Blogs > Liberty and Power > Cassandra's Not an Alarmist Any Longer

Dec 26, 2004 1:35 pm

Cassandra's Not an Alarmist Any Longer

Fred Kaplan offers a year-end assessment of where the United States might be headed from the long-term perspective of history, a perspective which sadly and disastrously eludes all of our political leaders. Here are a few excerpts:

There is nothing necessarily alarming about an expansive China or an emergent Europe, except perhaps that they coincide with a growing American dependence on both.

The United States government spent $650 billion more this year than it raised in revenue, and financed the deficit largely by borrowing from foreign central banks, mainly those of Japan and China. They have been willing creditors because American consumers send much of the money right back by purchasing foreign-made products. It's a neat balancing act, to a point. But the American accumulated debt to foreign investors has now swelled to $3.3 trillion - 28 percent of gross domestic product, nearly double the share of four years ago.

In the 1990's, the United States admonished Mexico and Argentina to get their economic houses in order. This month, the Chinese premier gave Washington a strikingly similar lecture. ...

A more serious consequence of the dollar's fall is that the euro has become more rewarding for foreign investors, and they are reacting accordingly. In 2001, Middle Eastern oil-producing countries kept 75 percent of their currency reserves in dollars; now the figure is 61 percent, with much of the rest in euros. Chinese and Russian central bankers are also shifting reserves. This trend, at some point, could set off a spiral: the dollar declines, causing further sell-offs, leading to a further decline, and so on. ...

[I]f someday the United States finds that it can no longer count on foreigners to bankroll its deficits, it may also find that it can no longer afford a globe-spanning military. The war in Iraq has already stretched America's forces to the limit. In the 1970's and 1980's, when Pentagon strategists spoke of a two-front war, they envisioned having to fight simultaneously in, say, Germany and Korea. Today, they mean Mosul and Falluja. ...

In short, not only has the Iraq war been harder than many imagined, it has also made going to war elsewhere a less practical option - and a less credible threat. ...

Meanwhile, power is not transferring so much as dispersing. It may turn out, if trends continue, that no country or bloc of countries possesses the combination of economic and military power needed to reward the good, deter or punish the bad and impose international rules, order and security.

A multipolar world can be a chaotic place. The danger is not so much that the United States may lose power, but that the globe's new rivals may fail to strike and manage a balance of power. End-of-the-year Cassandras traditionally predict doom, gloom and anarchy. This year they're looking less preposterous.

Kaplan also notes that the"United States may revive itself through changes in policy." That is certainly true: if the United States were to return to a policy of financial restraint and debt reduction, if it returned to a policy of military action only when absolutely necessary and solely directed at serious, present threats to our security (in short: wars of necessity, and not of choice), and I would add, if it returned to the protection of individual rights and personal liberty, rather than eroding those founding American values in far too many ways, then it might again become a beacon to the world.

In other words: if such changes in our course took place, the United States might again exhibit a government which seriously respects constitutional limits on its power, which promotes genuine economic health, and which engages in military action only when it is forced to do so and when no other option exists.

Rather ironic, isn't it? If the United States returned to what at one time had been genuine" conservative" values, its future would look much brighter, and infinitely more secure -- conservatism of the Old Right variety, in stark contrast to the faux-conservatism marketed by Bush & Co., which is in truth a virulent combination of corporate statism run amok and an intrusion of religion into politics that would make certain of our enemies proud.

Despite the odds against its happening, I still hope that the New Year might cause at least a few politicians to reexamine our course -- and consider a return to those values that had made the United States the world's most powerful nation economically and militarily and, not coincidentally, also its freest. History has its lessons, but they are lost on politicians who are concerned only with the accumulation of power and the next election.

And people often forget perhaps the most important aspect of Cassandra's tragic story: she was right. As Barbara Tuchman puts it, in discussing the paradigmatic tale of the"pursuit of policy contrary to self-interest" in The March of Folly:"A last chance and a last warning are offered. Cassandra, Priam's daughter, possesses the gift of prophecy conferred on her by Apollo, who, on falling in love with her, gave it in exchange for her promise to lie with him. When Cassandra, dedicating herself to virginity, went back on her promise, the offended god added to his gift a curse providing that her prophecies would never be believed."

After the horse is brought within the city walls, Cassandra cries:"O miserable people, poor fools, you do not understand at all your evil fate." Tuchman goes on:"They are acting senselessly, she tells them, toward the very thing 'that has your destruction within it.':" And here is Tuchman describing the slaughter that ensues:"The tragedy is total; no heroics or pity mitigate the end."

And on that cheerful note...

(Cross-posted at The Light of Reason.)

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