American Decline And The Right

Sam Roggeveen urges American conservatives to come to terms with the relative decline of US power - hard and soft - in the name of conservatism. This means finessing hard-edged realism by appreciating the meliorative forces of international institutions, and international law.

The battle within conservatism, to my mind, is partly between conservatives of faith/doctrine and conservatives of doubt/pragmatism. But it is also between Straussian conservatives who believe, in the end, in violence and those Oakeshottian conservatives who yearn for nonviolence, while understanding that at bottom, all politics - domestic and foreign - hinges on the threat of force.

Sam quotes Roger Scruton on the conservative approach:

Now, realists are not necessarily against the idea of international institutions such as the UN. As I said in the previous posts, they see such bodies as a useful stage for the international power struggle -- a way to manage competition. But that misses their deeper purpose, which is to tame or sublimate the power contest. In my previous post I quoted the English conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, and here he is again on the importance of constitution. It is the conservative's desire, Scruton says, see power not naked in the forum of politics, but clothed in constitution, operating always through an adequate system of law, so that it's movement seems never barbarous or oppressive, but always controlled and inevitable, an expression of the civilized vitality through which allegiance is inspired.

Scruton was talking about power and constitution within the state, and although such a "civilized vitality" is likely to be weaker in the international realm, there are enough similarities between domestic and international politics to allow the comparison.

What's striking to me is how many American conservatives actually long for the exercize of brute force or constant executive action in the face of a dramatically changing world. This they call strength - even after the debacles of Bush's executive whims. They see the role of an American president as mastering the world, controlling events, forcing everything through the prism of post-war American hegemony. But that hegemony is over, partly because of America's success in defeating the Soviets and China's and India's successes in forging a new economic order. The kind of hegemony Nixon or Reagan enjoyed was an accident of history. It will not be regained, by the laws of economics, and demography.

For a Straussian, this is an intolerable situation. And the response should be to ratchet up the American president's use of force, clarity of expression, and assumption of global leadership. But we have seen one president do this and it has resulted in a sharp decline in US power and influence - because it exposed the very military, cultural and economic limits of American hegemony.

For an Oakeshottian, it's not quite so simple. How does one manage a changing world, while being aware of the limits of force? How can one construct international laws and institutions that can guide the world toward a more peaceful and democratic future? How do we dispel the power of fundamentalism that risks plunging us all into deadly civilizational conflict? How do we use force effectively and with discrimination to advance these goals?

Think of the difference between George H W Bush in Kuwait and George W Bush in Iraq. Much of the right still longs for the swagger of the latter. The more discerning ones know better.