The Low Information President at the End of History

Posted: May 23, 2014 12:01 AM
The Low Information President at the End of History

“U.S. Charges Five in Chinese Army With Hacking” read the headline in the Wall Street Journal.

For the first time, the United States government has publicly claimed that the Chinese military is actively engaged in cyber warfare against the United States and American companies. The federal court indictment alleges that Wang Dong, Huang Zhenyu, Sun Kailiang, Gu Chunhui, and Wen Xinyu, all of whom are allegedly affiliated with PLA Unit 61398 in Shanghai, engaged in cyber espionage against several major United States companies, including U.S. Steel Corp., Westinghouse Electric Co. and Alcoa Inc.

The response from Chinese government spokesman Qin Gang was predictable, and suggests little will come of the federal indictment. "This U.S. move, which is based on fabricated facts, grossly violates the basic norms governing international relations and jeopardizes China-U.S. cooperation and mutual trust," Mr. Qin said. "The Chinese government, the Chinese military and their relevant personnel have never engaged or participated in cyber theft of trade secrets."

Mr. Qin is borrowing Vladimir Putin’s media playbook, figuring that saying something makes it so, regardless of the facts. In the last few weeks, Putin has run circles around the American and European governments as his military continues its occupation of Ukraine. He has twice claimed that he directed the Russian troops to fall back. His words bear no relation to the facts on the ground, but in a world where most world leaders view words as a substitute for action, this suffices.

In an increasingly pathetic effort to respond to a world that is ever spiraling out of control, the Obama administration levies feckless sanctions against corrupt Russian plutocrats and futile indictments against Chinese computer hackers. By these token gestures, the American president is rendered increasingly irrelevant and is seen as a weakling incapable of checking foreign aggression. This is Jimmy Carter, without the Southern charm or the humility.

As with most things, incoherent speaking reflects incoherent thinking. For the low information president who habitually finds himself learning of world events through media reports, here’s a brief explanation of how the world actually works, and how we might respond like the world power we ostensibly are, or could be again.

In his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama argued that politics had reached its ideological apotheosis in the Western liberal democracy practiced in the United States and Europe. The inevitable conquest of democratic capitalism across the developed world, Fukuyama argued, would auger in the eventual accession of liberal democracy across the entire globe.

As many subsequently noted, the events of 9/11, the Global War on Terror, and the “Arab spring” suggested Fukuyama’s thesis might have been a bit premature, as significant portions of the Muslim world rejected outright (oftentimes through violence) democratic capitalism and its practitioners, giving credence to Samuel Huntington’s countervailing narrative that mankind’s true future lay in a “Clash of Civilizations,” with the Arab world foremost among those ready to clash with the Western world.

Along with the Muslim world, China and Russia were also seen as outliers to the Western capitalist world, but the divergence between the Western and Sino/Russian worlds was seen to be a distinction in degree, rather than in kind. Where there was an outright clash between the Muslim and Western worlds in terms of culture, values and politics, there was thought to be something of a workable tension between the Chinese and Russian worldviews and the American/European. The Chinese and the Russians will get a form of democracy after they have gotten enough capitalism (or cash), the argument went.

Wrong. Recent events unambiguously confirm that in the quest for global domination, there are now four distinct competing ideologies: American/European democratic capitalism; Russian imperialism; Chinese imperialism; and Islamic imperialism.

This is the world as it now stands. In the wake of America’s continued economic stagnation at home and resulting impotency abroad, America’s enemies (Islamic fascists in Iran, and petty despots in Syria and North Korea) and quasi-capitalist competitors (China, Russia) have seized upon the global power vacuum created by the United States’ withdrawal from the influence it generally enjoyed from Presidents Reagan to Bush 43.

In light of this, what are America and its leadership to do? Here are five ideas.

First, Americans who recognize the perils of our present weakness can immediately change the global balance of power by changing the balance of power in Washington. A vote for congressional and Senatorial candidates who desire that America again carries a big stick will send a global signal that America’s future in the world will not be a continuation of its present.

Second, the Administration must immediately cease all plans to cut military funding and restore the funding that has already been cut during the Obama administration. It’s a sad day when America cannot simultaneously project enough power to support freedom-loving peoples in Ukraine and the South China Sea who have no hope for protection aside from America. This means the drastic reductions proposed to America’s Navy warned against by Mitt Romney and mocked by the president must be tabled indefinitely.

Third, Americans must demand that any future presidential candidates have a coherent, clearly articulable worldview regarding the necessity of American influence projected abroad. The president was able to skirt this issue because America was “war-weary” in 2008 and the media helpfully buried the truth of the Benghazi debacle just before the 2012 election. Going forward every election must be, at least in part, a “foreign policy” election.

Fourth, Americans must understand that for America’s enemies and its competitors, “international law” and “international norms” mean nothing. The president and his men stand idly by deriding Russian hegemony as the actions of a bygone era, but the only thing bygone at this point is feckless resort to “international law.” Those who do not share our interests similarly do not share our respect for “international norms.” Does anyone really think NATO, comprised as it is of nations reliant on Putin’s oil, will contain Russia? The answer plays out daily in Ukraine.

Finally, American words must presage action, not be a substitute for it. The Administration may be doing more behind the scenes to influence events in Ukraine or China, and we hope that is the case. But the evidence suggests that Obama’s empty words reflect a convoluted policy process marked by internal confusion about America’s ultimate strategy and the means to achieve it.

America needs a strong, realistic president who articulates a foreign policy vision grounded in American strength, a president who cares more about the right policy than popularity, and a president who gives hope to the afflicted and assurance and support to our allies. President Obama has not been such a president.

As the 2016 presidential contenders build their war chests, line up their supporters, and formulate their policy positions, they would be wise to reflect on the consequences of “leading from behind,” and the mess they stand to inherit from this approach.