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Drunks, Fools and Americans.

Walter Russell Mead has a long, but very readable, and very compelling piece at TNR. It's quite brilliant without being in any way inaccessible. (Brilliant because he and I agree; accessible because I wasn't forced to Google the examples he gives.)

Summarizing a ten page article, (that you really should read,) Mead points out that we are the dumbest foreign policy player imaginable, and yet the most successful. His metaphor of choice is Mr. Magoo, the cartoon character who, despite being nearly-blind, always managed to avoid serious injury and came out on top with his confidence intact.

Nothing in the field of international affairs is as scandalous and as perplexing as the fac of American power. From Revolutionary times to the present, virtually all observer foreign and domestic have agreed that Americans don't do foreign policy well. Moralistic uninformed, unsubtle, alternately isolationist and hyperactive, hamstrung by a clums constitutional process and a public that oscillates between fatuous idealism and ignoran bellicosity, U.S. foreign policy has been shocking the world for more than 200 years.

And, worse still, we win. For two centuries, the United States has astounded critics with its bad foreign policy--and, for two centuries, the United States has steadily risen to an unprecedented level of power and influence in the international system. Why does the team with the worst skills in the league end up with so many pennants?
He draws the contrast between the Bismarckian or Kissingerian ideal and our own . . . er . . . system:

In a classic Bismarckian state, a single genius masters the complexities of the international system, calculates the national interest, and pursues it in a multidimensional chess game, matching his wits against the ministers of rival states. By contrast, in the American system, bureaucracies, parties, industry groups, advocacy organizations, ethnic lobbies, and others wrestle over foreign policy. We don't have a single pilot steering our ship of state; we have a brawl on the poop deck as everyone on board scrambles for the chance to get his or her hands on the wheel. The result often looks messy but works reasonably well because, over time, the resulting foreign policy generally reflects the views and interests of American society as a whole.
The explanation is that the US, while occasionally evil, is less evil than most of our competitors. And that we actually do want the people of the world to do well -- to have thriving economies, liberal institutions and stability. So our goals end up coinciding with those of more people in more places. In short, we have managed, despite our own frequent failure to understand our own role in the world, to represent the future.

This is an analysis of power, not a defense of failure. Had the Bush administration made different choices at key points, both the United States and the world would be much better off than they are. But, fortunately or unfortunately, the foundations of American power have less to do with the wisdom of particular policies than with the way that the priorities of American society and the strategic requirements of American power intersect with the realities of international life. It is not how smart we are; it is how well we fit.
It's not that we're not governed by idiots. We are. (And the Bush administration has set new standards for stupid. ) No one argues that our policy makers know what they're doing. But we, the American people, crazy it seems, actually do seem to know what we're doing. We're innovating, working hard, taking risks, allowing our fellow citizens to live as they see fit, to say what they feel like saying, to worship (or not) any God that works for them, and pushing the boundaries of inclusion rather than exclusion. And inviting the rest of the world to join the party.

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“Drunks, Fools and Americans.”

  1. Blogger Randal Rogers (I. Ronin) Says:

    Thanks for the tip, Michael. Definitely something I want to read in full.

  2. Blogger Objectivist Says:

    I wish I could say that I share your optimistic view of what the US is, and what it does for Americans and the rest of the world. The last few years have really dampened my enthusiasm about this country. I just don't see how we can climb out of the shit-hole (economic and political) where this team has put us. Everywhere you look, they seem to be touting our "healthy" economy and its growth. Most people though, don't see the benefits. If you look at the data, most Americans are worse off today than they were five years ago, and the trend isn't about to be reversed.

  3. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    Read the piece and tell me what you think, because I found his tour d'horizon pretty fair in its optimism.

  4. Blogger Objectivist Says:

    Interesting. A pure "opinion" piece, though. I'd say that he's too optimistic with reg. to our relationship with China. Also, there's one thing that's conspicuously absent in that article: any mention of our state of economy. He does say somewhere that the US & UK benefit from societies with a prosperous, stable middle class. Meanwhile, our middle class has been shrinking, while the upper and the lower classes have been growing. And unfortunately, the majority of the middle class is not moving up. I always thought that it was self-evident that the power, which the US has, is due to the correct politico-economic structure. We used to allow, and encourage production of goods. And we used to actually be good at it. I can't say the same today. I'm not sure that by tracing the American performance record through the last 200 years, and saying, "See, we've often been idiots, and look how well it all turned out" is sufficient grounds for optimism.

    In the end, however bad our policies may have been in the past, we had "the goods" to back up our word. All one had to do, is look at how we lived, and usually, after that, the "on-looker" tried to book plane ticket to the US. Not so anymore. I don't think we have the moral high ground, and our economy is very far from healthy.

    I'll go take a blue pill now.

  5. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    I take your point on the economy. I started worrying about this economic disparity issue a few years back when debate was raging on a book called The Bell Curve, with its emphasis on the importance of IQ. An odd entry point to the issue, perhaps. But I began wondering whether an economy that rewarded education and initiative -- both to some extent functions of innate ability -- would inevitably leave a growing underclass behind.

    That's not quite how it has worked out so far. Rather I think policies of the GOP -- tax cuts for the rich, resistance to minimum wage hikes, union busting -- have helped those that didn't need help, and left the middle class stranded, unable to advance, while the poor remained in place.

    But, despair not. GOP policies can be undone. A correction is coming. (Somewhat to my dismay since the next few years look good for me.)

    I entirely agree that the fact that we have blundered along so far is no excuse for continuing to blunder along. Mr. Mead did make the point that things ould actually be better still if we were not led by imbeciles.

  6. Blogger amba Says:

    It gets off to a great start: a public that oscillates between fatuous idealism and ignorant bellicosity

    (That could almost describe me and you!)

  7. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    Ignorant Bellicosity would be such a great blog name!

  8. Blogger kreiz1 Says:

    Mead's piece is superb and hits it about right. In my lifetime, we've survived LBJ, RMN, Carter and GWB. We'll be just fine. Thanks for the head's up, Michael.

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