The Reckoning

Last Word: Thanks for The Reckoning

Today marks the last post for The Reckoning.

When I pitched the idea of a blog to explore the theme of my recent work on relative American decline, to Slate’s editors thought this would be an excellent topic to track over the course of the final year of a particularly difficult election cycle.

During the course of that year, I hope that those who dipped into this conversation had reason to think more deeply about these issues. The United States, in many ways, is sleepwalking into the future, proceeding on multiple economic, political and military fronts as though not all that much has changed since 2008, 2001 and 1989 for that matter. My hope was to prompt a bit of long term thinking – no easy order during a hyper-partisan election year.

I fear I got dragged to often into the maelstrom. The clown car that carried the GOP’s presidential candidates during the primaries this time around just proved irresistible! But I hope, too, that there were original ideas, trenchant criticism of status quo thinking, and some sense among my readers that – while I admittedly need a copy editor – I took on sacred cows in the media, financial industry, Congress,  the think tanks of the right, Russia, the US military, the Israel lobby and other repositories of retrograde thought. The White House, by the way, included on occasion.

Let’s face it, even in what used to be called the television age, long-term thinking was an endangered art form. In today’s age of instantaneous opinion - whether blogged, posted on comment threads, shrieked on cable television and talk radio, or pushed out by thumb-jockeys on Twitter - thinking beyond four or five years is not America’s strong suit. 

And that leads me to my first thank you: To all those who took time to comment, good or bad, and to really wrestle with some of the ideas and criticisms I put forward, thank you. For a country that has come to think it was somehow preordained that we should sit atop the global economic and political food chain, there is no more optimistic sign than to watch an engaged group of citizens struggling to come to terms with unpleasant realities.

In the broadest sense, the reality I have tried to hammer home is this: The United States, like every other empire that ever planted its tendrils in the soil of this planet, is losing its dominance of world economic and political affairs, and unless we unravel some of our current commitments and demand more of our allies and those rising to join us at the top table, we risk geopolitical Lehman Brothers moment that combines the pain of the 2008 disaster with a more traditional catastrophe: global war. 

By and large, through this blog and my book ,The Reckoning: Debt, Democracy and the Future of American Power, I have been trying to get people to realize that the United States, both economically and geopolitically, is growing brittle. Our ability to dominate the global agenda since the end of World War II owed a great deal to intelligent decisions taken by that generation of statesmen: We left Europe and Asia, by and large, after World War II, rebuilding our enemies and creating international institutions that, at least on paper, showed we believe that other nations have the right to be heard. 

Those institutions, from the UN Security Council to the World Bank, desperately need reform – as I have repeatedly said.

I’ve argued that the US needs to take care not to allow our relationship with China, which for better or worse is mutually dependent, deteriorate into one of outright hostility. The political convenience of scapeboating China for unemployment, or the price of oil or tensions in East Asia is a dangerous game.

There are times when China deserves criticism and we should not hold back. Human rights, in particular, and bullying behavior toward China’s smaller neighbors should be pointed out.

But China has enormous problems of its own – problems that get lost in the angst-ridden talk of US decline. It also has made real progress over the past several decades, starting as essentially a destitute communist prison camp during the mid-1970s, and since then transforming itself (and the lives of hundreds of millions). It is nowhere near democracy, but it is today a place where it is possible to imagine a democracy taking root.

No country will have as much influence on whether or not that happens at the United States. Giving hardliners there excuses to whip up hatred of the West will only ensure that process takes longer, and that the US and China remain just a Navy Lieutenant’s mistake away from outright war.

On other foreign topics,  I’ve been more optimistic than many about the Arab Spring, and I think so far that has been borne out, in spite of Syria’s violence. By and large the moderate Islamists who took power in Tunisia and Egypt have restrained the worst instincts of their constituents. Even as Israel and Hamas start another round of their futile conflict, Egypt’s role has been one of balancing, not threatening. That will be a good thing in the long run.

I also have been right so far about the Iran-Israel tension. I still think Israel knows its military options are miserable, and also understands that it’s only real hope on Iran’s nuclear program is to talk tough to optimize economic pain in Iran, or goad the US into attacking it.

I also encouraged the US, early on, to open up to reformists in Myanmar (Burma). Low and behold, Obama’s there today.

By and large, though, Americans (Slate included) just don’t spend much time on foreign policy, as the useless debate on the topic showed in October. So being right on some of this counts that much less.

If I was right about many things, I made my share of mistakes, too. One such error was in thinking I could self-edit: I’m too fast a writer to copyedit my own work. This is a major drawback of the blogosphere, sadly, and of the death of the business model of my first love, journalism, has not helped.

The real clunker in all the posts of the last year, however, was one on the London Olympics. I’d relocated to London in late May, my second stint in this wonderful city. But the Brits were in the midst of the worst summer EVER on record here. Londoners themselves were resigned to an Olympics that would have serious transport and security problems. So I wrote this post: mea culpa, and apologies to my British friends. I could not be happier that it worked out differently.

On domestic economic matters, I’ve tried hard to get the Obama administration to use the awful plight of the UK and European Union as a rhetorical firewall against the implementation of similar job and growth destroying austerity in America. I tried to emphasize long-term solutions – rebalance away from consumption, for instance, the need for tax reform, and the important role a resurgent US manufacturing sector could play.

 I feel I was only partly successful – the argument may well be beyond the simplistic black-and-white hues of US politics. But the fact that someone who broadly agrees won the presidential election two weeks ago gives me some solace.

As anyone who checked in here knows, I think the better of the two men won the presidential election, and for that we can thank the right-wing of the GOP for ladening their otherwise vanilla candidate with radioactive baggage.

Calling Obama the better man, then, isn’t really that much of a compliment. It’s merely reflects the fact that Obama’s macroeconomic and foreign policy instincts were rational rather than radical, and that Romney alienated too many voters to prevail. But I also happen to believe that tolerance, something Obama genuinely embodies, is a more important “American value” than any of the medieval nonsense I saw embraced by Romney during the primaries. If Obama barely earned his victory, Romney richly earned his defeat.

Whether Obama actually harnesses those better instincts, overcomes the dogged opposition to his policies that the Republicans will certainly mount, and begins to adjust America to the new realities ahead - well, that’s another question. 

The fiscal cliff is all the rage right now, and we may get some hint of the new, unburdened, second-term Obama in those talks. But that’s not the big game. That’s another increment. The Grand Bargain involves not only a recalibration of our fiscal and tax policies, but also our psychological sense of self, and - yes - unmeetable promises to the elderly, the poor and others that previous generations of Americans have committed the country to. Entitlements need reform - period.

So far, I just don’t see it happening, and that worries me. Other than a “pivot” toward Asia - something Bill Clinton spoke about in the mid-1990s, by the way – Obama’s foreign policy is notable primarily because it is more rational than the supercharged unilateralism that preceded it. Drones have proven a great way to draw down US forces in Southwest Asia, but do we really think it won’t just be a matter of time before they are buzzing over our heads, too?

On domestic policy, I’ll hold my fire: He was very constrained by the obstinance of the GOP House. But we will know soon enough if he can capitalize on his victory, or if he will once again use divided government as a crutch. All that oratorical talent should be put to good use.

The fact is, I believe deeply that this is the greatest nation on Earth. But the truly great do not spend a lot of energy screaming the fact from the rafters. What the rest of the world things about that question actually matters at least as much as what we think. And unfortunately, under Obama as under most presidents, our national pronouncements still reek of self-regard, of the “right” to lead the world, of the messianic sense of mission that has done much good in the world, but which also has caused misery and destruction at times that we prefer not to remember.

We have no such right: global leadership in the future will and should be shared, and always, it should be exercised because we earned it, not because God, or Allah, or John Maynard Keynes ordained it to be so.

Government is not evil – and neither is capitalism. It’s about the people in both places pulling the levers. Hopefully, in a second term, Obama gets that part right. It’s up to American voters to keep him honest.

As for me, I’m working on another book. As we used to say in newspapers, see you in the funny papers.