Charles Krauthammer gives us a worldview this morning unchanged for several centuries – and certainly unaffected by anything that has occurred since 2001. There is either one global hegemon in the world or there is chaos:
The Paulites, pining for the splendid isolation of the 19th century, want to leave the world alone on the assumption that it will then leave us alone. Which rests on the further assumption that international stability — open sea lanes, free commerce, relative tranquillity — comes naturally, like the air we breathe. If only that were true. Unfortunately, stability is not a matter of grace. It comes about only by Great Power exertion.
In the 19th century, that meant the British navy, behind whose protection the United States thrived. Today, alas, Britannia rules no waves. World order is maintained by American power and American will. Take that away and you don’t get tranquillity. You get chaos.
I think that’s wildly simplistic. To note something that any actual observer of the last decade would note: the hegemon can itself create chaos if it uses its force reflexively and for neo-imperial or paranoid reasons. The deaths of tens of thousands and the splintering of any cohesion to the “state” of Iraq was a direct consequence of Krauthammer’s simplistic hegemonism and all the hubris that comes entangled with it. Ditto Afghanstan – where US intervention does not appear to have prompted any long-term stabilization of the region, and, in fact, seems to have accelerated Pakistan’s descent into nuclear-tipped Jihadism (a far, far greater threat than anything the Taliban could muster). The American hegemony that has allowed Israel to invade, bomb and expand with impunity for years has not been a force for tranquility at all. And Krauthammer’s and Netanyahu’s proposal for a third Middle East war – against Iran – would be equally destabilizing for both the region and the world. In recent history, global hegemony hasn’t maintained tranquility; it has obliterated it in favor of an unpredictable, global religious conflict.
And as a rising power emerges in the East, history teaches us that an attempt to maintain hegemony and restrain that giant from exercizing influence in its own part of the world can be disastrously destabilizing. What Krauthammer misses in his celebration of British imperialism – “Today, alas, Britannia rules no waves” – is that, in the end, its resistance to sharing global influence with a rising Germany caused untold destruction and chaos in the first half of the twentieth century. There’s also a reason Britannia, like Imperial Spain before it, stopped ruling the waves. Because the temptation to hegemony eventually bankrupted it. Have you checked the US balance sheet lately? I thought – foolish me – that the GOP cared about that.
This is not to support what Krauthammer caricatures as “isolationism”.
Of course, the US has a real interest in projecting global force for the purpose of trade, a stable international economic system, and protection against the only foreign force that has even the slightest capacity to harm us: Jihadist terrorism. But in that endeavor, prudence – a concept alien to the former-leftists-turned-militarists like Krauthammer – matters. The Obama foreign policy, in not seeking to make every tension and conflict with any other country into a zero-sum endeavor, or a polarizing moment, has been far more prudent than Bush’s and Krauthammer’s. It has protected us from terrorism while withdrawing from two hopeless wars that Krauthammer backed – and still does. It has shown that you can actually project more power by doing less, and succeeding, than invading countries you have no understanding of and failing to occupy, reform or even govern them competently. And if you maintain a lighter footprint, using drones, surveillance and special forces, you can calm global tensions and increase the chance for global tranquility.
In other words, good, old-fashioned, intelligent realism is a critical central pillar of thinking about foreign policy, but it is one Krauthammer cannot countenance but that Reagan and the first Bush integrated into their interventionism. I cannot really see any solid reason why, except that a realist foreign policy that did not see war and violence as critical tools would lead any sane American president to reassess the fusion of the US and Israel in terms of global interests. And the regional hegemony of Israel is a core priority of the neoconservative mindset – and it is now wedded to the apocalyptic Zionism of the Christianist right. So realism must be tarnished so that the project of Greater Israel can continue with ever-increasing urgency and rigidity.
That’s why the debate between Paul and Christie is a vital one. Because it could expose the difference between realist global tranquility and neocon chaos, between some kind of domestic American revival, or one last act in the bankrupting temptations of late-empires. At some point, the neoconservatives will have to account for the sheer scale of chaos and disorder they have sown in the world, even as they claim, absurdly, to be the guardians of global peace. That reckoning has not fully occurred yet – just as the war crimes of that rogue administration have yet to be punished or accounted for.
But the time is coming. And Rand Paul may be its key precipitant.
(Photo: Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)