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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Friday, May 31, 2013

The lives of nations

This week I have been reading an excellent book published half a century ago by Samuel Beer, then a distinguished member of the Government Department and one of the most important educators at Harvard, British Politics in the Collectivist Era.  This evening I saw the film Midnight's Chldren, written and based on a book by Salman Rushdie, which is a symbolic history of India from the 1930s through the 1970s.  Both of them left me with a heavy feeling of how the world has changed during my adult life--because both of them are stories of national life.

Beer's book was also striking because it illustrated the huge changes in political science in the last half century.  I took very few Government courses in my undergraduate years and I did not have to take Social Sciences 2, Beer's general education course, but I was thereby the loser.  Beard's book shows--and assumes--a fairly detailed knowledge of British history at least since the seventeenth century.  It's a book about the development of political traditions that focuses on the development of the Labour and Tory parties, but ranges far more widely and hardly leaves out a single major British political figure from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Beer's colleagues at that time included Stanley Hoffmann, still a friend of mine  whose course on France, of which he had a similarly encyclopedic knowledge, I did take, and Adam Ulam, a Polish Jew who had the same level of expertise about Russia and the Soviet Union.  Edwin Reischauer, whose course I took, did the same for Japan. I just checked the current Harvard catalogue, and the only foreign countries whose governments get a whole course are Russia, India, China, and Japan, and the course descriptions make clear that not one of them takes a long-term historical approach to its subject.  The course on presidential power is taught by a lecturer, that is, a junior faculty member on a very short-term contract.   The course on the Supreme Court is taught by a law professor.  The great drama of western history--the development of the modern state--hardly figures in the government curriculum any more.  We now take it for granted--with consequences that are around for all to see.

Beer's book is particularly depressing because both the Labour and Conservative parties in those distant days believed in the state as the mechanism to promote prosperity and secure economic justice for the people.  Labour remained committed in theory to socialism, although it had even begun backing away from true socialism late in the Labour government of 1945-51--the British equivalent of the New Deal. The Conservatives had always believed in a strong state and they had begun intervening directly in the economy in the 1930s--albeit with far less impact than FDR's New Deal.  From Disraeli through MacMillan, their leaders insisted that they were the true guardians of the interests of the common people and they did enough to give the argument some force.  By the early 1960s, when Beer was writing, they had accepted much of what the Labour Government had done, including the National Health Service, which still, of course, survives.  Beer also discussed the laissez-faire Liberal and Radical traditions in British politics and argued that they had never been as strong in the UK as in France or the United States.  He could not of course anticipate Margaret Thatcher, who took advantage of another Tory tradition--the tradition of deference to the party leader--to set Britain on a very different path indeed.   One can read the whole of Beer's book without finding anything similar to Thatcher's notorious comment that she did not believe there was such a thing as "society," only the individuals living in it.   Labour under Tony Blair followed in her wake and David Cameron has not made any changes.     My best British friend told me two years ago that Britain remains considerably more collectivist than the US, but the spirit of its political life has changed.  Parliament, it seems, is now more an economic opportunity than the calling it was, even if has not sunk as low as the US Congress.

Salman Rushdie, I have just discovered, is exactly my age, born twelve days after myself in 1947, and thus, just two months before Indian independence, the birthday of the hero of Midnight's Children.  That hero embodies many of the paradoxes of India: he evidently had a British birth father and he is a Muslim who lives much of his youth in Pakistan.  While the magical realism of the movie is not exactly to my taste, I still found the portrait of Rushdie's native land both tragic and compelling.  But he published it in 1981, when he and I turned 34 and when we were recognizably living in the world into which we had been born.  He was concerned with the promise of Indian democracy and its betrayal by Indira Gandhi's state of emergency, which had just come to an end when the book was written.  Whether he still feels the note of hope upon which the book ended, I do not know.

Two critical developments, it seems to me, have done the most to weaken western political traditions. The first, paradoxically, was the collapse of Communism and the end, really, of traditional geopolitical threats.  The western nations during the Cold War were in a political, economic and military competition for survival, and it brought out the best in them at least as often as the worst.  The second, related development, of course, is globalization, which has led so many nations to surrender control of their economic destiny to international markets.  (It did occur to me when Beer discussed the British abandonment of the gold standard in 1931 how wise the British now seem to have foresaken the Euro, and I did find myself wondering if indeed Europe would be better off without it.  As the Greeks and Spaniards have discovered, a country without its own currency has lost control over economic policy.)  Mainstream opinion, as represented by nearly every journalistic pundit, regards both of these developments as triumphs.  I am not convinced.

The twentieth century was an extraordinarily creative period in western institutions because the Enlightenment tradition was reaching its climax.  That of course resulted in some horrifying "utopias" coming to life, but it also produced some extraordinary results in response.  My own generation has done little to keep that century's achievements alive.  Authority has been devolving steadily for several decades.  It shall, I am afraid, devolve until the consequences become too serious to be denied.  And at that point, all sorts of responses will again become possible--including some that will pay even less respect to the democratic process.  This is, evidently, the rhythm of history, and as I have often remarked, a new crisis will offer great opportunities to younger generations--including some that have probably not yet been born.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Peace at last?

 President Obama confirmed once again last Thursday that Dwight Eisenhower, not Franklin Roosevelt or JFK, is his real role model.  Generationally Obama and Eisenhower represent the same Nomad archetype, Ike from the Lost generation and Obama from Gen X, and they both believe in a degree of bipartisanship, an end to crusades, and an attempt to retrench.  More specifically, Obama wants--as he has made clear again and again--to put the Boomer-inspired controversies that have dominated the last 40 years behind us.  And now, he hopes, by the time he leaves office, to declare an end to the war on terror.  In one sense this decision is long overdue.  In another, it ignores critical remaining problems for which we simply have no solution.

In quoting James Madison to the effect that no nation could preserve its liberty through endless war, Obama implicitly drew a huge lesson from the last seventy years of American history.  Our liberties have been threatened in many ways since the Second World War and our Constitution has repeatedly been infringed--never more so than in the last ten years.  But in addition, a substantial faction of our political establishment, led by neoconservatives, actively embraces endless war.  They saw the collapse of Communism not as the onset of a peaceful era, but as an opportunity to make American power supreme everywhere.  After 9/11 they--and President Bush--eagerly embraced the image of another decades-long struggle against radical Islam parallel to the Cold War against Communism, which could itself have been fought at much less cost.  They will be heard from again in days and weeks to come, but I expect them to lose this fight. The President's speech matched the national mood.  We are sick of crusades.

The "war on terror" was George W. Bush's attempt to mobilize the energies of the nation as Lincoln and FDR had done, but because of his lack of real vision and the ineptitude of much of his team, he accomplished very little indeed.  He did not manage to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden, his triumph in Afghanistan turned out to be very temporary, and the invasion of Iraq was a disaster.  Ten years later, Iraq is fragmented and still in the midst of a low-level but worsening civil war between Shi'ites and Sunnis. Its government is effectively an ally of Iran.  Many old regimes in the region have fallen, as Bush and his Administration hoped they would, but hardly any of the post-revolutionary nations seem on their way to stability.  Indeed, perhaps the weakest part of President Obama's speech referred to these developments, using language that could have come from the mouth of his predecessor.

"So the next element of our strategy involves addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism, from North Africa to South Asia. As we’ve learned this past decade, this is a vast and complex undertaking. We must be humble in our expectation that we can quickly resolve deep rooted problems like poverty and sectarian hatred. Moreover, no two countries are alike, and some will undergo chaotic change before things get better. But our security and values demand that we make the effort.

"This means patiently supporting transitions to democracy in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya – because the peaceful realization of individual aspirations will serve as a rebuke to violent extremists. We must strengthen the opposition in Syria, while isolating extremist elements – because the end of a tyrant must not give way to the tyranny of terrorism. We are working to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians – because it is right, and because such a peace could help reshape attitudes in the region. And we must help countries modernize economies, upgrade education, and encourage entrepreneurship – because American leadership has always been elevated by our ability to connect with peoples’ hopes, and not simply their fears."

The government of the United States remains convinced, in short, that the Enlightenment vision of state and society will remain the only viable model for the future.  But that model worked in the west and became in the twentieth century an example to the rest of the world because westerners deeply believed in it and made it work.  It has now lost ground to the model of a globalized capitalist economy which holds political systems in thrall.   Islam, not the Enlightenment, appears to be the most powerful force in the Muslim world.  And lastly, the Israeli government does not share Obama's vision for peace with the Palestinians.  It is indeed resolved to endless war and it has in many ways dragged Washington in its wake.  The President did show some welcome realism, when he identified the real problem that has encouraged the US to rely upon drone strikes: that large portions of the world are completely ungoverned.  His solutions to that problem, however, were almost surely wildly optimistic.

The speech was perhaps the first thing the President has done in the last five years to justify his Nobel Peace Prize--but it is only a speech.  It seems quite possible that John Kerry, the new Secretary of State, might have had something to do with it, and he seems far more interested in serious diplomacy than his predecessor. Rather than simply calling again and again for the fall of Hafez Assad, for instance, Kerry is actively seeking the help of the Russian government in bringing about a settlement of the civil war in Syria.  This is the only hope, however forlorn it may be, of avoiding another disastrous bloodbath and a regional religious war comparable to the one that struck Central Europe in 1618-48.  But it will not be easy.

It is a pretty well-kept secret, but President Obama has not shown any personal diplomatic skills as President.  He tends to be rather wooden with foreign leaders, and he has not shown the great skill of Presidents like Kennedy and Bush I in sizing up and recognizing foreign leaders' problems so as to figure out they can help him solve his own.  Kerry is a diplomat's son and he has set to work.  The President set out a worthy goal, one which coincidentally echoed the conclusion of the last lecture I delivered at the Naval War College a little more than a year ago.  He will have a real legacy if he can achieve it.  

Friday, May 17, 2013

The turning point

This is a big month for yours truly, marking the end of my formal full-time academic career.  But I suspect it will live in history as a critical month for another reason: the end of any hope that the Obama Administration will accomplish anything further, and, quite probably,. of the modern era of liberalism.  Several years ago I made a new friend who spent some time reading through the posts I had made since 2004, and she complimented me that so many of my predictions had come true.  I'm afraid the time has come for more predictions. The Republicans will gain a few seats in the House and Senate in 2014, and it's quite likely that they will regain the White House in 2016.  The will precede to the final dismantling of the work of the Great Society, having finished off the New Deal some time ago.

Barack Obama entered office five years ago possessed of solid majorities in the House and Senate, and facing a national crisis that everyone had to acknowledge.  But from the beginning, he chased an impossible dream: the restoration of a bipartisan spirit in Washington.  He never had the slightest success, but he has not, as we shall see, given up the dream yet.  And this was the key to the mistake he has made again and again.  This quintessentially political young man, who had parlayed his considerable assets into fame, fortune, and high office at every stage of his career, based his proposals on what could easily be passed, rather than upon what the country might in the long run really need.  Even if the stimulus was a much as he could get, he could have put more of it into infrastructure spending and less of it into tax cuts designed (hopelessly) to draw Republican support.  He appointed an entirely centrist economic team, one that saw nothing fundamentally wrong with our finance-dominated economy.  He did not realize that the whole future of his Presidency depended on improving the lot of the bulk of the American people by the time of the 2010 elections--the feat which Franklin Roosevelt accomplished in 1933-4.  And he decided after the stimulus to put all his remaining capital into health care reform, even though it would be years before it had any measurable effect.  That reform, too, was written so as not to offend any powerful interests, on the assumption that we could fix the real problems we face without offending them.

To be sure, even in his first two years Obama had much less to work with than it seemed. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress are in thrall to financial interests.  Democrats are very weak at the state level in much of the country.  Nearly 35 years of constant anti-government, free market rhetoric have left the vision of the middle of the century behind.  To make government effective again Obama had to revive them, and this he has never really tried to do.  We will never know whether any one else could have, but it is worth noting that Obama brought many of the same people back into government that Hillary Clinton would have.

Despite Obama's re-election victory, the Republicans have been driving the national agenda since 2011.  Their debt-limit brinkmanship forced Obama into the sequester, again on the absolutely mad assumption that today's Republican Party would shrink from actually implementing the cuts involved.  In fact their only regret, as they see the federal government crippled and the country threatened with a new recession as a result, is that they did not go further.  Destroy the government and the economy and blame the Democrats has been their motto for a long time, and they were not going to abandon it for him.  The same drama is playing out in many states, although California is now back on a more responsible track.  I was shocked that Obama actually told a New York fundraiser that he thought his victory last November would "break the fever" among the Republicans and make them start working with him.  They will never work with him. They want to destroy him and, more importantly, everything he stands for.

I must admit that I thought Obama's decision to make a new stand on gun control might make political sense.  His own Generation X voted for him in the last election, but his response to the school shooting might well appeal to that generation's hyperprotective parents and thus change the political calculus for some Republicans.  Clearly, however, I was wrong.  The NRA brushed the challenge aside and the House of Representatives wasn't even forced to vote on what was, once again, a very moderate bill.  Even before the events of the past week I was very doubtful that Obama would get substantial immigration reform.  Yes, the Republicans are losing the Hispanic vote over this issue, but they might lose it even worse if the President actually gave millions of Hispanics a path to citizenship.  The mantra remains what it has been since Newt Gingrich: don't let a Democratic President accomplish anything meaningful if you can help it, because that will once again show that government can solve problems.  By making it ineffective, we can kill public faith in it.

And now, three "scandals" have given the Republicans a new life.  None of them is really very significant.  The Benghazi accusations are made almost entirely of whole cloth.  The subpoena for AP records is a troubling reminder that this is the hardest Administration on leaks in history, and it has alienated much of the Democratic base.  The IRS scandal is a perfect reminder of Talleyrand's famous words to Napoleon: "Sire, it's worse than a crime, it's a blunder."  It will re-mobilize the Republican base as nothing else could, and the Republicans, aided by the entire media, will drag it out for months and months, just as they did Whitewater.  There is already considerable talk in the House about another impeachment of the President.  Don't rule it out.  And incredibly, no one has raised what seems to me a rather obvious question: why should Tea Party groups, or any other political organizations, receive tax exemptions as charitable organizations?  I'd really like to know.

Another crisis is looming over health care.  Republicans constantly declare that many businesses will cut their workers back to part-time status so as not to have to buy insurance for them--and that might well turn out to be true.  The implementation of the reform may be a public relations disaster. 

The United States has been in a second civil war since the election of Bill Clinton.  The Republicans are winning perhaps it was because it was their historical turn--a subject for another day--but surely because they are the only side that has really been fighting.  Clinton and Obama have been status quo Presidents, offering very little that was new and almost nothing that appeared to the mass of the American people to make their lives better.  Again and again they have bee willing to compromise, while the Republicans never do.  And the growth of Republican power has indeed reduced the federal government to ineffectiveness on many levels.  A Democratic victory in 2016 is anything but assured. A recent study--and not a right-wing one--argued that only the black turnout won the election for Obama last time, and the next Democratic candidate will not be black.  Nor can we be sure that Hispanics will continue to vote Democratic if the state of the country continues to deteriorate.

Obama, it seems to me, could do the country some good by talking, at every opportunity, about the economic steps the country really needs: more spending, not less; much higher taxes on the wealthy; a reduction of the influence of the financial sector; and better public services.  The only thing he can do now is to position the Democrats for the moment when it becomes clear that things are getting worse again.  Instead, he is more likely to look for a "grand bargain" that will implicate him and his party in a new series of disasters. Meanwhile, the younger generations are completely losing faith in politics.  In my last full-time college class last week, I mentioned that Kennedy had inspired much of my generation, and Reagan had inspired Generation X.  "Has Obama inspired you?" I asked the class, which was certainly composed mainly of liberals.  A long silence followed. "Well, maybe until he was elected," one young man replied.  That, in a nutshell, is the tragedy of Barack Obama--and of the present-day United States.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Kennedys and Ambassadors

For more than a month the press has been reporting that Caroline Kennedy is going to be appointed by President Obama as Ambassador to Japan.  Nothing has happened officially yet, so perhaps a snag has developed, but I must say that I scratched my head when I heard the news and haven't been able to get it out of my mind ever since.  It's not that I have anything against Caroline Kennedy at all, on the contrary.  I once met her at a Kennedy Library event and she was as gracious and charming as she could be.  She has had an emotionally difficult life, however privileged it might have been in some respects, and she played an important role in 2008 in getting Barack Obama the Democratic nomination.  But if she is indeed appointed, it will be yet another piece of evidence of the enormous changes in the business of governing in the fifty years since her father was President.

John F. Kennedy ran for President in 1960 arguing that the United States was in a worldwide Cold War with the Soviets and Communism, one involving both the older great powers of Europe and Asia and the new emerging nations.  America's representatives in those nations, he believed, could be critical assets or liabilities in that struggle.  He also enjoyed bringing contemporaries with experience in public service into the government.  He put Chester Bowles, himself a former and future Ambassador to India, in charge of picking new Ambassadors.  His non-career appointments were different than most Presidents', as I have particular reason to know, because they had nothing to do with financial contributions to his campaign.  Instead, he and Bowles looked for smart, articulate men from journalism, the academy, and other forms of government service to sell the New Frontier.  To serve as Ambassador to India he picked the Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who obviously knew a great deal about economic development.  To France he sent retired General James Gavin, who had worked with foreign military leaders as the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division in the Second World War.  He brought George F. Kennan, whom John Foster Dulles had fired from the State Department, out of retirement to become Ambassador to Yugoslavia, which under Marshall Tito had declared its independence from the Soviet bloc.  My own father, Philip M. Kaiser, who had represented the United States in Geneva at meetings of the International Labor Organization for about five years, became Ambassador to Senegal, where he could put his knowledge of French to good use.  Guinea, down the coast, was a particularly sensitive nation because it had a leftist leader, Sekou Toure, and Kennedy sent William Attwood, another francophone and the Foreign Editor of Look Magazine, to Guinea.  And for Japan he chose Edwin Reischauer, a Harvard Professor who was probably the country's leading expert in Japanese politics.  Carl Rowan, one of the country's leading Negro journalists (to use the contemporary term), became Ambassador to neutral Finland.  Mercer Cook, a black professor of French at Howard University, became Ambassador to Niger and eventually succeeded my father in Senegal. Those are the ones I remember, but I know they are not the only non-career people Kennedy appointed.

It occurred to me the other day, winding up my Williams College class on Vietnam and trying to summarize the war's impact, that the Cold War had in a weird way been good for the US government and for government all over the world.  The new nations were going to need governments and might follow the US or the Soviet model.  That gave the American President a keen interest in helping them develop and making sure that they were constantly exposed to impressive and effective US representatives.  It also, of course, gave us an incentive to make our own system work which we lost when Communism collapsed.  The Congo was another battleground in 1960 and the US spent years establishing a stable government there.  That government, under Joseph Mobutu, rapidly turned into a corrupt dictatorship, but it was a government.  The Congo has now been in a state of chaos for over a decade, but since there is no longer a Cold War in progress, no one in the wider world seems to care very much.  Governments of all kinds are much weaker than they were in my youth, and I fear they may have become much too weak for the good of the citizenry.

Japan is a major economic power, on the doorstep of worrisome North Korea,. and with steadily worsening relations with China.  It needs an Ambassador who speaks Japanese and knows the history and politics of the country, and who also enjoys the confidence of Secretary Kerry and the President.  Caroline Kennedy will undoubtedly rely upon her professional staff if she is chosen, and I hope she does well.  But I can't honesty think that her knowledge or experience particularly qualifies her for a very important diplomatic role.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Telling the truth

 During the Second World War, the British Broadcasting Corporation was perhaps the allies' most important propaganda weapon in occupied Europe.  Although Britain was fighting for its life, the BBC's short-wave news broadcasts had a simple rule: tell the truth.  Britain suffered a long series of setbacks and disasters during the first three years of the war, but the BBC never tried to peddle false optimism about the campaigns in Norway, Belgium, France, North Africa, Greece, and Crete.  And therefore, when they had good news to report, their listeners believed it as well.  Meanwhile, they could note the contrast between British news reporting and the Axis propaganda they had to deal with every day.

I was reminded of this, sadly, this morning, when I picked up my newspaper and discovered that Mark Sanford had defeated Elizabeth Busch in a special South Carolina Congressional election.  Checking online, I found that the victory was a comfortable one: 54% to 46%.  And that made me rather angry--not because of the result, which didn't surprise me, but because of the barrage of emails I had received from Democratic organizations begging for a contribution to Ms. Busch's campaign.  In the last week, quite a few of them reported polls showing the race to be almost a dead heat, and I even received one of the morning of the election itself.  The key poll came from a left-wing outfit called Public Policy Polling.

The Democratic and Republican parties are at war, just as surely as the British and the Germans were--albeit nonviolently.  And even today, I would argue, truth could remain a weapon of some consequence.  I have been thinking about blogging for some time about the steady stream of requests for donations to fight the Republicans on almost every major issue that reach me every week.  In my youth the advantages of incumbency were generally enough for a President to hold his own in Congress; now it seems they are worth nothing.  Charles Krauthammer, whom I despise, raised eyebrows a couple of weeks ago by suggesting that President Obama only cares about issues like gun control because they bring in money from his supporters.  I think the President is sincere about that, but I have to conclude Krauthammer might be more broadly on to something.

In fact I was right not to give money, I think, because Busch evidently never had a chance.  In Charleston, S. C., adultery can be forgiven (and I have argued here that I think it should not be a political issue), but running on the Democratic Party label can't be.  And Ms. Busch, like so many other red state Democratic candidates, wasn't willing to support the President directly on most major issues anyway.  The Democratic Party, like the Republican, is relying on its own base, which is held together by emotion.  It is not too concerned, it seems, with appealing to the facts.

There is other bad news for the Democratic Party.  A new study of the last election suggests that the black turnout won the contest for Barack Obama.  Had black and white voters turned out in the same percentages as in 2004, Romney would have won the popular vote at least.  The Democratic candidate in 2016 will not be black.  Nor will the Democrats, I now think, be able to appeal to Hispanics on the basis of successful immigration reform. The Republicans will block it.

The United States will be in terrible trouble until at least one party has the courage to rely upon the truth.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

The Fall of the American Empire

In the 1930s, in a famous essay entitled "Shooting an Elephant," George Orwell, looking back on his tour in Burma as an imperial policeman in the 1920s, shared his feelings about the British Empire. "I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it," he wrote. "All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty."  Orwell was right: the British Empire as he had known it came to an end when India, Pakistan and Burma became independent a little more than ten years after he wrote his essay.  Speaking merely as a newspaper reader and not in anyway as an authority on that region, I would suggest that it still has a very significant political and economic legacy in India and Bangladesh, a very frayed legacy in what is left of Pakistan, and almost none at all in Burma, where Orwell served.  The legacy is also fraying in Egypt, the centerpiece of the British empire in the Middle East, and it was never very strong to begin with in most of British Africa.  The achievements of the British Empire were ably summarized by analogy about 35 years ago in this scene from a British film, one which Orwell would undoubtedly have enjoyed had he lived into his late 70s. (This is the first clip I have ever linked here, and it lasts about 90 seconds.)

The British Empire, of course, gave way to the American empire, a network of alliances and client states built after the Second World War to contain Communism.  Originally conceived by George F. Kennan and his boss George Marshall as a means of bringing all the non-Communist industrial centers of the world into an American-led alliance, it came during the 1950s and 1960s to include many of the newly emerging nations as well.  From the Truman through the Johnson Administrations it dispensed a great deal of foreign aid, allowing emerging nations to survive and even building some key infrastructure here and there.  Meanwhile, the Soviet Union pursued a parallel course on a lesser scale.  The two victors in the Second World War, as Stalin was the first to suggest, were inevitably spreading their social and economic systems wherever they could.  The record of US imperial management was decidedly mixed. NATO and the revival of Japan were great achievements, but many interventions in the Third World did more harm than good. The US fought the Second World War to create a world ruled by laws, but the long series of CIA-sponsored coups that began in Iran in 1953 and eventually included Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, and several others, undermined law both internationally and within those countries.  And the attempt to use hundreds of thousands of American troops to keep South Vietnam within the American sphere was a catastrophe from which the United States has never recovered internally.

In 1989-91, of course, the American empire seemed to have achieved unchallenged supremacy, as Soviet Communism collapsed.  The Clinton and Bush II Administrations tried in various ways to take advantage of the new situation to extend it still further, expanding NATO--whose original mission had now disappeared--going forward with missile defense, and, as Paul Wolfowitz reportedly put it, "cleaning out" remaining Soviet clients like the regime in Iraq.  The Bush II Administration also dreamed of spreading "democracy" and American influence through the Middle East. But that experiment is now clearly a failure, and it is time once again for me to echo Orwell.  The era of the American Empire is over.

Several historical developments are bringing it to and end, both at home and abroad.  First of all, the second great era of western rationalism has peaked.  The first such era occurred in the ancient world and the Roman Empire resulted from it.  The second began with the Renaissance and peaked sometime during the twentieth century.  Both western democracy and capitalism on the one hand, and Soviet Communism on the other, were products of that era.  But more significantly, by the middle of the twentieth century western rationalism was utterly unchallenged as the organizing principle of the world.  The new emerging nations wanted their independence within the western tradition.  Their new governments were almost all secular.  They opted for western-style democracy, some form of Marxist socialism, or authoritarian (usually military) rule.  Those were the only options. Meanwhile, the victorious nations of the Second World War maintained very large military establishments, recruited by conscription, and could always find troops to deploy when necessary within, and occasionally outside, their sphere.

What has changed? First and foremost, I would suggest, the political legacy of the Enlightenment is under serious attack.  The Soviet part of it is dead, most of all within the former Soviet Union.  But western democracy is no longer proving a very appealing model either.  Nowhere in the former Soviet Union does it seem to have taken root, and it is functioning well only in some areas of Eastern Europe   Democracy is not everywhere in retreat: it is thriving, relatively speaking, in South America, and it has scored some successes in East Asia.  But Europe's democracies are failing to cope with the new economic crisis, and American democracy is having very little success coping with our national problems.  Meanwhile, religious fundamentalism is the most important political force in a large part of the Muslim world.  Just as Communism, which claimed to represent the apex of western rationality, totally collapsed in the Soviet Union, Turkey, the Muslim nation which made the most determined effort to follow the secular western path 90 years ago, has become far more religious.  The Muslim brotherhood is contesting for power in Egypt, and Iraq and Syria are in the midst of continuing religious civil wars.  Radical Islam threatens several governments in West Africa, as well as Pakistan.  And in nations like Egypt and Pakistan, the westernized elements that ruled for decades seem to be hopelessly corrupt and without much popular appeal.

And what can the US do about all this? Essentially nothing--and this is why I am willing to declare the empire at an end.  The Bush Administration's decision to try to impose our will upon Afghanistan and Iraq while cutting taxes has left the United States bereft of military or economic resources.  The dirty secret of those interventions was that there was no way on earth that 50-150,000 American troops could impose order on nations of 25 to 35 million people.  Indeed, the growth of third world populations relative to western ones is probably the biggest single reason why old-style imperialism is dead.  The American military is now as determined to avoid further interventions as it was in the wake of the Vietnam War.  As a percentage of our population it has shrunk to an historic low.  Moreover, although the attitudes of the foreign policy establishments of the two parties remain interventionist, there is very little interventionism among the elected politicians of either party.  The Tea Party, in particular, does not care about the outside world. 

The Obama Administration's response to Syria suggests a new realism.  Although the President for months has supported, on principle, the ouster of the Assad regime, Washington is apparently realizing that the alternatives of civil war or an Islamic regime are probably worse.  But despite this, only a couple of intrepid op-ed writers have suggested promoting a settlement of the civil war that would include the Assad regime.  Some foreign policy types still dream, apparently, of using American money and arms to sponsor friendly alternative leadership.  But without any political basis for such a group, these hopes are doomed, just as they were in Iraq, where Nouri Al-Maliki is an Iranian client fighting a civil war against his own Sunnis, or Afghanistan, where Hamid Karzai has never won real legitimacy with his people.  Nor can our new weapon of choice, drones, ever build a stable empire of sphere of influence.  Like the Israelis, we may kill hostile militant leaders, but this will never help a stable political regime emerge within disputed territories. 

We would do well to revisit the early 1930s and the late 1940s.  In the first case, the United States helped to bring about, and then failed to alleviate, a devastating European economic crisis with incalculable political consequences.  In the second case the Marshall Plan ensured that the same thing would not happen again.  So far as I can see the Obama Administration is now taking an almost completely hands-off policy towards the new European crisis, while Republicans simply use it for their own political reasons.  For more than sixty years, from around 1950 to the present, the eyes of American foreign policy makers have steadily moved away from the most advanced regions of the world to the least, eventually bringing us into the remote wilds of Afghanistan.  A reversal is now in order, but it is not happening.

Many of my contemporaries, especially in academia, have resented the American empire for the last half century.  They are now getting their wish: American influence is everywhere in retreat.  It will not be replaced, as Orwell feared, by worse empires, but rather by an increasing zone of anarchy which advanced nations will be powerless to control.  The real problem of the 21st century, at home and abroad, will be the re-establishment of effective legitimate authority.  And that process may well have to begin on a small scale and work its way upward.