The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Net Assessment

Stratfor, probably the best Internet source for non-partisan evaluation of domestic and geopolitical trends, has completed a comprehensibe year end “net assessment.” Their analysis gives us important insight into the current political climate in the US and puts the comments of those from both the Left and Right into perspective. Stratfor (a subscription service) begins:
There are those who say that perception is reality. Geopolitics teaches the exact opposite: There is a fundamental reality to national power, and the passing passions of the public have only a transitory effect on things. In order to see the permanent things, it is important to tune out the noise and focus on the reality. That is always hard, but nowhere more so than in the United States, where the noise is incredibly loud, quite insistent, and profoundly contradictory and changeable. Long dissertations can and should be written on the dynamics of public opinion in the United States. For Stratfor, the root of these contradictions is in the dynamism of the United States. You can look at the United States and be awed by its dynamic power, and terrified by it at the same time.

All nations have complex psyches, but the American is particularly complex, contradictory and divisive. It is torn between two poles: dread and hubris. They alternate and compete and tear at each other. Neither dominates. They are both just there, tied to each other. The dread comes from a feeling of impending doom, the hubris from constantly overcoming it.

The “dread” is generally espoused by those on the Left, who are convinced beyond argument that our global image is in peril, that as a nation we are in decline, that our actions are self-defeating, and our future (if left uncorrected) is bleak. The “hubris” is exemplified by the neo-con Right, who are convinced that the US can and should imposed democracy in cultures ill-prepared to accommodate it, that a deep understanding of foreign cultures is unnecessary to accomplish our strategic goals, that a forward-leaning application of kinetic force is often the best strategy. Both dread and hubris co-exist and cause the divisive political climate that, at times, appears irreconcilable.

It’s also true that the Left and Right sometimes reverse polarity. The Right can be consumed by “dread” of the Islamofascist ideology without recognizing that it is only one of a number of challenges that face the United States. The Left often suffers form moral “hubris” viewing any application of force as a moral failing, thinking that ideological fanatics can be reasoned into more rational and non-threatening behavior.

This yin and yang leads to polarization. Again from Starfor:
This fault line consistently polarizes American politics, dividing it between those who overestimate American power and those who underestimate it. In domestic politics, every boom brings claims that the United States has created a New Economy that has abolished the business cycle. Every shift in the business cycle brings out the faction that believes the collapse of the American economy is just over the horizon. Sometimes, the same people say both things within months of each other.

Stratfor’s detailed analysis of the strategic objectives of the US and the actions that are taken to achieve those objectives is beyond the scope of this humble blog. Their summary is worth considering:
The operative term for the United States is “huge.” The size of its economy and the control of the world’s oceans are the two pillars of American power, and they are intimately connected. So long as the United States has more than 25 percent of the world’s GDP and dominates the oceans, what the world thinks of it, or what it thinks of itself, is of little consequence. Power is power and those two simple, obvious facts trump all sophisticated theorizing.

Nothing that has happened in the Middle East, or in Vietnam a generation ago or in Korea a generation before that, can change the objective foundations of American power. Indeed, on close examination, what appears to be irrational behavior by the United States makes a great deal of sense in this context. A nation this powerful can take extreme risks, suffer substantial failures, engage in irrational activity and get away with it. But, in fact, regardless of perception, American risks are calculated, the failures are more apparent than real and the irrational activity is more rational than it might appear. Presidents and pundits might not fully understand what they are doing or thinking, but in a nation of more than 300 million people, policy is shaped by impersonal forces more than by leaders or public opinion. Explaining how that works is for another time.

The magnitude of American power can only be seen by stepping back. Then the weaknesses are placed into context and diminish in significance. A net assessment is designed to do that. It is designed to consider the United States “on the whole.” And in considering the United States on the whole, we are struck by two facts: massive power and cultural bipolar disorder. But the essence of geopolitics is that culture follows power; as the United States matures, its cultural bipolarity will subside.

It’s hard to believe that our “cultural bipolarity will subside.” Maybe that’s because few can step back and look at geopolitics dispassionately. Few subscribe to the saying that “nations don’t have morals, they have interests.” Few can separate their personal ideology from an objective assessment of what is in the best interest of our country,

Maybe instead of fluoridating our water, we ought to put a little Lithium in it.