Washington Diarist

by Leon Wieseltier | October 8, 2008

One of America's quadrennial rituals is liberal shock. Again the Democrats are surprised by the brutality of the Republicans. They are lying. Yes, they are. They want very much to win. So should we lie, too? "We" already have. (John McCain did not say that America should stay in Iraq for a hundred years.) The Democrats believe that, by running roughly, "we" become like "them. " More grandly, the objection is that the moral character of a campaign is a premonition of the moral character of an administration. I do not see the correlation. The "missile gap" made possible the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The "Daisy Girl" was an indirect cause of the Voting Rights Act. And if, as a consequence of exaggerated or erroneous statements about John McCain, universal health care will be established by the next administration, well, the omelette will have been made. And "we" will not have become like "them," because "they" would not deliver this right and this relief to America. I apologize, of course, for my chilliness. I am not unmindful of the relationship of means to ends. I took Kant. But an election is not a seminar; and to worry the means so much more than the ends is also to distort the relationship. The air of ethical exquisiteness in which Barack Obama wraps himself has psychologically hobbled his party. It finds itself elevated and stunned. Yet there is nothing in the history of our democracy that warrants the belief that electoral politics should be elevating: in this regard, we have no height from which to fall. And there is the touchy question of whether the hope for consensus is not also the fear of conflict. Conflict is not--to use Obama's condescending language for whatever gets in his way--always "silly" and "a distraction." As the polls are again demonstrating, this is a divided country, and some of its divisions are honorable, matters of first principle, the effects of worldviews. Conviction is a hardening influence, a partisan thing. All the current talk about political syncretism obscures the fact that there is philosophical gridlock. That is why the "independents" will determine the outcome. Liberals must not perceive the world in the image of their pacific desire. But the Democrats appear to believe in soft power at home, too.

The latest refinement of the Democratic creed of soft power is the view that environmentalism is a foreign policy. A week after the Russian invasion of Georgia, I was present at a conversation about whether the crisis around Russia's borders could be relieved in part by the greening of Poland. I agreed that Putin has been emboldened by the new riches of Russia's natural resources, but I averred that even if Poland found a way to emancipate itself from foreign fuel, so that every one of its schools was powered by the sun and every one of its cafes by the wind, there would still be a foundation in reality for the anxiety about Russia. The new Russian imperialism is animated by more than the new prices of commodities. Chávez does not owe his socialism to his petroleum. And the horror in Sudan has not been perpetrated by the weather. The verdure of the Democratic foreign-policy discussion is a proper retort to George W. Bush's astounding delinquency about climate change; but energy does not explain everything. Green is not the only color. Indeed, monochromacy is a form of color-blindness. Even if we were to conquer our oil habit, we could not stand idly by if, say, jihadists came to power in Riyadh. (Israel is not the only reason.) A green world will not be a good world.

In the aftermath of the cold war, geo-politics was usurped by geo-economics. It is now being usurped by geo-ecology. In a way, geo-ecology is another version of geo-economics: since "the rise and fall of great nations is driven primarily by their economic strength" (the words are Richard Holbrooke's in Foreign Affairs), and since a revolution in energy will be necessary for the prosperity of the United States, it seems to follow that energy is strategy. I do not doubt that the strategic implications of global warming are vast, or that the economic might of America must be maintained. I am less sure that America's role in history can be explained in purely material terms. The important point, I think, is that even as we are living la vie en vert, we are discovering the durability of geo-politics, as the last wisp of "unipolarity" disappears from a world of rising and restive powers, regional and global. The task for liberals, who once knew how to admire capitalism without believing that it makes the world go round, is to take geo-politics back from the realists--to recognize that state power is the instrument not only of interests but also of ideas of justice. As long as states have the power to help or to hurt individuals and peoples, geo-politics will not escape morality. Geo-politics is not a cynic's game, even though cynics play it. But George W. Bush's idealist adventure in Iraq has seems to have left us with a dismal choice between the fuzziness of Al Gore and the scuzziness of Brent Scowcroft. The truth is that soft needs hard and hard needs soft.

The Bush administration has been singularly lacking in a sense of the earth, in a feeling of planetariness. It has taught American nationalism a terrible narrowness. For this reason, the rejection of Bush's indifference to climate change represents an expansion of the nationalist perspective. If we can damage the world, then we are citizens of the world. (How do you say that in Chinese?) Since the destruction of the environment is a global evil, environmentalism is a global standpoint, a cosmopolitanism. Yet the globalization of our self-conception is also an impoverishment of it. No heart beats at such a level of generality. What avenue is there to the universal, except the particular? The new emphasis upon planet-healing often comes with a dispassion about the less cosmic objectives of foreign policy, the traditional stuff, the mere tyrannies and aggressions and genocides. Now we are to take the side of nature. It is true that taking the side of nature is a way of taking the side of humankind--but it is not the only way. There is also the side of all the humankind now repressed and starved and trafficked and exiled and raped and slaughtered. All suffering is local. As long as the world is sickening, America must not lose interest in its hard power. The smart thing to say about foreign policy these days is that the age of humanitarian intervention is over, but this may be just the provincialism of cosmopolitans. Can nobody esteem the EPA and the Pentagon equally?

Leon Wieseltier is literary editor of The New Republic.

 

Subscribe to The New Republic for only $29.97 a year--75% off cover price!

By Leon Wieseltier

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/washington-diarist-3