A Foreign Policy for an Entitled America
Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his VP pick has a lot of implications, most of which we can’t know yet. A pretty fundamental one, though, may be to highlight a growing clash about the responsibility of government in an era of changing American responsibilities. Behind the swirling debate about “American decline” is a basic trend that one wing of the Republican party seems determined to ignore: The populaces of mature great powers want their governments to serve them, not abstract ideas of global power.
To be clear, Paul Ryan seems like a thoughtful, honest, down-home, well-intentioned public servant of the sort we need more of in this country. Democratic efforts to demonize him as an elderly-killing Mephistopheles do a disservice to the man—and ignore the validity of his basic insight: Entitlement programs are out of control, and reform is necessary to save the country. But that doesn’t mean one needs to endorse his proposed solutions, or believe they are in line with trends in social attitudes.
Because one upshot of Ryan’s proposals—protecting defense even as social programs are slashed—reflects a powerful current strain of GOP thinking: That the government should specialize in providing a vast global security architecture at the expense of domestic security, from food stamps to health care to social security. This, however, is an anachronism that won’t survive contact with the majority of the American electorate. It’s just not what the populations of late-stage great powers want for themselves.
There’s no question that the belief animates a substantial portion of the Right today. It’s the fundamental choice involved in the Ryan budget. Romney himself, while favoring domestic discretionary cuts, has called proposed reductions in defense catastrophic and proposed a minimum 4% of GDP floor on defense dollars. The basic viewpoint emerged in a quote from Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute who praised the Ryan pick in an interview for the Daily Beast. “Unlike a lot of fiscal conservatives, one of the great things about Paul Ryan is he is not omni-directionally a budget cutter,” she said. “He understands the primary role of the federal government is the national defense and not the handing out of food stamps.”
A big political problem for the GOP, though, is that while this may have been true in 1800, it’s not true anymore.
It’s not true, first of all, because the level of threat doesn’t justify it. Compare the position of the United States now to just about any great power in history. There are no comparable powers threatening to attack us. We face no “existential threat” to our security. No big wars threaten to suck in armies by the troop-ship load. That’s not to say the threat environment is a vacuum—but everything is relative; and if the government is responsible for security, it’s responsible for far a less demanding requirement than, say, concerned France or Great Britain in 1905.
But more fundamental is the shift in public attitudes, which, history suggests, occurs independent of threats—after all, Britain was cutting its defense spending before World War I, favoring butter over guns. This has to do with what might be called the life cycle of a major power’s ambitions.
There comes a point when the population of a major power says “Enough” to the exhausting requirements of global responsibilities, and demands that national resources be invested in providing a good life for the population. The pride or honor involved in dominating the globe ultimately doesn’t compare to excellent retirement guarantees and job retraining programs, once a nation or society reaches a certain level of development and wealth. This has been the story for previous powers from Sweden to Holland to France to Great Britain and others. With due consideration to the cultural differences between those nations and America, the United States may be in the process of traveling the same path—becoming a country whose citizens view the primary purpose of their social contract as essentially domestic rather than international.
The conservative scholar Bruce Thornton suggests that great powers “decline” because “their citizens choose to spend money on themselves, not on defense,” and he is exactly correct in terms of the essential choice that has emerged in earlier powers. His regretful tone—along with that of other conservatives, from the Robert Kagans and Robert Kaplans and the thinking of Mark Steyn, who refers to the creeping “decadence” of an America no longer willing to play a significant global role—mirrors worries expressed in Britain that the loss of its empire meant an abandonment of what Harold and Margaret Sprout quote writers in the late 19th century referring to as a national “sense of purpose and mission,” a loss of energy, a creeping “complacency.”
While some see this as a tragedy, it is also possible to view it as progress—the loss of belligerent global ambitions and the emergence of more inward-focused, consumerist, essentially satisfied states with no desire to make war. Would we really prefer a world in which France was still generating prideful Napoleons anxious to dedicate a quarter of their country’s GDP to defense? Instead, the Swedens and Hollands and Frances of an earlier age, scourges of a Europe awash on bloodshed, have become the states they are today, authors of a new European age of (yes) decadence, but also prosperity, stability, and peace. It’s “The End of History,” indeed, as Fukuyama described it in his final chapter—one devoid of thumos, with people shuttling between shopping malls, wondering if this is all there is to life, worried that they had perhaps lost something in the abandonment of flag-waving spasms of aggression.
(The regretful tone emerges even with regard to the Olympics: Witness the frankly idiotic discussion on Fox News about how there’s just not enough jingoism in the American approach to the 2012 London games. What’s Gabby Douglas doing wearing a pink leotard when she should be wearing red white and blue? When the commentators of a great power are reduced to such banal rubbish, it’s clear that the Big Issues have faded deeply into the woodwork.)
History suggests that, to the average citizen, as even Mark Steyn recognizes, greater social welfare is the whole point of development. “In Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands, the average citizen lives better than he ever did at the height of empire. … Americans could be forgiven for concluding that, if this is ‘decline,’ bring it on.” (Though Stein quickly argues that the American post-primacy domestic fate is not likely to be so rosy.) Harold and Margaret Sprout make essentially the same point, quoting an author who notes that the loss of empire in favor of improved social welfare in Britain was “a good deal less of a nightmare to the ordinary man than it [was] to the politicians.”
“Security” and the various concepts and constructs to deliver it are, we forget, only a means, not an end. When that end—prosperity and stability—begins to be threatened by the cost of the means, the means itself will be seen as the problem.
I am not sure, therefore, that a “guns over butter” narrative is going to have much purchase in the body politic of a mature great power—outside that small proportion of the electorate to whom the idea of jingoism inherently appeals. A larger question is just what’s going on within such elements of the GOP—why an agenda of “defense first and social welfare second” would appeal, particularly when wrapped in flag-waving nationalism of a rather bellicose variety which seems increasingly out of place in an interdependent era of homogenized cosmopolitan states.
One possible answer is that, in times of social transformation, nostalgia is a tempting antidote. America is becoming a different sort of place—more globalized, more diverse, playful, relativistic, less constricted, more consumerist, more narcissistic. Many Americans find themselves loosely uncomfortable with the transition; and for conservatives, the natural remedy is a recreation of some imagined past. The past of the current imagination is one of ruddy self-reliance and muscle-flexing global strength.
The real risk is that, amid the war between those infuriated with what America is becoming and those anxious to preserve what it has guaranteed, the voices of those trying to create a better future out of the social and economic mess we have built for ourselves (and who recognize, along with Ryan, the requirement for reform)—these voices are being drowned out, indeed actively discredited. There is, in fact, an active danger in the trend toward social welfare: states can become locked into programs they cannot sustainably afford, and become societies whose dominant social value becomes the lineup of benefits to which each citizen is “entitled.” Accusations of decadence are not all hot air, as recent experiences from Greece to Spain to Wall Street make so evident.
As this standoff hardens, the preservers of the status quo see any proposals for reform as siding with the Nostalgists, and those who want to turn the clock back ridicule anything short of complete reversal. We are left stagnating between today and yesterday, leaving Tomorrow without a constituency. This remains our national predicament; and heading into the next election, there remains no serious hope for rescue.