14 March 2014

Is there a crisis in American leadership?

Ukraine is never mentioned in David Brooks's recent column on America's supposed "leaderless doctrine," but we can assume that some dissatisfaction with the U.S. response to the Ukrainian crisis provoked him to write it. Vladimir Putin is mentioned once and described as a "menace to civilization." That should tell you where Brooks stands. Putin can be described many ways -- "bully" and "thug" might not be unfair -- but "menace to civilization" is certainly an exaggeration. Brooks's column is actually a subtler case of the leadership envy many American conservatives feel when contemplating Putin. Few of them, presumably, want the thuggery or bullying of a Putin, but they see a decisiveness about him they find terribly lacking among American leaders. At least Brooks doesn't single out President Obama as either the proof or the source of the problem. Instead, he perceives a post-Cold War loss of faith, in this country, in "big units." The World War II generation had that faith because they were part of the "big unit" that helped beat the Axis. Their children recognized the "big unit" as their bulwark against Communist aggression. But with the Cold War won, ordinary Americans lost not so much faith but interest in the "big unit." This, Brooks claims, has nothing to do with Afghanistan and Iraq and was underway before we invaded those countries. He perceives a cultural shift toward decentralization and flattened hierarchies, a bias against "big unit" leadership that is both liberal and libertarian in its biases.

Today people are more likely to believe that history is driven by people gathering in the squares and not from the top down. The liberal order is not a single system organized and defended by American military strength; it’s a spontaneous network of direct people-to-people contacts, flowing along the arteries of the Internet. The real power in the world is not military or political. It is the power of individuals to withdraw their consent. In an age of global markets and global media, the power of the state and the tank, it is thought, can pale before the power of the swarms of individuals [emphasis added].

Brooks seems to believe that this is all wrong. Taking the will of Putin to be the necessary and sufficient cause of the Ukraine crisis, he takes recent events as proof of the ability of the man of power, the leader, to shape events and decide the destinies of multitudes of other people. The current American attitude, he implies, doesn't take Putin and the potential he represents seriously. Perhaps we imagine that Russians can do what Ukrainians did in Kiev -- withdraw their consent until Putin evaporates. But Brooks seems to assume that Putin is both indifferent and immune to any withdrawal of consent by his own people, and perfectly capable of vetoing Ukraine's withdrawal of consent to subservience to Russia. The only effective remedy to Putin on the global stage, the columnist suggests, is a kind of leadership that no one in America seems capable of now -- an ability to rally the nation into an effective big unit that could deter Putin convincingly. Brooks believes that we need leaders who can refute "the utopian belief that politics and conflict are optional" while sharing his belief that "menaces to civilization" (Iran is his alternate example) must be "faced" (whatever that means). 

The big obstacle to reviving leadership, Brooks suspects, is Americans' dwindling ability to trust each other. He notes poll findings that indicate that half as many "millennials" as Baby Boomers believe that "most people can be trusted." This lack of trust combined with a growing bias in favor of spontaneous order (Brooks doesn't use those magic words, but they're apt) handicap any would-be leader in the struggle against Putin and whatever he stands for. What we need, he writes, is "someone who arouses intense moral loyalty." If such a person says we have a duty to oppose Putin, presumably, Americans would take his word for it. It would seem, however, that such a leader would have to earn "moral loyalty" on the domestic front before spending it abroad. The American problem may be that, for reasons we may like or not, people like Putin have the "moral loyalty" of their people. While we focus on the dissident minority and assume that consent has been withdrawn, the majority of Russians (and maybe the majority of Crimeans) trust Putin, for good reasons or otherwise. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, they may not have lost faith in the "big unit" or concluded that a "big unit" isn't necessary.  Brooks believes that leaders make history, but their instrument is the state. Because Brooks is a Republican, however moderate by current standards, he has to dance around the heart of his problem without stating things as plainly as he might have. If our inability to deal persuasively with Russia -- if that's really a problem -- is due ultimately to American lack of faith in the state, then it's hard to blame any humiliation jingoistic Americans feel on the perceived wimpy liberalism of Obama or Secretary Kerry when they, as Democrats, are supposedly blind worshipers of the state, and have been badmouthing Putin constantly in any event. Brooks is wise enough to realize that liberalism in the partisan sense isn't the problem, but to what extent will he concede that conservatism, in the anti-statist Republican sense, is at least part of it? It would be epic irony if the same people who insist on American hegemony throughout the world, while constantly belittling the sort of big government that made it happen, end up undoing it.


Anonymous said...

"...Few of them, presumably, want the thuggery or bullying of a Putin..."

I dunno about that. I think what they're envious of is that he gets away publicly doing what they only dream they could do to "libtards" and other "minorities".

Anonymous said...

The real "menace to civilization" is to have one nation that demands a right to be the only "super-power" allowed existence.

To condone this idea is to undermine democracy. To insist that there is, somehow, something exceptional about one nation that gives it specials authority over all other nations is the worse mixture of arrogance and ignorance; add nuclear weapons to that mix and you have a true "menace to civilization".

Samuel Wilson said...

Anon 1: Let's agree that those Americans experiencing Putin envy don't want any thuggery or bullying done to them, but still believe they could benefit from more decisive leadership.

Anon 2: Some have argued that Putin appeals to a sort of "Russian exceptionalism" to justify hegemony over the near abroad, and it is true that Russians have had a strong sense of historic mission, but except for the Soviet era it has always been more limited in scope than its American counterpart. The really menacing thing about American exceptionalism is the way Americans identify it (and themselves) with civilization itself, to the extent that your charge would seem absurd to them.