In the Arena

The Not-So-American Century

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This piece, today’s cover story in the New York Times Magazine, is long and complicated, and it may not even be right–vast global geo-strategic syntheses rarely are–but it does get you thinking…and what it got me thinking about was John McCain.

You watch McCain talking about the world and it very quickly becomes apparent that he is talking about a place that existed maybe 15 or 20 years ago, a globe where the U.S. is hegemon and where the challenges are always binary and manichean. It’s us v. the Soviets…or now, us against radical Islamic extremism, a threat that he gins up into the one of the Greatest Ever, the “transcendent threat of the 21st Century.” Maybe so. Maybe Osama and the Cave-dwellers will be able to produce a 9/11, or worse, every decade or so…maybe we’ll have to continue to spend $200 billion a year to fight that threat.

But probably not. It is at least equally likely that the global threat to American hegemony will be softer–a three-way competition for markets and resources with Europe and China, as the Times piece suggests; or even more diffuse than that. Maybe the Chinese way of gaining influence–offering to build huge public projects like dams and pipelines and power plants, while making absolutely no ideological demands–will prove more successful in winning second-world hearts and minds than our own naive, noisome bang-bang has been. Maybe a good part of that $200 billion could be more profitably spent elsewhere, in other ways. Perhaps it’s time to zero-base budget our war strategy. Clearly, the Al Qaeda threat must be met…but does that mean 160,000 troops in Iraq–and no effort to go after AQ where it lives, in Pakistan? Should we take some of that money and do something really, really nice for Turkmenistan, which sits atop 30% of the world’s natural gas reserves? Or maybe we should just forget about Turkmenistan for the moment, and put as much of that $200 billion as possible into domestic Energy Independence programs?

It would be nice if, at least once in this campaign, we had a serious conversation about this among the Presidential candidates. It would be nice if the Republican Party’s endless war assumption were opened up for examination and debate. It would be nice if the Democratic nominee–or Mitt Romney, before that–had the guts to look at McCain and say, “John, the Chinese are spending x-billions on development projects overseas…do you ever worry that they’re getting a bigger long-term profit out of their foreign aid investment than we’re getting out of our $200 annual war budget? Do you ever wonder if the Chinese look at us and see Chuck Norris–lethal but dumb?”