Decline Is A Choice
‘The United States is now plagued by intimations of mortality, and is under a president whose highest ambition seems to be the abdication of global responsibilities.’
Republican Senator Ted Cruz
Is Western civilisation in decline? It depends on your standpoint. If it is India, the future looks bright, thanks to the fortunate circumstance that the world’s largest democracy belongs to the Anglosphere and therefore to the West. The same applies to Australia and Canada, under the dynamic leadership of two prime ministers, Tony Abbott and Stephen Harper respectively, whose allegiance to our civilisation is not in doubt. In Europe, such optimism is harder to sustain. Intractable as the demographic and cultural causes of the European malaise may be, however, the British have more room for manoeuvre than their Continental neighbours. We have the ancestral inheritance of freedom and the rule of law to thank for the fact that Britain is still a land of hope and glory.
Above all, there is the United States: long the intellectual as well as military arsenal of democracy, now plagued by intimations of mortality, under a president whose highest ambition seems to be abdication — the abdication of global responsibilities. With a few exceptions (such as Roger Hertog, for whose support we are grateful), the philanthropists who fostered conservative ideas in think tanks and magazines over the last three decades now tend to look elsewhere.
On a visit to New York last month as a guest of two comrades-in-arms, the editors of the New Criterion and Commentary, I encountered several of America’s elder statesmen: Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman. These men were once vilified, and in some quarters still are, but they looked impressive by comparison with most of the politicians now running Washington. What is remarkable is not running out of money last month — that is bound to happen eventually if you spend $3 billion a day more than you raise in taxes — but that only brinkmanship can now delay America’s transformation into a European social democracy.
The liberal media have become hysterical on the subject of the Tea Party, which they blame for the profligacy of the Obama administration. George Packer, a New Yorker staffer writing in Prospect, accuses the Republicans of “destroying the [US] government and economy” — hyperbole that is unworthy of the magazine founded by David Goodhart. Packer damns Ted Cruz as “the greatest demagogue Washington has seen since Joseph McCarthy”. He and his editor have clearly never watched McCarthy’s hearings on “Un-American activities”, for Cruz is in a different intellectual league from the old Red-baiter and has done nothing to deserve this smear. Indeed, there is something rather distasteful about their aversion to this Texan son of a Cuban father. Though he lost this round, for a freshman Hispanic senator to make himself the de facto leader of the opposition within a year suggests that Cruz has a rapport with the public — perhaps more than his fellow Harvard Law School graduate, Barack Obama, who leads (if that is the right word) an administration that contrives to be intimidating at home and timid abroad. Cruz is just as much an ethnic minority member as the President, and rather more intelligent. If there is a fair criticism to be made of Cruz, it is that he is reluctant to contemplate US military intervention abroad. Cruz is no isolationist, but some influential Republicans, such as Senator Rand Paul, probably are. America is not about to go bankrupt, but it may succumb to a toxic combination of liberal internationalism and libertarian isolationism at a time when the world needs its only superpower to renew its civilisational mission. To whom should those who care about America turn for guidance?
The best American columnists make their British counterparts look like bumbling amateurs, but none of them writes with more sense, sensibility and sanity than the Washington Post‘s Charles Krauthammer. Things That Matter (Crown Forum, $28), selected from a lifetime of writing, bears comparison with the greatest of American prose. Krauthammer’s medical background has given him special insight into science and bioethics; he considers himself “a psychiatrist in remission”. His passions range from Pro Musica Hebraica, a charity dedicated to classical Jewish music, to baseball and chess. His nightly TV slot has made him a household name.
Three times in three decades, Krauthammer has defined America’s place in the world. In the 1980s, while still a Democrat, he articulated the “Reagan doctrine” better than Reagan himself. In “The Unipolar Moment” (1990), he described America’s unique role in the post-Cold War world. In “Democratic Realism” (2004) he set out the principles of American foreign policy after 9/11 and Iraq. And in 2009, he summed up the present predicament thus: “For America today, decline is not a condition. Decline is a choice.” Last June, Krauthammer put the matter even more bluntly: “Obama is learning very late that, for a superpower, inaction is a form of action. You can abdicate, but you really can’t hide. History will find you. It has now found Obama.”
True, Obama has chosen decline. Last year, the voters chose Obama — again. Does this mean that America has irrevocably chosen decline? Or is there still hope that America may change course? I would go further. Americans are constitutionally incapable of embracing decline. They are indeed, as Prospect‘s headline puts it, “impossible to run”. They believe in running themselves — and in running the enemies of Western civilisation out of town.