An Empire or a Just Society?

By Joe Campbell
October 14th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Charles Krauthammer wrote a piece for The Weekly Standard that is getting some attention – a piece apparently following up a speech he gave last week. His theme: Decline Is a Choice: The New Liberalism and the end of American ascendancy.

The criticism from liberals has been fast and furious, swatting away at Krauthammer’s many lies and distortions: Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Joe Klein, FireDogLake, Robert Farley.

But from the right, Krauthammer seems to be finding some traction (along with the Cheneys) in creating this narrative about Obama – and his attack has the advantage of being a comprehensive critique of Barack Obama’s administration and its promise. I don’t think the responses from the liberals so far have defused the attack, which I think will gain traction as time goes on.

Krauthammer’s critique is a profound one: that Obama’s New Liberalism – domestically and internationally – makes the conscious choice to let America decline as a global empire. As Krauthammer explains it (updating Niall Ferguson’s more honest description of the choice in his Colossus), America faces a choice between creating a just society at home or maintaining an empire abroad. As a neoconservative, Krauthammer believes we must choose empire because we are the one, special, unique nation, exalted above all others. The declining dollar; the deficits; the withdrawal from Iraq; the rise of China, India, Brazil, and other emerging powers; the scaling back of the panicked urgency in responding to terrorism; the effort to engage in diplomacy; the acclaim for Obama: all of these become points in the Obama narrative being created.

Thus far, the liberal response has been tepid – swatting back the lies and distortions. (For example, most of these dire situations undermining American power are the direct result of Bush administration policies that Krauthammer supported or failed to object to.)

[Image by B MOR Creeeative licensed under Creative Commons.]

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7 Responses to “An Empire or a Just Society?”

  1. glory Says:

    well there’s decline and there’s relative decline, which zakaria has already (retroactively) addressed in _the post-american world_, convincingly imo. so for ‘defusing the attack’, plain ol’ conservatives do just as well, e.g. from the straightforward – “Too many in the West see Chinese economic growth as competitive to Western economic interests. To the contrary, a richer China, with more consumers of expensive products and producers of sophisticated ideas, benefits us.” — to the more considered review 10-6.htm – maintenance of the anglo-saxon (writ large) “maritime order”

    bacevich’s _limits of power_ also fits under the reactionary conservative’s response to neoconservative neocolonialism and after watching last nite — cf. — i’m pretty convinced that escalation in afghanistan would be a debacle and a recipe for *absolute* decline…

  2. Joe Campbell Says:


    I’m well aware of Bacevich’s and Zakaria’s arguments – and Klein for example specifically invokes Zakaria. I tend to find Richard Haas’s theory of a nonpolar world to be most compelling however.

    But separate from the specific arguments about the relative decline of American power is the narrative Krauthammer creates. It is a political narratives – and narratives have the advantage of being “sticky,” by which I mean they impress “facts” upon readers without respect to their underlying truthfulness. Thus, in politics, a compelling narrative beats honest facts every time. (See Kerry, John; see Cleeland, Max; see Kennedy, John; etcetera.) Whether creating a narrative about your political opponent’s positions being sympathetic to terrorists or talking about an old sluggish leadership falling behind in an arms race based on an imaginary missile gap, narrative beats facts.

    The problem is Krauthammer has cogently created a neoconservative narrative that – for all its factual deficiencies – subsumes both the reality and promise of the Obama administration both at home and abroad. The response then need also be a narrative.

  3. glory Says:

    huh, to help clarify, the futurecast book review link was for mead’s _god & gold_ (see if that works) and by ‘writ large’ i meant cultural heritage and legacy — if not tradition — which kinda puts haass (from the blurb i read) and mead in the same company, from different approaches, that is if you believe ‘exercising power’ to any great degree requires at least the rudiments of “liberal capitalist modernity” or the apparatus of such (i.e. w/ chinese characteristics, etc.)

    now for me, who sees the world operating under the creaking edifices of (sclerotic) nation states and (clueless) central banks, and doesn’t see state capitalism or corporatism as much better (and probably worse) i’m trying to hold out hope for wright’s non-zero sum world where we’re delivered from an era held in thrall to powerful self-interested elites — prone to capturing the commanding heights and their attendant regulatory bodies, all the while their fingers hover over their respective nuclear buttons (or else) — by a flourishing of shirky-ian digital democracy and ‘potlatch’ culture or a (bruce) sterling ‘viridian’ aesthetic bolstered thru abundant renewable energy, a biotech revolution (that puts the industrial one to shame) and a new era of space exploration thrown in for good measure, BUT i’m not holding my breath…

    um, so barring enlightened (self-interest) beneficence from our rulers (us?) what faith can we place in our institutions to adapt? as it is currently — — i feel like our collective value system is either seriously flawed or becoming increasingly meaningless. can we consciously correct that? how?*

    as for argument from truthiness, i think that’s ground well covered (by colbert) and narratives — grand or otherwise — are proved, eventually, either reliable or unreliable guides. i would argue (factually! imo 😉 that obama’s election was, in part, a refutation of the stickiness with which the desirableness of empire is viewed by the majority of americans; as ferguson has said, america just doesn’t do empire well — his argument was that we should learn, of course — i just think that if obama thinks we should try, he’s making a (grave) mistake and setting himself up for (real/actual) failure.

    so sure krauthammer can paint obama as overseeing america’s decline (relative or otherwise) and it could ‘stick’ with a large segment of the population (minority or otherwise) but at the end of the day the only way to effectively counter those beliefs (false consciousness or otherwise) is to prove them wrong; nothing shuts up naysayers like success, as they say, which is nothing new of course. that’s why i think it’d be better for obama to concentrate on demonstrably winning (battles he was elected to fight) than be sidelined worrying, or overly concerned, about what narrative the neocons are spinning [btw, have you seen rove’s near constant op-eds in the WSJ (now the US’ most widely circulated paper)?]


    *my touchstone in this regard is ernest gellner — cf. & — who looked at historical forces thru the lenses of the plow (production mode), sword (political coercion) and book (human cognition); unfortunately he died in 1995 — the end of history! or otherwise, sorry 😛 — and i’m semi-obsessed with updating his ‘project’ for the 21st century given the evolution of those three factors since; so far i’m failing and see no good or satisfying Way Forward, which isn’t to deny genuine, if incremental, progress in standards of living for the ‘median’ global worker/individual over the last few decades since the berlin wall fell, i just don’t see, on the path we’re on now, how it at all ends well, altho i have an inkling that is pointing the way 😀

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