Bush and Kerry: A Conflict of Visions

David Brooks [RSS] argues that this election is about, “Not Just a Personality Clash, a Conflict of Visions.” He begins with an obvious but usually overlooked point. He recounts a Sunday walk in the country as contrasted with the increasingly dense traffic on the way home to the DC suburbs and notes,

I was struck again by how powerfully the physical landscape influences our view of politics and the world. We’re used to this in the realm of domestic politics. Politicians from the more sparsely populated South and West are more likely, at least in the political and economic realms, to champion the Goldwateresque virtues: freedom, self-sufficiency, individualism. Politicians from the cities are likely to champion the Ted Kennedyesque virtues: social justice, tolerance, interdependence. Politicians from sparsely populated areas are more likely to say they want government off people’s backs so they can run their own lives. Politicians from denser areas are more likely to want government to play at least a refereeing role, to keep people from bumping into one another too abusively.

Extending this observation to the world of international politics, Brooks argues,

When Bush talks about the world he hopes to create, he talks first about spreading freedom. What he’s really talking about is a decentralized world. Individuals would be free to live as they chose, in their own nations, carving out their own destinies. The optimism built into this vision is that free people would be able to live in basic harmony. There would not need to be any central authority governing their interactions. Indeed, Bushian conservatives talk about central global authorities like the U.N. the way they talk about Washington – as places where venal elites gather to serve their own interests. When Kerry talks about the world he hopes to create, he talks first about alliances and multilateral cooperation. He’s really talking about a crowded world. People from different nations would gather to work out differences and manage problems. The optimism built into this vision is that nations will sometimes be able to set aside their rivalries and narrow self-interests and work cooperatively to thwart the sorts of global threats posed by Saddam Hussein, or genocides like the one in Sudan. Kerryesque liberals are concerned by the possibility that some nations will go off and behave individualistically or, as they say, unilaterally.

Put this way, the argument we are having about international relations is the same argument we are having about domestic affairs, just on a larger scale. It’s a conflict between two value systems. One is based on a presumption of a world in which individuals and nations should be self-reliant and free to develop their own capacities – forming voluntary associations when they want – without being overly coerced by national or global elites. The other is based on the presumption of a crowded world, which emphasizes that no individual or nation can go off and do as it pleases, but should work instead within governing institutions that establish norms and provide security.

Matthew Yglesias finds the piece thoughtful, but missing something:

Bush proposes for the international realm would be as if you moved to a city where there was no police and no laws, but you had a gun while everyone else is armed with sharpened sticks so you figure you’ll be okay and cops and rules and stuff will only hold you back. If you think about that scenario, you can see why someone might think it would be a good idea to be the only guy with a gun in a lawless town, but you can also see that this is a bit shortsighted. Soon enough, for example, you’re going to have to sleep….

The problem with this, though, is that it refers to an ideal world that doesn’t exist. While Buchananesque isolationism is simply not an option for hyperpower at the center of an increasingly global economy, neither is a Kerryesque world where actions are taken in coordination with the United Nations. In Matt’s analogy, there is someone trustworthy to wield a gun and watch one’s back while one sleeps. While that would be nice, there’s no one other than the Brits and their former colonies that can be consistently relied upon to protect us. As a result, sleeping simply isn’t an option.

Brooks paints an overly rosy version of the Bush worldview, too, writing in more of his own neo-conservatism than I believe Bush shares. Rather clearly, Bush believes that there are many actors out there–rogue states and international terrorists–who can’t be trusted to act without restraint. He simply believes that restraint has to come from the U.S. unless someone else steps forward to provide it. Bush tried to get the U.N. aboard for the Iraq War; indeed, I believe he went too far in appeasing the French and others after it became clear that they wouldn’t fight under any circumstances. He was simply determined that Saddam posed a threat to the U.S. and that it was his responsibility as president to eliminate it, with or without the U.N.

Kerry is much more of a Wilsonian than Bush–who is far too much of a Wilsonian for my tastes. He does seem to believe that the creation of a global governance system would create peace and harmony. This is an idea that’s been around for centuries, dating at least to Grotius, and it has a certain intellectual appeal. It flies in the face of reality, though, ignoring human differences and the fact that people are often willing to kill and die to protect religious views, property, and other things they hold dear. Still, Kerry isn’t an idiot. He almost certainly understood that the French, Germans, and Russians weren’t going to go along. If he’s elected, I don’t think he’ll be any more of a lackey for Kofi Annan than Bill Clinton was. Kerry is simply hiding behind the need for U.N. imprimatur to avoid having to take a firm position on the war. That way, he can claim to be “for it” in front of audiences where that’s useful and “against it” in front of his base. That’s smart politics but it ain’t leadership.

Update: Jon Henke has some thoughts on this piece/issue as well.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.