Small World After All

“Different circumstances call for different talents, different sensibilities, different approaches to power,” Leon Wieseltier writes in the New Republic, making the case against the case for Barack Obama. What his supporters seem not to understand, Wieseltier writes, is “that we are heading into an era of conflict, not an era of conciliation”:

It is not ‘the politics of fear’ to remind Obama's legions of the blissful that, while they are watching Scarlett Johansson sway to the beat, somewhere deep inside a quasi independent territory we might call Islamistan people are making plans to blow them to bits. (Yes, they can.)

Wieseltier is just getting warmed up:

Jihadist terrorism is only one of the disorders in an increasingly disordered world. The most repercussive fact of our time is surely the transformation of China. The "metrics" are all staggering. Quantities, quantities, quantities. China already has the power to wreck the American economy. However many tanks and fighters it has, its hoarding of American dollars is itself a kind of arsenal … Meanwhile the authoritarian Putin has punkishly succeeded in restoring Russia to its inglorious heritage, reminding the world of the old formula that capitalism plus state power equals fascism.

There is more, about Pakistan, Iraq, Palestine, Darfur, and “Latin America” (“where the failures of liberal economics have sullied the reputation of liberal politics”). You may read his whole column here.

IF A NEOCONSERVATIVE is a liberal who thinks that he, alone among his friends, has grown-up, let’s just say that Wieseltier’s lament is not unfamiliar. He wants “hardness” from his president. He wants the necessary. So he is willing to patronize people he otherwise thinks fondly of to stave off disaster, like Michael sadly kissing off Fredo to get on with the olive oil business.

And implicit in Wieseltier’s fear is a geo-political logic about as old as the olive oil business, Plato to NATO, as they say—a logic for why national power must be hard and presidents, commanders-in-chief. It is, indeed, this very logic that makes liberal economics “sully the reputation” of liberal politics. Roughly, it goes something like this:

Our compounded material needs (“quantities, quantities”) add up most quickly to the national interest; the mind wants unpredictable things, but not, alas, the body. And material needs are grounded in ground. You’ve got to conquer it to own it, and own it to drill it. Or harvest it. Or exploit (the euphemism is “employ”) the cheap labor living on it. Or if you are America since 1900, open doors to its “consumers” everywhere.

A talent for conciliation is all fine and well for an era of conciliation: the pleasure principle draws us to hopeful talk. But the reality principle takes cannon. Read, for starters, John Hobson, the Edwardian liberal turned realist who inadvertently instructed V.I Lenin on the inevitability of imperialism. Today, just read jihadist web sites, or Exxon’s annual report.

So we need, Wieseltier fears, to project military power and the nerve to use it. Against quantities, quantities, there must be toughness, toughness. Otherwise, cannot jihadists deny us crucial resources when they are not, deep in Islamistan, plotting to blow our mosh pits (and, we may well extrapolate, our civilization) “to bits”? Cannot Hugo Chavez deny us a continent? Worse, cannot China, if we cross it, use its hoard of American dollars to wreck the American economy? Cannot, soon enough, Russia?

NO, THEY CAN’T. But to appreciate why, you need the humility to learn how our own “different circumstances” may be different from, say, Neville Chamberlain’s.

This is hardly the place to explain the extraordinary changes we’ve nicknamed “globalization” in recent years—changes in the technologies of production, architectures of companies, and the terms of competition—that have transformed what we mean by capitalism. (If you are reading blogs like this, you probably know a good deal about them.) Anyway, to believe that Chinese officials and entrepreneurs—“China”—can gain anything by using its power to wreck American companies and households—“the American economy”—you have to believe that General Motors thinks it might gain from wrecking IBM, or MIT, for that matter.

There are exceptions (about which more in a moment), but what mostly creates wealth these days is intellectual capital—scientific know-how and market know-about—exchanged in global networks. We live in an infinitely more integrated world system than the one we were born into. Major players cannot hurt it without seriously hurting themselves; the phrase peer-to-peer is not a false hope.

Nor is intellectual capital a scarce resource in the zero-sum sense. If Hitler took Ukrainian grain fields, then Stalin no longer had them. But when IBM gave Lenovo the know-how to make laptops, this did not mean that IBM no longer had it; the transfer of technology gave IBM the chance to exit a comparatively unprofitable business and move on to higher value services—with cheaper laptops. You do not make yourself dumber, or your prospects in the world poorer, by teaching others. The fact that corporate knowledge makes up 80% of corporate value creates a crisis for the accounting profession, but not for imperial powers. It makes a nonsense of justifications for imperialism.

Actually, if you really want to understand what China can and cannot do, to and with the American dollar, you might want to read James Fallows’ excellent recent report from Shanghai. China’s quantities are a sign of deeper problems that need to be addressed gradually and collectively: China’s reliance on an undervalued currency to drive labor-intensive export manufacturing, America’s underinvestment in education, which keeps some of its children from knowledge work (and from stores other than Walmart). Too many Americans are ignorant and they save too little. The last thing we need is another president who tells others they are with us or against us while telling Americans to go shopping.

Sure, one zero-sum resource looms large these days, and some Americans cannot seem to stop defining the national interest in terms of who gets to refine it. Leaders of the organized American Jewish community, like its chairman Malcolm Hoenlein, think that any hint of a détente with Iran should be worrying to Israel’s friends. But military actions, or even their threat, will not work so well as patient globalism to resolve what now seems dangerous. A few weeks ago, George W. Bush warned Iran about its weapons’ program from, of all places, Hanoi. Get it? And so what if, owing to Chinese demand and Russian supply, oil prices go out of sight? So what if Exxon will lose its monopolies? Food will cost more. Trips will. This will only hasten the market forces and technological cooperation we need to cool the atmosphere.

Indeed, the globalization of our “platform” has liberated people once thought peripheral to the developed world to join it. I include up-and-coming people “deep in Islamistan,” as in Dubai, Amman, Ramallah, and Tripoli (where I myself taught 200 promising executives last year); people whose brains and dignity make epithets like Islamistan seem not just ugly but stupid.

ARE WE HEADED into an era of conflict? Of course. We are the human race. But that is different from saying, as Wieseltier does, that the world economic system is generating irresolvable conflicts of interest. We need a president who will be comfortable among equals—Europeans, Chinese, Russians, Latin Americans—pursuing inherently common interests; someone who might also be an inspiration to people in Africa and the Middle East who, like the kids on Chicago’s South Side, want to believe they are respected and can make it. Such a president would know how to lead all sides to custodianship of what is quickly emerging as a global commonwealth.

Barack Obama may not have fully figured out how to get there—who could?—but he’s had the brass to say that we need to rebuild not just the Atlantic alliance but the United Nations, too. He is signaling, strongly, that his most important job would be to coordinate with other world leaders a general defense against shocks to the emerging world structure: shocks of terror, to be sure, but also shocks that come from, say, currency imbalances, or the persistence of nuclear stockpiles—shocks that America cannot possibly handle alone. More power to him. The key is to keep the peace, from which the developed world cannot lose.

Which brings me, finally, to the talent for conciliation. I have never actually experienced an “era of conciliation” and cannot really imagine one—not as an historical era, anyway. It is another matter in personal life. Most people I know do get more conciliatory as they grow older, for they come to understand how commonplace are the ordinary foibles of people everywhere; how much big ideas pale next to the love we have for our families, and how little control we have, at times, over the excesses and posturing of our leaders. Older people also come to fear how little they know. The best fear, really.