Can Americans hear that they are overstretched?

August 26, 2011

This is a response to Nader Mousavizadeh’s latest Reuters column, “A smaller America could be a stronger America.”

By Michael Ignatieff
The opinions expressed are his own.

What I found myself asking, as I read this extremely compelling critique of American imperial over-stretch, is how exactly a politician is supposed to tell Americans the bad news. What are the politics of honest discussion of imperial over-extension?

The change that Nader Mousavizadeh discusses can’t happen without political leadership, so what form of truth-telling will work here? Americans fear they have lived through a decade of decline, so there is no difficulty telling them what they already know. The more difficult message to pass is: we’re going to cut back on defense, we’re not going to go head to head for dominance with the Chinese in east Asia. We’re going to stay home and cultivate our garden, as Voltaire said, because our garden badly needs weeding.

Cultivating our garden means investing in our children, re-building our domestic infrastructure, taxing the rich and paring back on some entitlements in order to get our fiscal house in order. A kinder, gentler America, focused on the garden out back and deliberately leaving the challenges overseas to others is persuasive, but it’s a hard sell for any politician who wants to be President in a  country which believes it can do everything.


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Some lessons can be taught and others have to be bought. Sadly this lesson for the U.S. will have to be bought.

Americans have no stomach for the truth. They cannot even agree on the facts of any given matter. The dumbing down of our public schools has made for a maleable electorate that will buy any story their chosen politicaian or pundit tells them. Over half the People don’t vote. And for good reason, most of the choices presented by the two party system are comic characatures of principle. Further exacerbating the matter is both parties working together to exclude or trivialize all other points of view including but not limited to 3rd and 4th party candidates.

If one accepts these facts it is easy to see how Republicans and Democrats stay in power. They only need to win over the majority of voters which is by definition a minority(27-28% of eligable voters). This minority of voters who determine the outcome of most elections supports the status quo because that is in their best self interst. Our so called electoral majorities are a special interest group.

I subscribe to no political party afiliation and for good reason. As George Washington said over two hundred years ago ” Political parties are the rakest form of evil in a purely elective representitive form of government(which we have). They misrepresent and distort the views of others in order to expand power for themselves”. A to this idea, I do subscribe.

Posted by coyotle | Report as abusive

I couldn’t agree more, coyotle.

Posted by PCScipio | Report as abusive

Unfortunately, America does not have the luxury of tending to its garden exclusively. Remember what happened the last three times America chose to hide behind its oceans: WWI, WWII, and Communist aggression in East Europe and Korea at the dawn of the Cold war.

The world is a better place with America in a leadership position, but it must be a position in which rationality determines action. That is not to say that America must be a hegemonic state for the world to function properly. In fact, I welcome rising powers and the ability for them to manage activities in their own regions. Most Americans are sick of seeing their tax dollars going overseas.

But that is not to say that there are no regions/circumstances where American money and power is well spent. Aid in Africa, humanitarian relief in disaster zones, escorting ships to prevent Somali pirate attacks, and the First Gulf War, for example.

Most commentary about American decline is too sensationalist. For example, people talk about 2 decades of decline. That is simply not true. The 1990’s were a time of rising superpower, with the US leading tactical military action in Europe and Iraq. It also saw massive economic growth.

Also keep in mind that it is relative decline. And that is OK. Should we expect the other people of the world to live in poverty? China’s GDP rise is not really that threatening, considering their GDP per capita is still embarassingly low.

The first decade of the 21st century has proven that the way we have been doing things needs to change (e.g. Expensive wars, ignoring infrastructural investment, broken immigration system). But that is not to say that we aren’t making some progress: we are handing off responsibility in East Asia to Japan (no one talks about its remilitarization, but that is the second most significant development in Asia behind China’s rise). The same is true of Europe: America is closing up those bases that re relics of the Cold War.

Yes, more needs to be done, but we have to start somewhere.

The point is: America can scale back its overreach, engage allies and competitors AND tend to its garden, all at the same time. The only limits to this would be political leadership. The American people are a brave and insightful people who are ready to meet the challenges of this new century. And there is a good chance it will be the second American century.

Posted by pcasinelli | Report as abusive

I like your ‘glass half full’ attitude, pcasinelli. What worries me most is that there is not currently even a whiff of the political will necessary for your scenario to play out. If and when the day comes that our politicians care more about our country than their own election prospects, we have a chance.

Posted by changeling | Report as abusive

If you look at the fundamentals rather than a general statement: “America is the greatest and always will be,” our decline is definite. America can’t fail is just from naivete and someone who has not suffered any drawbacks for a long time, if ever. America is just a country, not something holy. When workers wages have not gone up for thirty years while during the past three years corporate profits have risen over 20% each year, a disparity of wealth occurs. The house of cards gambling casino that’s called Wall Street with it’s high frequency trading and hedge funds, will soon crumble. The country will then be faced with a standard of living more in tune with a country that can no longer get away with living on creditand a severe, long term deleveraging will ensue – it already has begun. Our new normal will be similar to the standard of living in China. When this happens, along with a failed manufacturing competitiveness in the world, the worker will revolt. It’s coming and it will be the final straw that breaks the country’s back,

Posted by urownexperience | Report as abusive

Is that all there is, Iggy? That pols will have to lie some more?

Were you going to forgo fighter planes, navy ships etc. to support the UN instead? Did you have the vision to turn Canada into a world park and wildlife refuge? To outlaw war manufacturing on our soil?

I won’t bother you with more concepts pols won’t discuss – you get the 3rd rail idea I’m sure- even when chased from the battlements.

Posted by Humanismws | Report as abusive

I think our Governments, and some of the people are reluctant to admit failure. We are still looking to get money from the lottery or from outer space to fund the “good times”. I disagree with the premise that we have a responsibility to assure peace in the world. This is a fantasy that we are more powerful than God. We have had that fantasy for a while, and I hope that that fantasy is put back into the trash can where it belongs.

Posted by fred5407 | Report as abusive

pcasinelli, keep in mind that the U.S. Armed Forces were essentially mercenaries bought by Saudi Arabia to fight the First Gulf War, which eventually gave us or was the excuse for the Second Gulf War.

Posted by Andvari | Report as abusive

I find it funny that Ignatief says he subscribes to no political party but was until very recently the leader of the official opposition and Liberal party in Canada. I also find it difficult to determine Ignatief’s citizenship – is he Canadian or American – he sure uses we in reference to Americans and American problems – so I assume he has American fidelity and loyalty rather than Canadian – glad he is no longer a Canadian politician.

Posted by grim | Report as abusive

In this age of the internet and excellent means of communication, people of different nations are supposed to understand each other better. No nation is perfect and we need to learn from each other.

Chinese people have learned a lot from others in the past 30 years. This is reflected in their government actions in improving the lives of its own people. It is sad to see in various American comments and in many journalist reporting that China is still seen as the evil of 60 years ago.

China has moved on but could the USA?

Posted by ExRA | Report as abusive

George Washington in his farewell address explicitly warned against getting involved in foreign intrigues and wars, so it’s an old warning going unheeded in modern times. Political arrogance failed to recognize rising nationalism and got us into the devastating Vietnam War. Are we again looking through the same lens at China and seeing threats where there are none? There is so much positive interaction and economic interdependence between China and the US, but like ExRA points out, the rhetoric often sounds like from the Vietnam era.

Posted by kolea | Report as abusive

In poll after poll the U.S. Citizens are not only acutely aware of our problems but the source of our problems. Transparency International’s polls have shown for years that the U.S. Citizens are the only major country that ranks Congress as the most corrupt organization in the country.

We have a problem in leadership. Separating the people from Congress and the administration is an important distinction for the U.S. and any other country.

Reading Joseph Stiglitz books on “America – Freefall ..” is a good example of what led up to TARP. Reading the “$3 Trillion War” is a good example of what led up to the loss of what is not $4 Trillion. What is not counted in either book is the exportation of Manufacturing and IT jobs that with TARP, ten years of war led us to the current $13 Trillion deficit which grows daily due to lack of income stemming from massively understated employment (using the U3 method vs. the U6 method of calculating unemployment – a change made on 1/1/1994). The unemployment rate is closer to 17% than 9.8% when using the U6 method which is reflects reality much better than the U3 method.

Regardless of people’s opinion on the wars what has happened is over use of equipment that needs to be replaced in all branches of the service. We need to replace our front line fighters (F-15C’s and older F-16’s) as well as many other capital assets key to our defense. The same polls that show Congress as the least trusted organization also show our Military as the most trusted organization. Unlike the Vietnam era today we support our military regardless of how they may be misused – because they are truly our fellow citizens.

The 2012 election will be one of the most elections since the Great Depression. We have been through what we are currently going through three times since 1890. The Gini Coefficient has been going up dramatically since 1980 (showing income discrepancy). This is something that U.S. Citizens are also keenly aware of and the questions to potential candidates are getting tougher along with the demand for accountability for elected officials.

We don’t need an op-ed to tell us what is happening. We need our elected leaders to listen to the people they are supposed to represent. The common sense of the U.S. Citizens would never have sent middle income jobs offshore, never have tolerated TARP, and would have drilled in deeper to the need for OIF before sending our sons and daughters to a war without a plan to restore the peace. Sum that up and it equals the state of our current economic malaise. It is not the citizens who made the decisions but we are living with the consequence for now. It will change and the U.S. Citizens will make it change as they have done two times earlier in the last 120 years.

Posted by stankent | Report as abusive

Michael Ignatieff asks “How do you tell Americans?” You tell them by actually telling them. Andrew Bacevich has been doing that very clearly for years now, in articles in The New Yorker and the New York Times and Washington Poost. So have William Pfaff, Chris Hedges, and so many others. Among politicians, so have Denis Kucinich and Ray McGovern, among others. The real question that Michael is asking is “How do you get Americans to internalise the message that you are giving to them?” By actually doing the things that your admonition that America mus embrace a multi-polar world imply — cutting back drastiaclly military expenditure, including the outsourcing of war, not tomorrow but cutbacks that should have started when the mad proposal was made by Mc Christal (if I am not mistaken)that42,000 additional troops should be deployed in Afghanistan. When Obama agreed to 32,000 and the fund-raisers of “Save the Children” appraoched me in the streets of Toronto I shouted “Save the children of Afghanistan by stopping your killing machines!”

Posted by MohamedMalleck | Report as abusive

It’s very encouraging to see so many posts supporting a re-focusing of America, and bringing back a strong education, a stronger sense of broad social responsibility, cutting our defense/offense budget despite the objections of 100 senators who have high-paying jobs in their state (The military-industrial complex is not foolish!) and living happily and kindly within our means. We need to put all of us to work, and to have all of us work hard, to re-create a land of opportunity.

Posted by jfxwsr | Report as abusive

Don’t fret America. You are in good company with your little brother here in Canada. We are not learning any lessons from your pain; in fact we are emulating you. We just got out of Afghanistan in time to go to Libya. We have “peacekeepers” around the world while unemployment lingers at home. We drop million dollar smart bombs from F18s to destroy foreign targets but cannot find the money to maintain our infrastructure at home. Now we want to replace the F18s with F35s so that no one can see us drop the bombs. And it goes on and on.

Posted by MysteryMan | Report as abusive

coyotle – While I subscribe to your empathy with the George Washinton quote I could find no substantiation for the quote. Help please.

Posted by MikeStover | Report as abusive

While I am appreciative and sympathetic to your point, Mr. Ignatieff, I think the more compelling question is how do Americans deliver the bad news to our “representatives?” There are plenty of Americans who already embrace the position set forth by Mr. Mousavizadeh’s piece, but there is no such debate occurring in public among those politicos. Most Americans I know, across the ideological spectrum, believe that those within the Beltway ignore, or even deride, any expression of re-investment over militarization. We are not only not heard, we are resisted, marginalized and attacked.

One need look no farther than the clowns presently running for the presidency among the Republican party to understand that jingoism, militarism and greed are the operative languages heeded in Washington. In a rational world, Pawlenty and Romney (neither of whom I would vote for if I was still voting — Obama cured me of that delusion) would be squaring off, and Palin, Bachmann and Perry wouldn’t even get a sniff at the polls.

Our dysfunctions begin with the political/financial/industrial structure itself. The American people themselves are ready for rational discourse and hard decisions. But we have an ineffectual and counterproductive leadership. The beginning must be the dismantling of the very structure itself. That can happen by will, or we can simply wait for the collapse, which is inevitable if we continue down the road we are currently traveling.

Posted by BowMtnSpirit | Report as abusive

I impressed with the thoughtful and intelligent posting here. Actually, I am shocked by it. The U.S. has indeed dumbed down considerably and the citizenry is self centered and lazy. Thus, taking the time to learn about issues and their possible solutions is non existant here. This new American “empty headed” paradigm, coupled with the fact that our political parties are now actually cults, makes for a sad future. Take a look at the movie IDIOCRACY. Sadly, it has gone from a farcical comedy to a documentary.

Posted by Crociato | Report as abusive

The two articles are both very relevant and the comments on this one are what our ‘leaders’ need to be discussing. Due to the lobbyists and extremists in both parties, nothing is getting accomplished. It is very frustrating and sad. I am very concerned for the future of my country. We need leaders, not politicians.

Posted by concernamerican | Report as abusive

We need not hide behind our oceans. We can hide behind our nukes. And whether you like it or not, “we” includes people who not only disagree with you but whose money you take to play your games. So “we” no longer want to play and there are more of us than of you.

Free and fair elections for the USA!

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

I think the political system will collapse. Why? For the same reason the financial system collapsed. Our financial system is pretty well dead, it just isn’t buried yet. I would ask every American to seek freedom for themselves and for their families. When that freedom is found corrupt systems in Government and business will collapse, because they will have no support and nobody will buy their shoddy products.

Posted by fred5407 | Report as abusive

As a Canadian who worked 17 years of his career in the USA, I cannot see any politician standing up and telling Americans that they are not “the exceptional”. In fact our experience of living in the UK and visiting several European countries is that Americans are way down the list when it comes to exceptionalism. And by that I mean, people with a good understanding of his fellow man in all countries and not just the folks in one’s state. We had educated neighbors in Philadelphia who could not tell you any useful facts of persons in the next state west. There has never been an American “exceptionalism” as is being preached by Governor Perry and others and the longer it is preached, the more bankrupt our American friends will become. And Israeli exceptionalism is no more real.

Posted by JDonald | Report as abusive

Oh blah, blah, blah . . The real lesson is that the Japanese are not going to take over the universe as the natterers anticipated – twenty years ago. The lesson is about the Chicken Littles of the world. The American military is going to be changed so radically by robotization that everything current is obsolete anyhow.

But the US will maintain its essential preeminence for a long time to come. On the one hand this aura is mostly myth (as Vietnam showed) and on the other hand it is an awesome instrument of power.

The only real danger to the US will come when China hits a wall. And not because the Chinese are a political of philosophical threat, but because that big a crack-up is serious and unpredictable business.

Posted by sandy12345 | Report as abusive

@BowMtnSpirit is on the right track: there is a critical disconnect between what a majority of Americans want (even if they might debate the specific ways to get what they want) and the elites that run our politics, economy, and military. The system is set up to advantage an extremely small number of wealthy individuals and large global corporations.

US military policy is geared, in part, towards ensuring labor costs remain as cheap as possible, by exporting production and offshoring jobs, even if hollows out our middle class. This status quo, of course, will collapse due to lack of consumer demand (because not enough consumers will make enough to keep the economy going, especially if they’re in debt and/or their mortgages are near or under water). In theory, China’s military can be dealt with easily enough if our goals are mutually beneficial, which they currently are with Chinese factories producing US consumer goods.

As a practical matter, the use of a volunteer army, no draft, and paying contractors to do what soldiers should do all make it very easy to start and sustain wars indefinitely. Even though paying subcontractors, to take one example, is a colossal waste of taxpayer money compared to hiring (or drafting) soldiers to do the same tasks. While a few taxpayers scream and yell about the deficit, very few focus on the massive waste involved in hiring subcontractors for the military (or prisons, for that matter).

My hunch is that most Americans do not want empire. They want a domestic policy that makes us stronger (and healthier) and a selective foreign policy and military policy that achieves very narrow goals that support our domestic goals. They want more jobs created here than overseas. If true, there’s no need then to break it to Americans their empire cannot be sustained. You need to go talk to the politicians and those few who benefit from the current status quo. Chances are they won’t go (or change) easily.

Posted by FredFlintstone | Report as abusive

I like Mr. Ignatieff despite my disappointment in the last federal election, but in my opinion Michael Ignatieff’s essay is an academic musing mired in some Cold War-era thinking.

Some good points are made but the overall premise suggests one more politician out of touch with real people. The people are not as stupid as these politicians think.

The dire state of present-day America is understated so much so that the worst pessimists among ordinary Americans are likely the most accurate in their assessment.

I suspect that only old money and the extreme neo-cons (if there is much difference) really wants the status quo.

The average American is so entirely fed up with being bullied by their own government that a kinder, quieter America tending its own kind would be most welcome and no politician would have difficulty selling the idea; but any politician would have difficulty convincing folks that in fact they would follow through with their promise.

The post-Cold War dividend years on the 90s where indeed followed by a decade of decline.

In all that time the infrastructure was not renewed. That problem is severe to the extent that there is little need for cyber security in a country that can barely deliver power to its data centers. How ironic is that?

A kinder America would not be jailing its population in lieu of a stronger social safety net.

Politicians are so far out of touch with the ordinary person they represent that it is more likely change will only come from the bottom up.

Is revolution; anarchy; or a ground swell favouring some kind of public disobedience in the wind?

I think governments know secretly that the era of the population fearing its government may draw to a close as utter disgust and disappointment are replaced with anarchy and other forms of public disobedience. Maybe that is why we see population control tests like the recent years’ G20 ‘Police State’ experiences.

In summary, what I am saying is that the people in America have been downtrodden for so long that the garden had better be tended kindly or it will vanish from the earth just as did the Roman Empire, almost without a trace.

Posted by MichealOBrien | Report as abusive

[…] are writing about the benefits of such a reduction—see these reflections by Nader Mousavizadeh, Michael Ignatieff, and Charles […]

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