This standard of quality of the Assessment restricts to categorical fact, as opposed to the “lesser truths” which necessarily occupy a great deal of intelligence work. It contains nothing that could be challenged by open source. On the other hand, the authors of the Assesssment do not engage in policy prescription, or meta analysis of the kind that asks, “What does it all mean?”, or “What can we do?”
The Assessment contains 18 major sections, each of which would occupy a group empowered to devise and implement policies. There has been very little innovative thinking on the public level on responses to these threats. In consequence, the responses come from playbooks. The most obvious example is in the government approach to economics. The menu of our twisted variety of Keynesian economics is:
- Varying interest rates and reserve requirements.
- Buying and selling financial instruments.
- Discretionary spending.
- Tax credits.
- Tax rates.
This has become the accepted universe of options, so much so that no politician finds it necessary to go beyond them. Similar comfort zones and restricted menus characterize every aspect of government, which is why, until recently, many voters tuned out of politics.
In 1942, Winston Churchill said, “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” Despite his brilliance, and the anticipation, it happened anyway. Britain had her comfort zones, but fate made them meaningless. Can we escape the analogy, the disintegration of Pax Americana?
When painting a picture, an artist is taught to begin with a broad brush; the details follow. We have an adversarial relationship with a state of 1.4 billion people, and another with a shrinking, blighted population of 147 million, which in many categories contains a large proportion of world strategic resources. In our corner, we have 327 million people, significant land area, and possibly unequaled petroleum resources, but vulnerable to desertification caused by global warming.
Our adversaries have a combined population roughly 4.74 times ours. This gives them a potential advantage of 4.74 times the number of very intelligent people. In our corner, we have something called “American technology”, which has somehow become divorced from the brains that create it. As the Statement remarks, China already leads in non-medical paper citations. This is the most ominous note of the Assessment.
We have a national myth, which is not valueless. A myth can to some extent be self-fulfilling, but only if we don’t rely on it. Only the inspiration and action that derive from the myth have value. A myth that takes on a meaning separate from thoughtful debate and innovation is a sign of retrogression.
One obvious implication, which tempts us to look away, is that the report presages a drastic decline of the U.S. position in the world. Watching the traffic indicators for this blog, this is not a popular theme, particularly when the alternative is so ugly. Twenty years ago, we hoped that China would incorporate at least some elements of liberal democracy. With the advent of Xi Jinping, these hopes have been dashed. China has adopted, with apparent finality, a social system inimical to our concept of the basic rights of man.
Although China provides its citizens an ugly travesty of human rights, we cannot dismiss the possibility that the Chinese system is or will be more efficient at realizing human potential and industrial efficiency. Lewis Mumford, author of The City in History ( 1961, Harcourt, Brace), was (Wikipedia) an American historian, sociologist, and philosopher of technology. His remarks on page 170 are relevant to us, as they were to Sibyl Moholy-Nagy in her own classic work, Matrix of Man.
As a political unit, the city, dating back to Ur, Jericho, and perhaps beyond, precedes the nation by millennia. One city in particular, Athens in the time of Pericles and Socrates, circa 500-400 B.C., concerns us here. It was the first democratic polity for which we have a complete record of birth, golden age of Pericles, and decent into misery and insignificance.
Mumford describes the Athenian illusion that all problems of the city, and governance, were people-oriented; that functional issues, natural resources, the entire intersection of human existence with the physical world, simply did not exist. In our age, a similar issue has been described as “dividing-up-the-pie versus making new wealth”, but these are childish words. Quoting Mumford (braces, boldface mine),
“… the limitations of the worship of the polis [population at large] became patent, just at the point where they should have disappeared, in response to criticism. For exclusive preoccupation with the polis further widened the distance between the understanding of the natural world and the control of human affairs. …Socrates declares that the stars, the stones, the trees could teach him nothing: he could learn what he sought only from the behavior of “men in the city.” That was a cockney illusion… Babylonian superstition was closer to the truth in its erroneous association of the planets’ movements and human events than was Greek rationalism in its progressive dissociation of man and nature, polis and cosmos.”
This is the Athenian Illusion. 2400 years later, the current illusion is that the world is politics, while politics is actually a small part of the world. Athens gives us part of the story; the rest comes from Rome.
In summary of the greater problem,
- The Worldwide Threat Assessment presents overwhelming challenges to the current intellectual resources of our government.
- Increasing restrictions on material resources, such as manpower and money, demand innovation.
- The Athenian Illusion prevails, severely hampering innovative thought in government.
To resist the tides of history, nothing can be sacred. Which of our ideas should be reconsidered? What do we value most, and what is dispensable?
To be continued shortly.