LAST week’s presidential debate bet-ween President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Governor Mitt Romney was supposed to focus on foreign policy, on giving each man seeking to lead the world’s sole superpower, an opportunity to articulate his vision for existence in the world at large.
As most commentators not located on the North American mainland have concluded, the debate’s avowed theme was misleading. What the world got, instead, was a smorgasbord of countries’ names — Mali and Libya and China and the ‘stans’ — sandwiched between macho posturing of who, if given the opportunity, could promise to kill the most people (if needed of course) in the name of American security.
If you fell asleep you were not the only one, as one satirical commentator noted. Most undecided voters, those uncut gems for whom both campaigns are toiling so earnestly, were probably lost to slumber after the first 10 minutes. While there could be many reasons for their disinterest, remaining ‘undecided’ in the US is in itself a turning away from things political.
The rest of the world had more than mere boredom to weep over. The two candidates avoided articulating, beyond the most superficial of paeans (Obama does pronounce Pakistan correctly even if he likes to bomb it by remote control), a substantive vision of how they differed on the subject (they don’t) or how American foreign policy in any shape or form would be different for either man in the Oval Office (it won’t).
In fact, the reason for their camaraderie — Mitt Romney even offered a sportsmanlike compliment to President Obama on his drone doings — goes beyond their campaigns. It speaks instead of the difficult task of being a face-saving, still savage, still hegemonic superpower when the money for the grandstanding required of the job simply isn’t there.
A case in point was the two candidates’ somewhat staged spat over Syria. Governor Romney might have taken some tongue-clicking pleasure in implying that the Obama administration was too late and doing pathetically little to aid Syrians beset with a civil war that has killed thousands. But there was little in his accusations (relying too much on the UN and not being terse enough with Iran) that would lead any watching voter to conclude that a President Romney would order immediate intervention in Syria with a solid American troop presence.
As far as issues of intervention or foreign policy are concerned, the challenge faced by the two candidates is not each other but the onerous task of being sufficiently imperial without the cash to make the threats and the drama that surrounds them sufficiently forbidding and regal.
Drones have solved some of the problem — flying robots that kill can be quite handy in intimidating this or that country and counting down lists of bearded enemies — but they have their limits.
What they cannot do is continue with the impression that America can still, as Romney put it, “install governments we like” in countries where the old dictators supported by the US have become dated.
Nation-building has proved a costly exercise and no ordinary American, after having finally wised up to the cost of such expeditionary machismo, is willing anymore to pay for it.
However, the debacles of Iraqs and Afghanistans past have not killed the kick of supremacy nor the addiction to a bossy hauteur. What Obama and Romney must construct is a way to be imperial on a budget, to retain the trappings of supremacy but without the infinitude of surplus or the naiveté of overtures that promised to remake all corners of Iraq or Afghanistan in the likeness of Nebraska and Kansas.
What the candidates’ stances demonstrated (since all their responses can be confidently known to have been vetted by significant research of the desires of the voters they wish to convert) is that while the cash for colonialist ventures may no longer be there, the desire for them persists.
If the American voters of today will roll their eyes at the prospect of another war or another plan for putting troops here or there, it is not because they don’t think such meddling is wrong. It’s simply because they don’t like the bill they got the last time they ordered a meal as lavish as that.
American presidential candidates are no different.
If Obama appears less hawkish than Romney, less inclined to promise a bombing of Iran or intervene in Syria, he worked hard to sound just as martial in lauding his trigger-happy alacrity in catching Osama bin Laden, in wanting to spank whatever other country that happened to have terrorists holed up. Governor Romney, not having the burden of a record, did what challengers — especially Republican ones — do: help their constituencies imagine many wars, all of which could still be indulged in without a concern for cost.
It is economics, then, that promises a new kind of superpower, an end to the traditional kinds of wars with hundreds of thousands of troops, the military industrial complex of old-time imperialism financed by billions of dollars and an accompanying ecosystem of puppet governments and defence contracts.
The saving-face imperialism of the next decade is hegemony on a budget, interest in the remote control, the shortcut, the 100 schools instead of the 100-member legislature.
It is something that looks kind of like democracy instead of the whole circus of fair voting and legal institutions and other such expensive things.
Like a fat, rich man suddenly finding himself poor, who must eat the salad and imagine the steak, who tells himself that he could still have his steak if he wished and convinces himself that he has chosen self-denial, the superpower on a budget must practise a new, frugal, imperialism.
This imperialism is less grand and more automated, but perhaps no less cumbersome for the world that must endure it.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.