Defense spending wouldn’t be sustainable unless tax revenues actually increased. But the argument, as I understand it, is that increasing defense will ceteris paribus increase revenues. I don’t see an argument for that.

        On the one hand, yes, it would be nice if we all pitched in pro rata. But on the other hand, there’s the point about the need for a hegemon otherwise everyone starts jockeying to see who’s #1.

        That, I take it, is the crux of the argument, and the appeal to revenues/profits is an ancillary concern.

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        • I guess if you want to talk about military spending as an investment (fair enough), in that it “buys” us more markets in which to buy and sell, then sure, we can ask whether we’re seeing declining marginal value, etc.  I think Kagan is saying this, but I also think he’s saying we have to take a longer time horizon than cost-benefit analyses typically provide, and the whole “the world needs the U.S. as hegemon” argument.  I don’t think Kagan is saying either is “ancillary.”  He does contend that we can at least conceptualize military spending in terms of cost-benefits

           

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          • I also think he’s saying we have to take a longer time horizon than cost-benefit analyses typically provide, and the whole “the world needs the U.S. as hegemon” argument.

            Yeah, I agree. He is. Maybe I’m confused about the whole thing, but if the argument is that the US benefits from ensuring certain processes are in place, and there is a cost to be born by doing so, then presumably the ‘processes’ cover the actual financial ‘costs’. But it strikes me that this outcome doesn’t obtain from an arrangement of non-interference. I mean, the costs have to be born, right?

            Maybe I’m not getting it. And it’s probably not that relevant to the larger argument. But in the background of all this, I think Kagan is arguing from a place much closer to what James H outlined than from a purely process-oriented argument.

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      • What evidence is there for China building  a blue water navy to prevent free trade? That is a big claim. Wanting a bigger navy can be for more reasons that trying to stop trade; power projection, feeling safer and regional influence are all reasons to want a bigger navy yet don’t imply they want to restrict trade.

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          • They’ve got enough subs, some rather interesting and very quiet subs, enough of those to make anyone think twice about screwing with them.   Really, a surface fleet is sorta old hat.   As with aircraft anymore, it’s a question of who’s got the better missiles and detection gear.

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            • True dat Blaise, I will agree with the lot of it. But by conventional measurements they don’t have the surface fleet necessary to dominate their territorial waters. That said as you aptly point out between land based aircraft, subs and missiles they’d bopping around on the surface of the Sea of China a hairy proposition for anyone else for certain.

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      • on the other hand, there’s the point about the need for a hegemon otherwise everyone starts jockeying to see who’s #1.

        Weeeelllllll….there’s an old, very old, approach in international relations theory called “balance of power.” And that theory suggests that a hegemon is destabilizing because it causes other countries to act in ways that will counter the hegemon’s power.

        I know neo-conservatives have tossed that aside in favor of a theory favoring a single hegemon, and as I use my google-fu on Kagan I see lots of references to him being a neo-con, so that all seems to fit together.  The problem is that neo-cons have theory, but precious little evidence in support of the single hegemon approach. A couple of decades of sole superpower for the U.S. is a mighty thin data set on which to draw sufficient conclusions to overturn a theory that literally goes back to the Greeks.

        I was also thinking that the argument smelt a bit of American exceptionalism, and if Kagan is in fact a neo-con, that would be fairly typical.  The real problem there (apart from my quibbles with the whole exceptionalism project) is that American exceptionalism actually kind of undermines the sole hegemon theory, because the theory is no longer generalizable, but requires a really specialized type of hegemon; one so specialized that it has only a couple of examples in history (if they allow for more than one single example).  And we just happen to be that one special example, or one of those very few special examples.  Now it’s not impossible–when there are rarities, someone has to actually be that rarity.  But it means the odds of anyone being that rarity are pretty slim.  And we’re more likely to be persuaded by someone looking outside in–someone with more reason to be objective–than by someone who is snugly, and perhaps smugly, within the alleged rarity.  E.g., it’s not Michael Jordan’s claim that he’s the greatest basketball player ever that makes me believe it, but the claims by all the people who aren’t Michael Jordan.

        As to the difficulty new democracies face in thriving, I think that’s fairly well-trodden ground, even though we don’t understand it perfectly.  It’s not so much about their failure to deliver on their promises as the lack of socio-cultural pre-requisites–primarily a willingness to take turns winning and losing.  That is, in fact, something of a process argument–it means you have to be willing to accept the legitimacy of the process when it doesn’t give you specifically the outcome your team wants.  But I get the feeling that’s not quite the process argument Kagan is making.

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        • James, I’m glad you wrote this comment. I had a longish response to Tim upthread that I didn’t post which floundered around some of the stuff you wrote here. Kagan is an old neocon, from PNAC. And what puzzled be about this new, more process-oriented argument is that it seems to contradict the earlier PNAC stuff, which was exclusively about outcomes – namely, that for the US to maintain its role as the worlds sole superpower thru the 21st century we need to control eurasian oil reserves. That was the PNAC justification for the war in Iraq, and the goal of spreading democracy an after thought, or at best a corollary to the primary – outcome-specific – goal. (Well, that’s probably a bit uncharitable, but really, control of natural resources and nation-building are two distinct concepts that need not overlap.)

          I don’t know enough about it to say much more, but it is puzzling to me, and maybe Tim could help clarify things for me.

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            • Brookings tends to be a bit more neocon than you might expect at a glance….it’s worth noting neoconservatism is pretty easy to dress up as other shades of Realism, particularly Offensive Realism, which can have strong hegemonic stability implications.

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              • OK, I guess I haven’t been paying attention to them.

                My take on Neocons and realism is that it’s essentially the comic book version of realism.  “Oh, countries pursue their own interests? Then the U.S. should pursue its interests…with guns!”  They always seem to forget that realism implies other states are also going to pursue their interests, and that one of their interests is not to be pushed around by some other country pursuing its interest…with guns!

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          • Kagan doesn’t put things in terms of process- or substance-oriented; that was my gloss.  And I don’t mean to push it too far in the foreign policy context.  Obviously, a unitary executive lends to fewer procedural checks than our government otherwise is on domestic affairs.  But at least for the reasons given in the OP, I felt Kagan’s argument underscored why we do well to diffuse governmental power.

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  7. Bah! Bah humbug, he’s missing Everything!

    The period he cites is indicative of a relatively short time where positive sum games made the most sense for most world powers, in no small part because of a relatively Cheap Energy economy.

    That’s changing, and that’s why the military is building up again. Everywhere, pretty much. Resource wars are our future, and I don’t expect those simply because America is suddenly going to get more competent.

    When did we stop using the American system hereabouts?

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  8.  I recently asked why many left-leaning, big-government types seem to care more about outcomes than process…

    Isn’t the whole point of process to produce a desired outcome?

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    • I was curious about that as well. I think it mischaracterizes the left – at least, the US left – in a noteworthy way: the left, ISTM, isn’t concerned solely about outcomes, but outcomes consistent with certain processes. It’s only when the processes lead to suboptimal outcomes that the left advocates for state intervention. Granted, what constitutes ‘suboptimal’ is a vague enough concept that Hanley will jump all over it. But I think we can point to (vaguely, in the general direction of) actual data to give a semantics to the term.

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      • the left, ISTM, isn’t concerned solely about outcomes, but outcomes consistent with certain processes

        Isn’t it close to the opposite? We’re concerned primarily about processes, but judge the processes by their outcomes. We get suspicious of “principled” adherence to processes that inevitably benefit the privileged.

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        • I would point to a distinction here.  When I see a process resulting in substantively unjust outcomes, I would take this as potential but in now way conclusive evidence that the process is flawed.  For example, if a company wrecked the air quality of a poor urban area and made off with millions in so doing because, through its lobbying efforts, it obtained a special permit not otherwise available, this would be an unjust outcome (externalizing undue harm on others) that resulted directly from an unjust process (government giving special favors).  However, it is not always the case that an unjust outcome is the result of an unfair process.  (Then again, this is where I come up against having two minds in the natural law/positivism debate.  It would seem that, from a natural law perspective, no truly just process could lead to unjust outcomes.)

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    • This is Tim’s schtick, the process vs. outcome distinction that separates the left from the right. I’m not really sure where he gets it from, though it feels suspiciously like the old canard that the left wants “equality of outcome.” It’s possible that the left is more concerned about outcomes than the right, but they’re probably as concerned about process, or at least close to as concerned, as the right. I think this is true all the way across the left. Process is important because it’s what determines fairness, if for no other reason, and fairness is a big deal to liberals and the left.

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      • I don’t think it’s a schtick, it’s an analysis that I think holds up as a high-level overview and can be a useful insight for understanding why certain political conflicts can’t seem to get resolved despite a seemingly obvious win-win compromise being available.
        It works as well as a bludgeon against the right at least as well as the right if you’re so inclined – what good is there in being process-oriented if you’re unwilling to judge it by it’s results?

         

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        • See, Plinko, I don’t think it works as anything but a bludgeon. It’s a nice way of highlighting what you don’t like about the other side — because here they are focused on outcomes, or here they are focused on process — without actually considering the other side’s position. We saw this with Tim’s analysis of the left’s support of unions, and it resulted in something that looked like nothing anyone has ever used to justify unions. That happened because his is not really a conceptual lens based in reality, but a partisan one (not necessarily Democrat and Republican, but ideologically partisan) based on a tendentious analysis, a partisan myopia. A conceptual lens would have to at least address the fact that conservatives are damn well concerned about outcomes, and lliberals and others on the left about process, but the outcomes the two sides favor, as well as the processes, tend to be different.

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          • I am not saying it’s only a bludgeon, just that your objection to it seems to be based on the notion that it’s obviously a club to use on liberals and nothing more.

            The question to me is if it accurately explains any of our actual policy preferences or not. It doesn’t make the process/outcome dynamic determinative of what is right or wrong. It sounds an awful lot to me like those tests of value preferences that claim to sort folks into liberal or conservative based on their preferences for fairness/authority/communnity/purity/justice – it only matters if it helps us understand the dynamic better.

            I don’t condone Tim’s assessment of unions – it seems like it clearly doesn’t even flow properly from the dynamic in the first place and, even if it did flow, it would a circular justification of his own preferences anyway – the outcomes would be necessarily wrong because he doesn’t prefer them.

            What I see is that conservative obsession with process is a major driver of governmental dysfunction – their outright rejection of institutions because they’re ideologically committed to their failure. It leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy of bad governance.

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      • It’s possible that the left is more concerned about outcomes than the right

        Yes, if he wants to accuse the left of testing its processes against the results they obtain (and, by implication, admit that the right implements processes with no regard for their success or failure), I think he won’t get much disagreement from the left.

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        • And to be honest about it, I think the right is at least equally concerned about outcomes, but in different areas of political economy. I mean, the right is certainly very concerned about the outcome of public social policy while less so about economic issues (tho even then I think you’re average conservative is very attached to keeping those programs and policies in place which he/benefits from, and supports process in areas which only tangentially touch their lives).

          And I think some of that flips for lefties (tho, again, liberals would be disinclined to advocate process when the outcomes are already tilting in their favor/disfavor).

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    • This is the basic point of my “schtick.”  No, process is not evaluated based on the outcome it produces.  Process can and should be evaluated in its own right.  As I explained in the public sector union context (as I’ve said before, I have no philosophical objection to private sector unions), allowing public employees to deprive citizens of services they badly need to leverage more compensation is wrong—even if the employees really deserve what they’re asking.  It’s thus wrong irrespective of outcome.  It’s wrong because theprocedure for meting out these issues imposes unjust burdens on others.

      Similarly, it’s wrong to allow governments to grant defined benefit pension packages, since these packages ultimately shift unknown liability to future taxpayers, many of whom may not be of voting age or indeed even born at the time the deals are struck.  Indeed, the California Constitution prohibits such contracts, yet it is ignored since the Court has deemed pensions to be in a sui generis sort of bargain exempt from many usual legal and constitutional requirements.  This is wrong even if these employees really deserve these retirements, because the process does not give a fair shake to those who have to pay for it.

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      • yet it is ignored since the Court has deemed pensions to be in a sui generis sort of bargain exempt from many usual legal and constitutional requirements.

        Is it that the court has deemed pensions sui generis, or that the court has deemed them as fun-a-the-mill binding when voluntarily agreed upon by both parties? And let me quickly add that I’m no unsympathetic to arguments against public unions. But on the principle you’re advocating here – where government has no authority to “meet out unjust burdens on others” – doesn’t it sorta follow that government has no right to offer any compensation to employees? I mean, if ‘fair wage’ is determined by time sensitive convention, might pension plans be as well?

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      • In both examples you cite, a process is judged based solely on its outcome. In the first, public sector strikes are forbidden because they deprive citizens of services; and in the second, defined benefit pension plans are forbidden because they purportedly shift unknown liability to future taxpayers.

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        • You’re getting close to cracking the code, it seems to me. As you say, unions having the right to negotiate with an employer is a process. But that process is rejected in the case of public sector union because it leads to bad outcomes.

          So, one person’s process is another person’s outcome? At least in some interesting, non-trivial cases?

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        • In the first example, the union need never actually strike.  In fact, they seldom do, comparatively speaking.  But both sides know it’s leverage in the union’s favor.  That part of the bargaining process is unjust.

          The same goes for the second example, though not as neatly.  I’ll grant that sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish process from substance.  Burt, if you’re out there, when are you going to get to the Erie doctrine?

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  9. I’m of two minds on Robert Kagan.   He’s dead wrong about Iraq of course, but that’s no surprise since he backed that misguided war to the hilt.   If he thinks America’s okay with its current geopolitical posture, gosh, can I have some of that Kool-Aid, too?

    In short, Kagan is living in his own private Idaho.  America did not make this world.  Its bombs just happened to wreck a good deal of the old one.   Our wars in Indochina were little more than picking up the cudgels for the French and the Cold War was one long paranoid fugue:  our enemies were always more afraid of us than we were of them.   We have empowered many cruel and stupid regimes but we did not make them.   We have preserved many more by our idiotic policies of embargo:  Cuba comes to mind immediately.

    More properly, Kagan should have titled his book “The World America Allowed to Arise”.

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      • Well, if we took the war against Saddam Hussein apart at the seams, seen as it was circa 2001, the USA had no CIA operators in Iraq, not one.   Every time we got one in, Saddam caught him.   Saddam had a fearsome intelligence apparatus, he had to.   For years, Saddam was building his reactors and we did nothing about it.   We didn’t have any idea he was doing it:  it took Israeli intelligence to identify what was going on and Israelis took out that reactor, at the very last stages of development.   If the neocons were right about one thing, it was that the CIA had misinterpreted everything about Saddam Hussein.   The embargo had only served to put barrel hoops around his regime.

        Saddam had to go, of that there was no question at all.   But like the dog who’s chased his tail and caught it, all they got for their trouble was a painful bite: the neocons simply didn’t know what to with Iraq once they’d overthrown Saddam.   The troubles begin thereafter, trusting Chalabi and all that, getting rid of the Ba’athists right down to the lowest levels, it was a travesty.

        Saddam once said the USA would end up doing everything he’d done and we did, right down to the abuses at Abu Ghraib, putting down power-hungry clerics, getting our backs up over Iran.    It all happened exactly as he predicted.   Crying over spilt milk now I suppose, but the Kagan/PNAC doctrines were well-understood and have considerable merit, abstracted away from the ivory tower pinheads who drafted PNAC’s communiques.   None of those PNAC assholes had any conception of just how screwed up a war of occupation can become.

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    • America did not make this world.  Its bombs just happened to wreck a good deal of the old one.

      I just wanted to say that this is a very accurate observation.

      What happened from 1946-1996 was in some specific cases driven by US/USSR political maneuvering, but a goodly amount of what happens in the world happens by directive forces other than superpowers.

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  10. Granted, what constitutes ‘suboptimal’ is a vague enough concept that Hanley will jump all over it

    Eh, unless we can really define the potential payoffs, vagueness is inevitable.  Sometimes we just have to deal with it.

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  11. I’m unsure what a world in which, “Americans [are] evident[ly] reluctance to wield power” would look like, but as a first gloss, I submit it is one in which we did not launch twenty-four military actions since the turn of the century.

    The number of those military actions explicitly authorized by Congress?  Two.  Which makes a hash of your proposed explanation for relative American indolence. In a world of “police actions,” there are no appreciable constitutional or procedural barriers to the use of military force.  The President is free to conduct foreign policy as he wishes,with very little input from the legislature.  This results in exactly what one would expect from your analysis.  American military might is incredibly energetic, largely because the constitutional bars to unwise and sudden action that characterize our domestic politics have been completely superseded by custom and a compliant populace.

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  12. Like a lot of other people said, a good piece, that I have to take some time to digest, because some stuff strikes me as wrong, but I can’t put my finger on as to why.

    I will note that if there’s any organization in the world that goes the other way, of institutionally elevating process over results,  that’s wedded to form over outcomes, it’s the United States Military.

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