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Western arrogance and decline

Bruce Thornton says for three centuries the West built up enormous economic, cultural, and military capital that dwarfs and dominates that of the rest of the world. Other countries may hate and resent Europe and the United States, but they still have to imitate, adapt, or steal the technology, financial systems, and even popular culture of the West. Yet this dominance has come at a price for Westerners, one that contains the seeds of our decline.

One baleful effect of this achievement has been the erosion of the virtues and ideals that created Western dominance in the first place, a phenomenon long recognized as the cost of national success. Two thousand years ago the Roman historian Livy, surveying the wreckage of the Roman Republic, invited his reader to contemplate the "life and manners" of his ancestors that led to their dominance, and "then, as discipline gradually declined, let him follow in his thoughts their morals, at first as slightly giving way, next how they sunk more and more, then began to fall headlong, until he reaches the present times, when we can neither endure our vices, nor their remedies." Livy specifically linked this decline to the vast increase of wealth that followed the success of Rome, and that "introduced avarice, and a longing for excessive pleasures, amidst luxury and a passion for ruining ourselves and destroying every thing else."

Clichés, one might say, but no less true for that. The astonishing wealth of the West, more widely distributed than in any other civilization, the abandonment of religion as the foundation of morals and virtues, the transformation of political freedom into self-centered license, and the commodification of hedonism that makes available to everyman luxuries and behaviors once reserved for a tiny elite, have made self-indulgence and the present more important than self-sacrifice and the future. Declining birthrates, a preference for spending on social welfare transfers rather than on defense, and a willingness to beggar our children and grandchildren with debt in order to finance these entitlements -- all bespeak a people whose wealth deludes them into thinking that they can imprudently ignore the future and indefinitely afford these luxuries that in fact insidiously weaken the foundations of our social and political order. This process is more advanced in Europe than in the U.S., but we in America have been steadily moving towards the same mentality.

Yet we Westerners have a vice peculiar to ourselves–thinking the rest of the world is just like us and wants what we want because we are the destination towards which historical progress is inexorably moving. Because the rest of the world does imitate us in certain respects, desires our technologies, even enjoys our popular culture, we think that they have the same attitudes we have toward religion, or social relations, or violence, or the supremacy of ideals like peace, tolerance, cooperation, openness, equality and the like. This arrogant assumption lies behind the whole edifice of international law, and the diplomatic processes and institutions that administer it, that we think can provide global order, peace, and prosperity.

But any law must rest on a consensus about what behaviors are acceptable, or what ideals are more important than others. Given the great global variety of belief about these issues, such a consensus that accepts Western notions as the norm is difficult, if not impossible to genuinely achieve. Lip service is indeed paid to the Western consensus, particularly by the global elites with whom our own elites are familiar, but that is a result of Western economic and military dominance. Behind the soothing talk of human rights, peace, and the diplomatic resolution of conflict, across the globe very different aims and beliefs continue to drive behavior that clashes with our own aims and beliefs. Yet blinded by our arrogant assumption that we are the vanguard of the future, we ignore those values and beliefs that contradict our own, or patronizingly explain them away as the consequence of ignorance, superstition, poverty, or the machinations of malignant elites and psychopathic dictators.

Survey foreign policy just in the years after 9/11, and we see the dangerous consequences of our narcissism. The whole "war on terror" has, under both parties, been compromised by the failure to understand historical Islam in its own terms, particularly its doctrine of violent jihad against the infidel. Numerous passages from the Koran, Hadith, and Islamic jurisprudence for 14 centuries have made explicit this religious imperative. During that same time, Europeans victimized by the invasions, raiding, occupations, and slaving justified by this doctrine understood that these depredations expressed the violent intolerance at the heart of Islam. Alexis de Tocqueville in 1838 wrote, "Jihad, Holy war, is an obligation for all believers … The state of war is the natural state with regard to infidels … The violent tendencies of the Koran are so striking that I cannot understand how any man with good sense could miss them." Sixty years later Winston Churchill wrote of the Taliban's ancestors, "But the Mahommedan religion increases, instead of lessening, the fury of intolerance. It was originally propagated by the sword, and ever since, its votaries have been subject, above the people of all other creeds, to this form of madness." Surveying the global conflicts waged by Muslims, Churchill concluded, "The forces of progress clash with those of reaction. The religion of blood and war is face to face with that of peace."

This consensus about Islam, the bitter fruit of 14 centuries of aggression and listening to what Islamic doctrine clearly says, today arrogant Westerners dismiss as the fruit of racism, intolerance, and imperialism. Assured of our superior knowledge and morality, we presume to explain to millions of Muslims that they don't understand their own religion. Just recently CIA chief John Brennan, as Raymond Ibrahim reported, told the Council of Foreign Relations that al-Qaeda's ideology is "a perverse and very corrupt interpretation of the Qur'an," and that "al-Qaeda has hijacked" Islam and "really distorted the teachings of Muhammad." But mysteriously, Brennan continues, despite this presumed heretical misreading of Islam, "that ideology, that agenda of al-Qaeda has gained resonance and following in many parts of the world." Whether it is the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the misunderstanding of the "Arab Spring," the Palestinian Arab genocidal hatred of Israel, or the danger of Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons, this distortion of Islam has hampered our response to aggression and indulged our delusion that a majority of Muslims want peace, prosperity, and freedom more than they want to obey Allah and live by Islamic precepts. Having reduced our faith to a life-style choice and comforting holiday traditions, we Westerners cannot imagine a religion whose believers take its commands seriously, and see the world as the arena of a long spiritual struggle they are destined to win.

Then there's the fatuous response to Vladimir Putin's aggression against Ukraine and the Crimea. Since many of us fancy ourselves internationalists and cosmopolitans too sophisticated for passionate national loyalty, we discount the powerful pull of ethnic and national identity. Believing in the international order as a sign of the human race's progress and improvement, we sneer at Putin's pursuit of national interests by violence as "19th century" and contrary to Russia's true interests, as though we know those better than the Russians do. Meanwhile what we should be doing is calculating whether Putin is going to achieve his aims at the expense of our own interests and security. With similar arrogance, since we are hostile to the power of faith in people's lives, we brush away Putin's analysis of a hedonistic, heathenish West as insincere propaganda, forgetting that many Russians have not followed us in our disregard for religion as an archaic superstition. No doubt, those ethnic and religious motives are intermingled with more mercenary and chauvinistic ones, but that messy complexity of human behavior, the ability of people simultaneously to pursue two conflicting or mutually exclusive goods, is precisely what our Western consensus about the progress of human nature ignores. Hence we are vulnerable to the ruthless and the fanatic, since in every conflict we prefer to bring a diplomat to a gunfight.

So here we are, still living off that enormous capital amassed by our ancestors, and doing nothing to restore it. But those cultural and moral resources are dwindling by the day, and outside the West brutal rivals are watching and waiting, exploiting our arrogant delusions and manipulating our bankrupt ideals like "diplomatic engagement" in order to achieve their aims. Meanwhile, like Livy's Romans, we "can neither endure our vices, nor their remedies."

A man that lies about who he is will never have a problem lying about what he does

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Reply with quote  #2 

Conrad Black says not since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, and prior to that the fall of France in 1940, has there been so swift an erosion of the world influence of a Great Power as we are witnessing with the United States.

The Soviet Union crumbled jurisdictionally: In 1990-1991, one country became the 16 formerly constituent republics of that country, and except perhaps for Belarus, none of them show much disposition to return to the Russian fold into which they had been gathered, almost always by brute force, over the previous 300 years.

The cataclysmic decline of France, of course, was the result of being overrun by Nazi Germany in 1940. And while it took until the return of de Gaulle in 1958 and the establishment of the Fifth Republic with durable governments and a serious currency, and the end of the Algerian War in 1962, and the addition of some other cubits to France's stature, the largest step in its resurrection was accomplished by the Allied armies sweeping the Germans out of France in 1944.

What we are witnessing now in the United States, by contrast, is just the backwash of inept policy-making in Washington, and nothing that could not eventually be put right. But for this administration to redeem its credibility now would require a change of direction and method so radical it would be the national equivalent of the comeback of Lazarus: a miraculous revolution in the condition of an individual (President Obama), and a comparable metamorphosis (or a comprehensive replacement) of the astonishingly implausible claque around him.

Until recently, it would have been unimaginable to conceive of John Kerry as the strongman of the National Security Council. This is the man who attended political catechism classes from the North Vietnamese to memorize and repeat their accusations against his country of war crimes in Indochina, and, inter alia, ran for president in 2004 asserting that while he had voted to invade Iraq in 2003, he was not implicated in that decision because he did not vote to fund the invasion once underway. (Perhaps Thomas E. Dewey would have been an upset presidential winner in 1944 if he had proclaimed his support for the D-Day landings but advocated an immediate cut-off of funds for General Eisenhower's armies of liberation.)

As has been touched upon here before, the desire to avoid America in another foreign conflict is understandable. But if that is the policy, Barack Obama should not state that presidents of countries in upheaval (e.g., Bashar Assad) "must go," should not draw "red lines" and ignore them, should not devise plans to punish rogue leaders but not actually damage their war-making ability, should not promise action and send forces to carry out the action, and then have, in current parlance, a public "conversation" with himself about whether to do anything, and should not thereby abdicate his great office in all respects except the salary and perquisites.

A Senate committee has voted Obama the authority to attack Syria. But he is the commander-in-chief. He has that authority already, and what he is doing is implicitly making the exercise of that power dependent on Congressional approval. How does that square with the presidential oath, which requires of the inductee that he "faithfully execute the office" and that he "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution"?

President Truman famously said, "The buck stops here," and he was right. The American public despises Congress, with good reason. Most of the members are venal, politically cowardly, and incompetent; the idea of those 535 log-rolling gas-bags sharing the command of the United States armed forces does not bear thinking about.

And if the United States is effectively blasé about countries using chemical weapons on their people, as it apparently is about the formerly "unacceptable" development of nuclear weapons by Iran, this depressing news should be imparted to the world explicitly by the administration and not left to be surmised from the waffling of the Congress.

What is more worrisome than the fact that the United States has an inadequate president, is that the public still accords the incumbent a significant degree of support. If the American people, who have responded to intelligent leadership so often within living memory, have become so morally obtuse that it buys into this flimflam, the problem is more profound than I imagined.

What Americans will need in 2016 is a new president who enunciates a clear policy: foreign intervention only to prevent genocide, to avenge extreme provocations, or to preserve world peace, and in accord with constitutional and international law. That policy would have cut post-Korea war-making to evicting Saddam from Kuwait, the Taliban from Afghanistan, modestly assisting the opponents of Gaddafi and Assad, (as leaders who had monstrously provoked the West), and would have spared everyone the chimerical extravagance of nation-building in hopeless places. Vietnam and the second Iraq War would have been sidestepped altogether.

The Americans show no sign of wanting their country to be regarded as absurd in the world, and they are so America-centric, and so suffused with the heroic mythos of America, that they seem unable to grasp the possibility that it is.

There is a contagion that makes the condition less startling: The United Kingdom suddenly has begun to appear ridiculous, too. The British replaced leaders who did not conduct wars effectively, during the Seven Years', American Revolutionary, Napoleonic, Crimean, and both World Wars. But never in their history until last week have they had a prime minister who summoned Parliament to seek authority to make war and then was denied that authority. The Grand Alliance of Churchill and Roosevelt, the Special Relationship of Thatcher and Reagan, is reduced to slap-stick, farce.

The country that could pick up the slack and lead is Germany, but it is psychologically incapable. A third of its voters are communists, eco-extremists or cyber-nihilists calling themselves "pirates." They are still in attrition-therapy over the after-effects of Nazi and communist rule. And the European power that can't take the lead, because it is almost bankrupt, over-centralized, suffocating in pettifogging regulations and governed by idiots, is France (though it yet has the superb, often misplaced, feline confidence of a Great Power, and admittedly has been magnificent on Libya, Mali and Syria).

Canada could play a role -- but first it must acquire an aircraft carrier and the other equipment necessary to project power. For starters, we should buy one of these splendid aircraft carriers the United States is retiring because of the gridlock-fed deficit and the idiocy of sequestration, rename it H.M.C.S. Canada, recruit the 6,000 people necessary for the crew and partner with other countries in the aviation industry that can help provide it with the aircraft it would carry, and show the aid and defense flag in the world. Nearly 70 years ago, recall, we had two -- admittedly much smaller -- aircraft carriers despite having a population of just 11.5-million. At the least we could get a helicopter carrier.

The United States is a hard-working, patriotic country with a talented work force and a political system that can generate policy and govern and lead effectively. Unless the environmentalist extremists who predicted that by now Manhattan would be underwater, the average temperature in Toronto in February would be 20 centigrade, and that we would all be gasping for oxygen, find richer electoral sugar daddies than the oil industry and get political control of that country (almost impossible), the United States will be self-sufficient in energy in a few years.

This will end the suicidal U.S. balance-of-payments deficit, cut the worst terrorist-supporting, oil-producing regimes in the world off at the ankles financially, and drastically reduce the federal government budget deficit.

A man that lies about who he is will never have a problem lying about what he does
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