TCS Daily

The Kerry Endorsers and The Spectre of Declinism

By Carroll Andrew - October 28, 2004 12:00 AM

Two of America's most important Brits -- Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens -- have endorsed John Kerry for President. Their endorsements are important because both support an aggressive pursuit of the war on terrorism, an issue where Senator Kerry's commitment is suspect. Their endorsements are also important because both Sullivan and Hitchens resist taking positions out of blind partisan loyalty. When they take positions, whether you agree with them or not, it is safe to assume that they have thought them through.

Writing in The New Republic, Sullivan endorses Kerry, in part, because "...the Democratic party needs to be forced to take responsibility for the security of the country that is as much theirs' as anyone's". Hitchens echoes this sentiment in Slate, arguing that "Objectively, his [Kerry's] election would compel mainstream and liberal Democrats to get real about Iraq."

Sullivan and Hitchens are being overly sanguine. They assume that "getting real" or "taking responsibility" for the war on terror can mean only one thing -- taking action to win the war on terror. (Hitchens has no quarrel with including Iraq as part of the war on terrorism, so I will assume that his idea of compelling the Democrats to get real also applies to the wider war.) The assumed equivalence is not justified.

Unfortunately, given the current state of political discourse, it is necessary to provide a disclaimer before continuing. The criticism of the strategic vision of John Kerry that follows is not an attack on Senator Kerry's patriotism. It is a legitimate question about whether John Kerry and the Democratic leadership believe that winning the war on terror is the duty of the President. This question is not as radical as it may initially sound. The idea that the power of the United States has peaked, and that the world has changed so that American victory is impossible has been influencing American foreign policy action and debate for at least three decades. The idea is called "declinism".

The first important wave of declinism was the Nixon-Carter policy of Détente. The Presidents of the 1970's believed that the idea of winning the Cold War was too confrontational and dangerous in a world where both sides possessed nuclear weapons. They believed that accepting the permanence of an adversary and stabilizing relations between the two sides was the more rational choice. Détente, of course, was eventually repudiated by the Reagan administration.

The next wave of declinism occurred in the mid-1980's. This time, it was more academic, less policy oriented. Yale historian Paul Kennedy, in a book titled The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, argued that the United States had overreached and was destined to contract like other dominant powers of eras past -- the British Empire, Napoleanic France, the Habsburg Monarchy, etc. Many took the rising economic status of Germany and Japan in the 1980's to be a harbinger of the end of the American era. America's economic boom in the 1990's, however, muted the talk of America's impending decline.

Now, a third wave of declinism is taking shape. The new declinists, like the first wave, assume that the idea of pursuing victory is too risky to be considered -- the world is too dangerous, and outright victory over terrorism is not possible for any President. Instead, the primary function of the President should be to manage the damage created by terrorism. Kerry expressed this view in his New York Times interview with Matt Bai, saying "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance". Senator Kerry is not alone in this belief. Just one year after September 11, for example, Arthur Schlesinger wrote an op-ed where he said, "Americans can learn to live with minor terrorism, as the people of Britain, Spain, India, Ireland, Italy, Russia, Sri Lanka and most of the world have already learned to do."

Declinism is the ideological glue that holds the hard left -- who believe that America is in decline because of its evil ways -- together with more mainstream Democrats who believe in America, but fear that the chaotic state of the world means that no nation can protect itself from terror. Once this alliance comes to power based on a shared view of America's decline, it may be difficult for them to ever let go of one another.

Sullivan and Hitchens are correct in their assertion that winning the Presidency will give John Kerry and the Democratic Party a renewed seriousness about dealing with the security of the United States. But they are mistaken in assuming that a renewed seriousness will automatically translate into the pursuit of victory over terrorism. The office of Presidency did not make Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter, leaders honestly concerned about the security of the United States, serious about winning the primary global conflict of their era. John Kerry is the heir to that tradition. Senator Kerry and his political allies have given every indication that they would use the Presidency to turn the energies of the United States towards most effectively incorporating a constant threat of terror, a threat regarded as too dangerous to be confronted, into a permanent part of day-to-day life.

The author is a TCS contributor who wrote recently about Diplomatic Shock-and-Awe Against Sudan.


TCS Daily Archives