Kerry’s Soviet-Style World-View

By now it seems likely that David Brooks has never met a dichotomy that he didn’t like. Impressed by the difference between his weekend perambulation in the country and a drive back into the city, Brooks muses:

>I was struck again by how powerfully the physical landscape influences our view of politics and the world.

This leads Brooks to one of his standarad reflections on the differences between the rural commitment to “Goldwateresque virtues” and the urban commitment to the “Kennedyesque virtues.” No sociological subtleties, and no empirical evidence is needed. Not even any historical contextualization is needed for Brooks to conclude that there are two types of people in this country. Looking at a map with the red and blue states colored in for us, this sort of limpid generalization seems plausible. The south and the rural west we’re told are red and the northeast and coastal west, home to our biggest cities, are blue. Need we go any further?

Again at some level of generalization this seems reasonable. But we only need to start thinking about states such as Florida, Ohio, Illlinois, Wisconsin, and perhaps ultimately the majority of the states to realize that this dichotomy is far too simplistic to be either useful or interesting.

But now Brooks suspects that this same opposition might explain the debate we are having about foreign policy as well: perhaps, the physical landscape powerfully influences our views of foreign policy. However implausible this sounds at first, it will only get worse:

>the foreign policy debate between George Bush and John Kerry is really a conflict between two values: freedom and internationalism.

O.K. Once again at some level of generality there is little to quibble with here. What’s interesting is that Brooks cites an article by Adam Wolfson in the Weekly Standard which discusses the difference between the two candidates’ foreign policies. Wolfson, in fact, argues that both come from the same source, liberalism. But the dichotomy is much more to Brooks’ tastes.

>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.

>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.

One thing to note, however, is that Brooks replaces Wolfson’s distinction between the democratic and the internationalist sides of liberalism with his own opposition between internationalism and freedom. These latter are not really coordinate, however, as they compare a means with an end. Yet it serves an important rhetorical purpose: Brooks can suggest, though of course not state outright, that Kerry’s internationalism is at opposed to a commitment to freedom.

This move is important. Brooks is transforming the debate into a disagreement about values rather than policy, and simultaneously he is suggesting that Kerry values constraint more than freedom.

>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.

Yes, perhaps, *if* you put the debate this way, this is true. But in fact, this is not the debate we are having. Bush and Blair justify the invasion of Iraq on the basis of U.N. resolutions and on the basis of the claim that “the world is better off. . ..” Kerry and Clinton do not reject, as far as I can tell, the value of democratization–and in fact, this was a cornerstone of Clinton-era foreign policy. The question, however, has always been about the best means to attain the end of democratization. Kerry and other democrats have a certain skepticism, born from experience, about the possibility of promoting democracy with the barrel of a gun. And this probably explains to some degree the preference, at least notionally, among democrats for humanitarian interventions rather than interventions to install a government.

>Seen in these terms, this election is not just a conflict of two men, but is a comprehensive conflict of visions. Both these visions have been bloodied of late. Still, they do address the central issue confronting us: How do we conceive of an international order in the post-9/11 world? Bush, the conservative, conceives of a flexible, organic, spontaneous order. Kerry, the liberal, conceives of a more rationalist, planned and managed order.

Now we find that the problem is in fact how best to conceive internationalism and not as Brooks suggested earlier what we should be striving for as a nation in our foreign policy. Of course, this also serves a rhetorical purpose as the contrast between the two sorts of “order” suggests. By changing the terms of the disagreement, Brooks has painted Kerry into some sort of soviet style socialist foreign policy.

I have a feeling that the logic underlying these rhetorical moves could be better illuminated than I have done here. Brooks’ whole argument seems to rely on a series of equivocations, and tracking more precisely how he equivocates might be an illuminating task. Nonetheless, I will leave this commentary with one last quotation that is not interesting for its logic, but only because it is perhaps the worst last sentence in op-ed. history:

>This debate could go on for a while since both sides represent legitimate points of view, and since both sides have concrete reasons to take the positions they do.

Not only that, however, it is also strikingly disingenuous. Brooks offers himself as the “reasonable conservative”–an understanding and fair minded judge of the both parties’ policies and values. When we look carefully at the logic and rhetoric of this piece, however, his pretense to neutrality becomes absurd. The language in terms of which he chooses to describe the differences between the two candidates betrays a suggestion of cynicism in his studied neturality.