As the kids say, it’s been a minute. There’s no shortage of subjects to write about but time and energy are finite. I’ll start there.
A full-time corporate career and part-time academic pursuits leave little time for writing. The short stories I’m always threatening to publish never measure up. I feel like the long historical papers that take months to write are of interest no one. Experiments in being more “newsy” did not pan out. I’m no journalist. The “essay” side of the ledger always aimed at more substance. Given that ambition, the 100+ books on my reading list can only be ticked-off in weeks and not days (I’m no Tyler Cowan). Frankly, I feel idiotic when I try to engage on a subject knowing there are three or four books I ought to read before I form an opinion. It’s a shame because the last five years have been fascinating. We’re at (or at least approaching) historical crossroads.
I think there’s many signs of major transitions in play. A change in the international economic order from the post-war US-led system to dueling mercantilist networks; a return of 19th century-style multipolar international relationships; technological innovations (AI, blockchain, robotics/automation, and abundant energy) that will further undermine legacy institutions, especially governmental bodies and agencies; and another test for liberal democracies to adapt to a changing world. On that final point, I have concerns about how the US manages itself and what happens as it reaches historical crossroads. That’s the main focus of this post.
But before I go farther I want to make a disclosure. Personally, I’ve been at my own crossroads. I’m concerned I’m inclined to see big things on the historical horizon because I’ve been dealing with changes of my own. My career taught me is to be aware of personal feelings in making substantive decisions. I don’t mean liking or disliking the people involved; I’m referring to a state of mind—an awareness of what’s happening in my life that could influence reasoning. For example I’m generally risk-adverse and any setback in life makes me more so. In full disclosure, recently I’ve escaped Chicago’s suburbs for a big house in the county. Moreover I think I’m coming to the end of a 30-year professional career (and not at my choice). I’m also unclear on my direction as an historian in-training—academia has been disappointing. Finally, over the years my politics transitioned from an-cap purity to muddled Burkian anarchism: I’m a “small-c” conservative who supports maximum individualism and an orderly transition to a stateless world. The point is I’m a bit inclined to see “change in the air” and allow current trends to be overly determinative. (Also, I suppose all this explains the lack of production on Chicago Fog in 2023.)
Getting back to America’s bumbling at historical crossroads, we’ve seen this movie before. Lately I’ve wanted to study how the “unipolar moment” was squandered by the short sightedness of the foriegn policy/defense establishment (aka, “the Blob”). Rather than extend and further strengthen the post-war international system by sharing power and building international law, the US stuck to the hegemonic grand strategy in place since World War II. The focus remained on a dominate navy, bases everywhere, and frequent interventions (Balkans, Middle East and Northeast Africa). The 9-11 attacks and the forced errors/wars of choice in Afghanistan and Iraq further deranged US policy for 20+ years.
Unsurprisingly, I think the refusal to revisit grand strategy is a fundamental mistake. I’m not overreacting to the rise of China; I think India and Iran are also rising, revisionist powers. In the last three years the unimaginative Biden Administration (and what’s left of the bipartisan neocons) embraced another cold war, this time with China. I think there are good reasons to decouple from what amounts to a one-party plutocracy and police state; however, I think it’s too soon to dismiss the idea that trade and engagement with China will lead to its liberalization. It’s unclear what happens after Xi Jinping’s reign. Clearly chances will favor another authoritarian leader especially if the US assumes an aggressive, hostile stance in East Asia.
Not that the US has the fiscal strength the weather another cold war. The state of governmental finances risks both the status of the dollar as the international reserve currency and the low risk of holding US Treasury securities. Rather than attempt to fake my way through the problems with current fiscal and monetary policies, I’ll point to the following recent articles making the case: Veronique De Rugy’s The Debt Ceiling Fight Is a Reminder of America’s Dire Fiscal Future, David Stockman’s Thanks Fed! The Road To Fiscal Armageddon, and Romina Boccia’s Medicare and Social Security Are Responsible for 95 Percent of U.S. Unfunded Obligations.
More worrying is the current state of US political discourse. At this point, the controversies making news reveal the contemporary political class is ill-suited to both foriegn policy innovation and fiscal reform. While centrists and bipartisanship are favored in public opinion, the combined effect of media, small donors, and the primary elections favors culture warriors and special interest hacks. This has all of the feeling of a decadent decline into naval gazing (see Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society and my review). “Horseshoe theory” is validated by left-wing activists and right-wing populists supporting trade barriers, regulations, entitlements, and soaking “the rich” for all they have. It’s hard to believe 2024 is shaping up to be a rematch between two corrupt, barely competent, elderly partisans. What’s sorely needed is not only a leadership change, but a change in the political culture of US elites and a plurality of voters. Sadly, war and economic calamity are the shocks that will force change. Still, there’s a chance America can successfully navigate its challenges. Fortunately the brilliance of the Madisonian republican system is its frequent turnovers of government. America has change hard-wired in its legal framework.
Finally, I want to be careful not to do my own naval gazing. I’m an American in the middle of flyover country but it’s a big, complicated world. It’s not “all about” America. For example, the end of the Cold War had more to do with Russia’s political economy than anything external. We should remember that change is not only possible, its likely. While not inevitable, major changes could transform China, India, or Iran—or all three. In fact, given the authoritarian nature of the CCP and Iran’s Islamic theocracy, plus the continued religious and ethnic tensions in India, I think history favors the Fukuyama thesis toward democratic liberalization. The US and its allies has friends in all of these countries and may find even more in the future. However, America has to be a worthy of friendship. The US can demonstrate leadership by engaging in free trade, acknowledging the sovereignty and clear zones of interest of other powerful countries, adhering to international treaties and laws, offering a currency everyone wants to hold, and keeping its fiscal house in order.