Liberty, Safety And “Smart” Power: Contradiction By Design

In recent days, we’ve looked at the “Liberaltarianizing” of the United States, and how Americans seem to be too quick to trade their freedom for safety. In what is a third part of an unintended series, we focus on foreign policy and how that affects both of the previous topics. The Obama administration as made a big hullabaloo over the use of “Smart Power” in international relations (I would argue that Obama “Smart Power” is a repackaging of “Soft Power“, with an over-reliance of soft power strategies, while generally eschewing “Hard Power”). Under the guise of “restoring America’s standing,” one could argue that the ultimate result of the Obama strategy is to reduce the United States’ international hegemony, making America “just another country” in the world stage.

Unfortunately, there is evidence that such an approach would do nothing other than to increase unrest around the globe, thereby decreasing the safety so coveted by “liberaltarians.” Nature abhors a vacuum, and in a world without a dominant United States presence, the leadership vacuum is being filled by what Robert Kaplan terms Anarchy. This is borne out historically in an example provided by Kaplan:

The problem is, however, that in geopolitics equality usually does not work  very well. For centuries Europe had a rough equality between major states that  is often referred to as the balance-of-power system. And  that led to frequent wars. East Asia, by contrast, from the 14th to the early  19th centuries, had its relations ordered by a tribute system in which China was  roughly dominant. The result, according to political scientist David C. Kang of  the University of Southern California, was a generally more peaceful climate in  Asia than in Europe.

The fact is that domination of one sort or another, tyrannical or not, has a  better chance of preventing the outbreak of war than a system in which no one is  really in charge; where no one is the top dog, so to speak. That is why Columbia  University’s Kenneth Waltz, arguably America’s pre-eminent realist, says that  the opposite of “anarchy” is not stability, but “hierarchy.”

Of course, leftists would bristle at the notion that one country should be “more equal” than others, or that this source of inequality is the thing that creates international stability and peace. Since the end of World War II (especially) the role of international hegemon has been filled by the United States, inasmuch as America emerged as the dominant world power, and through a general consensus, was expected to lead on the world stage. When the hegemon fails to lead (or “leads from behind”) it is betraying its agreed-upon position, and can be said to be acting irresponsibly. However, as Kaplan continues:

Of course, hegemony has a bad reputation in media discourse. But that is only  because journalists are confused about the terminology, even as they  sanctimoniously judge previous historical eras by the strict standards of their  own. In fact, for most of human history, periods of relative peace have been the  product of hegemony of one sort or another. And for many periods, the reigning  hegemonic or imperial power was the most liberal, according to the standards of  the age. Rome, Venice and Britain were usually more liberal than the forces  arranged against them. The empire of the Austrian Hapsburgs in Central and  Eastern Europe often protected the rights of minorities and prevented ethnic  wars to a much greater degree than did the modern states that succeeded it. The  Ottoman Empire in the Balkans and the Middle East frequently did likewise. There  are exceptions, of course, like Hapsburg Spain, with its combination of  inquisition and conquest. But the point is that hegemony does not require  tyrannical or absolutist rule.

Stability is not the natural order of things. In fact, history shows that  stability such as it exists is usually a function of imperial rule, which, in  turn, is a common form of hierarchy. To wit, there are few things messier in  geopolitics than the demise of an empire. The collapse of the Hapsburgs, of the  Ottoman Turks, of the  Soviet Empire and  the British Empire in Asia and Africa led to chronic wars and upheavals. Some  uncomprehending commentators remind us that all empires end badly. Of course  they do, but that is only after they have provided decades and centuries of  relative peace.

Obviously, not all empires are morally equivalent. For example, the Austrian  Hapsburgs were for their time infinitely more tolerant than the Soviet  Communists. Indeed, had the Romanov Dynasty in St. Petersburg not been replaced  in 1917 by Lenin’s Bolsheviks, Russia would likely have evolved far more  humanely than it did through the course of the 20th century. Therefore, I am  saying only in a general sense is order preferable to disorder. (Though  captivating subtleties abound: For example, Napoleon betrayed the ideals of the  French Revolution by creating an empire, but he also granted rights to Jews and  Protestants and created a system of merit over one of just birth and  privilege.)

In any case, such order must come from hierarchal [sic] domination.

However, as I alluded to above, these days seem to be behind us; not only is a hegemonic role for the United States antithetical to Obama’s world view and political philosophy, but after two lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans in general seem to have a case of battle-fatigue. Obama’s strategy is playing directly into it: outside of some special-ops personnel to carry out surgical drone-strikes on individuals, there is a reluctance to put “boots on the ground” to right wrongs in places such as Libya, Syria. Granted, since Korea, presidents in general have been reluctant to use force; it wasn’t until George W. Bush after 9/11 (and to a lesser extent, George H.W. Bush in Kuwait) that U.S. force was employed en masse. However, Obama seems to have accelerated a shift:

In a world of strong states — a world characterized by hierarchy, that is —  the United States often enforced the rules of the road or competed with another  hegemon, the Soviet Union, to do so. Such enforcement came in the form of robust  diplomacy, often backed by a threat to use military power. Richard Nixon, Ronald  Reagan and George H.W. Bush were noted for American leadership and an effective,  sometimes ruthless foreign policy. Since the Cold War ended and Bill Clinton  became president, American leadership has often seemed to be either unserious,  inexpertly and crudely applied or relatively absent. And this has transpired  even as states themselves in the Greater Middle East have become feebler.

In other words, both the hegemon and the many states it influences are  weaker. Hierarchy is dissolving on all levels. [emphasis mine]

Thus, the exact kind of international policies that “liberaltarians” are asking for in order to preserve their ability to safely exercise their personal pleasure license could be creating the conditions that directly threaten that safety. As we’ve noted, as safety is threatened, Americans are tending to not think twice about giving up their liberty to the state in order to protect them (again, from the situations they’re directly creating. Of course, in an imperial presidency, the surrender of freedom is not a problem and is even welcomed. However, to those that value our civil and political liberty, it is increasingly problematic. As Kaplan concludes:

Unless some force can, against considerable odds, reinstitute hierarchy — be it  an American hegemon acting globally, or an international organization acting  regionally or, say, an Egyptian military acting internally — we will have more  fluidity, more equality and therefore more anarchy to look forward to. This is  profoundly disturbing, because civilization abjures anarchy.

Anarchy and Hegemony is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

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Is Freedom Negotiable In Today’s America?

Yesterday I wrote about the tendency for Americans to easily trade their freedom for safety, and it seems that I’m not the only one thinking about liberty. Courtesy of Glenn Reynolds’ Instapundit blog, there has been some discussion of the “libertarianizing” of America on social issues, but away from it on political issues. In discussing gay marriage and gun rights in his USA Today article, Reynolds observes:

However, I think the war [against gay marriage] was lost because when Americans aren’t sure what to do about something, they give the tie to freedom, letting individuals make up their own minds instead of being forced to live a particular way.

He goes on to draw an alalogy with the recent failure of gun control legislation:

And, in fact, the anti-gun sentiment that the nation is outgrowing seems a lot like the anti-gay sentiment that we’ve largely outgrown. Even during the repressive decades of the past, of course, people knew that gays were around, and having sex — but still supported laws that repressed them because they wanted to stigmatize gays and their lifestyle as unacceptable.

Likewise, many anti-gun activists realize, and sometimes even admit, that gun laws won’t keep guns out of the hands of criminals. (Even Britain, an island nation with super-repressive gun laws, hasn’t been able to do that). But they sometimes admit that they’re really more interested in attacking the “gun culture” than in preventing crime. It’s a species of prudery, only aimed at firearms.

Echoing the first quote above, he summarizes:

But prudery plays badly in America. People talk about whether the country is moving to the left or to the right, but the common thread in the big social movements that have succeeded over the past half-century, from civil rights, to gay rights, to gun rights, is that they have all been seen as pro-freedom. Political types might want to keep that in mind.

Sounds good (to me at least, with a few minor quibbles – for another post), Americans, as a whole, have always embraced freedom. In fact, it is the principle on which the nation was founded, and I’ve always believed the clichéd retort “It’s a free country” was rooted in truth – we may not like someone else’s choices, but they free to make them (to the extent those choices don’t infringe on another’s freedom). It would be great if that’s the direction the country was heading, but really, it’s not.

Unfortunately, it seems that Americans, in general, are not embracing liberty per se, but are rather looking for license to practice whatever lifestyle they want, while looking to the government to enable it.   Ross Douthat expounds on this idea in the context of the Democrats’ policy agenda:

Instead, the kind of “liberaltarianism” that’s increasingly ascendant is one that combines a highly individualistic view of our social and cultural fabric, and government’s role therein, with a statist understanding of government’s role in providing economic security — and security, period. As Scott Galupo shrewdly puts it, it’s big government as “a guarantor of personal liberation and self-actualization” — unless your form of self-actualization runs afoul of the national security state, in which case you can be tried in a star chamber and executed by drone.

This is where the Democratic Party has been moving, in fits and starts, for some time now, but the Obama era has thrown the combination — an imperial presidency, a  corporatist economic policy, and then a libertarian turn on almost every social issue — into sharp relief. It isn’t the liberaltarianism that Brink Lindsey had in mind, but it’s the liberaltarianism we seem destined to live under for at least a little while to come.

Here we come full circle from social issues to security; the cultural shift in the United States appears to be embracing a more libertarian approach to cultural norms (in fact, I would argue that it is more of a sexual libertinism) bought from the government with one’s freedom. A complete police-state lockdown like we saw in Watertown is perfectly fine, as long as it ensures that we will be safe for more pleasure-seeking (this is where I think Aldous Huxley may be more prophetic than George Orwell). As an aside, I think this also explains why the Republicans, who seem to be embracing a libertarian economic policy – moreso than social policy – haven’t fared very well with a statist-minded citizenry in the last couple of elections. 

James Poulos also seems to be prophetic when he discussed this shift in an interview a few years back, calling it “the Pink Police State”:

I worry, and I think we should all worry, about the way cultural libertarianism is snowballing while the snowball of political libertarianism rolls deeper into hell. I’m aghast at the shrug with which many self-styled libertarians greet massive government, so long as it’s run by people with ‘enlightened’ attitudes about pleasure-seeking. It’s not death to the state these libertarians want, it’s the state as cool parent, with a stripper pole in every pot. I’ve actually had one good libertarian friend argue straight-faced that the solution to the drug problem is a monopoly partnership between Washington and Walmart. Well, with solutions like that, who needs problems? And of course you get that kind of institutionalized approach from fans of legal prostitution. It’s almost as if libertarians are willing to let the state regulate everything so long as everything’s decriminalized.

On top of this, we all know how intimately sex — or at least images of sex and talk about sex, alas — has become a part of everyday life. What gives me fear is the idea, which large numbers of people seem to be buying into, that a growing sphere of libertinistic freedoms compensates (or more than compensates!) for our shrinking spheres of political liberty and the practice of citizenship. You can guess what I think about ‘liberaltarianism’.

So citizens of a Pink Police State (I should say subjects) are apt to surrender more and more political liberty in exchange for more and more cultural or ‘personal’ license. And the government of a Pink Police State tends to monopolize and totalize administrative control while carving out a permissive playpen for the people. This tradeoff has a creepy economic component. Already, in places like Russia, China, the Gulf states, and Singapore, we see the machinations of a new ‘laboratory of autocracy’, as oppressive regimes grant wealthy residents de facto privileges to all the sin money can buy.

I agree with Poulos’ use of the term “license” above, because it accurately describes the objective: guilt free pursuit of any pleasure (vice) with no consequences. I remember a homily I heard once that described the difference between freedom (to do the good) and license (to do what ever one wants). Just taking a moment to reflect that our culture today is less concerned about doing the good than it is about doing whatever we want, without having to worry about consequences, or that pesky consequence. As Poulos continues:

Next to the al Qaeda neanderthals, the harbingers of the Pink Police State pose a far more frightening and serious challenge to the Western model of social order. Nobody frets, like many of our intellectuals did over Stalinism, that maybe Osama got it right.  There’s more to worry about when we see China’s youth consent en masse to equality in servitude in the shadow of Macau, Earth’s biggest gambling mecca.

Therein is where the real danger lies. We (as a whole) seem all too ready to give up our freedom to the police state (or, per Douthat – an imperial presidency) in exchange for the ability to maintain our libertine pleasure-seeking license.