There are good reasons why capitalism has prevailed across five or six centuries while alternative economic systems faltered and eventually failed. To understand the American system’s blind spots and how they might be overcome, one must also appreciate its enduring strengths. It produces more from less more reliably than other systems did. Its processes are also always forward-looking and constantly adapting to new circumstances—thus always progressive, according to its own objectives. These qualities are not self-evident to social critics who focus on the system’s stubborn destructiveness, but the operating techniques of capitalism involve a kind of continuous flexibility, evolving to meet new conditions and threats. On the margin, inventive dissenters are always trying to do things differently, more profitably, and when those firms succeed, others will rush to emulate them. This fluid ability to adapt probably explains as well as anything why the communist systems could not keep up with the capitalist systems.
This flexibility also helps explain why the system is more vulnerable to change than it appears. Some of the positive reforms I will describe actually are underway within the system itself—crucial experiments that already are succeeding in visible ways, though ignored or belittled in conventional practice. Furthermore, as we examine the internal routines that produce so much collateral damage, it will become clear that many of the institutional arrangements and operating principles in the American system are utterly outmoded. Most were devised a century ago more or less for circumstances that no longer exist, yet they continue in place. If these arrangements were perhaps once justifiable, they exist now only as convenient fictions—disguising the power relationships that serve certain narrow interests but effectively deprive the general population of any voice or influence, even over their own money. Knowledge is power. This deformity cannot survive if enough people come to understand its meaning. The process of self-education is underway.
The danger he [Gary Hart] sees is the widening divide between Washington governing elites, both political and military, and Americans at large. When Washington sends troops off to war zones without a full, frank debate on the objectives and potential costs, citizens are left ignorant and impotent. Someday, when an intervention goes awry, this elite decision-making will generate a political crisis.
The globalization of commerce and finance—marketing and production and investing—has created a new opening for everyone as well as colossal potential for economic breakdown and nationalist conflict, even shooting wars. Like it or not, we are now connected to distant others, as workers and investors. Are we building a new world of promise and equity or exploitation and anger? Right now, our awesome power is deployed to defend the rights of capital and commerce, but not human rights and people exploited by the global system.
Which side are you on? In these new circumstances, the old labor question has become a national security issue. If Indonesia does descend into chaotic conflict, for instance, would U.S. military forces be expected to take a role in restoring order? If so, would they stand with the military commanders whom they helped train and equip or with the people in the streets? Would they rescue capital investments from the mob or defend the popular thirst for democracy? Or would America decide instead to do nothing, even though its policies of the past thirty years have been directly implicated in setting the stage for tragedy in Indonesia?
This is an extreme metaphor, to be sure, but it describes potential dilemmas that exist in many other countries and regions around the world. As globalizing production and finance undermine the command powers of the nation-state, the American military may find itself caught in the middle of many such questions. Is the military’s purpose to defend the sovereign nation or the global economic system? Are the armed forces deployed in behalf of U.S.-based multinationals or U.S. citizens? Is the core objective to protect American values or the amorality of the marketplace?
Such stark choices did not arise during the Cold War, or if they did they were finessed. They remain unresolved. I do not suggest there are any simple answers, but America’s drift into an ill-defined global stewardship invites a moment of reckoning on these deep questions of sovereignty, loyalty, and purpose. At present, the conflicts are not even acknowledged by authorities and experts, let alone debated in an open forum where citizens might consider the implications.
The United States cannot escape the gut question: What constitutes the national security interest in a world where superpower rivalry has disappeared but where globalizing commerce and finance steadily attack the old meanings of national sovereignty and interest?
The United States should use its position to get other countries to
take action against world environmental problems.
There should be a general understanding among nations that any country
threatening to use chemical or nuclear weapons must be stopped, even
if that means the use of military force by the United States.
The United Nations should play a much bigger peacekeeping and
diplomatic role than it did before the Gulf War.
The countries of the world should act together, not on their own, to
deter and resist aggression.
The United Nations should tax international arms sales with the money
going to famine relief and humanitarian aid.
The United States should use its position to promote democracy in
Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere in the world.
The use of force seldom solves problems. The United States and the
United Nations should rely on economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure,
and judicial remedies in handling international threats.
The rest of the world is not blind. It can see America planning and producing spectacular new weapons systems when its arsenal is already overwhelmingly superior and deeply redundant. Other nations, large and small, ask themselves: What do those Americans have in mind for their new super-weapons? Is it self-defense or dominion?
If I am correct that global economic forces are sowing potential conflicts more certainly than balance-of-power issues about armaments, then reforming the global economic system is central to national security.