Stephen Van Evera
The Rise and Fall of an Empire

America is in the throes of what looks like a paradigm shift. Rifts and cracks have started to appear in the facade of this, once thought of as impenetrable, empire. A country built on the idealism and romanticism of its forefathers now faces a shaky future. With Barack Obama set to leave office at the end of next year, we thought it was a good time to evaluate where the United States is heading.

We sat with the professor of international political science at MIT, Stephen Van Evera, to discuss how the United States arrived at this unsettling point, why climate change should be on top of its agenda and why he thinks humanity doesn’t really stand a chance in the 21st century.

It seems that many people have different opinions about what course the United States is on. One of the nation’s leading economic experts, Robert Reich has even said that America is “heading full speed back to the nineteenth century.”
What do you think of the United States’ public image right now? There seems to be a deep moral and ideological struggle happening.

You’re asking what the world thinks of us? Well, I can answer what I think of us, which is that I want big changes in the U.S’s approach to security. But am I going to get that big change? No. I do not think so.

Look, if you want to understand what the U.S. is doing in the world today, you should study the conservative movement. They are a competent bunch. I’m talking about the galaxy of organisations surrounding the American Enterprise Institution, the Heritage Foundation – publications like Weekly Standard and Wall Street Journal. That whole party in America is very well organised and very politically capable. Look at how they are considering foreign and domestic policy; to me, they are the gold standard of political action in America.

I happen to disagree with them on most things, but heed what they say and do because they have their act together, and they punch way above their weight.

One of the things that I find interesting is a point made by a British MP, Shirley Williams, who said that without America, there’d be a descent into chaos, but also said that America is currently fed on a dangerous diet of individualism, where the individual politician is more important than the collective as a whole.

It goes back to my comment about the conservative movement. When I say ‘conservative movement’ I’m talking about a movement that dates back to the 1940s but really formed its current shape in the 1970s when the Heritage Foundation was established. There are probably about 40 organizations in Washington that are part of it.

You want to study who they are, how they think and where they get their ideas. They have a Leninist heritage; people like Irving Kristol and others around him trace their theme of politics all the way back to their youth when they were followers of Trotsky and acknowledged their debts to Lenin.

I think Lenin was a very smart guy who wanted to think about how to seize and hold power but was also very evil. The conservative movement has a view that politics is war. You do not engage in politics to compete and then co-govern – their view is the one that Lenin had, which is that politics is about defeating. Destroying. Total victory. And it’s a new view in America.

To me, this is a very – if you will – ‘un-American’ way of thinking. Our constitution presumes compromise amongst faction parties and institutions. It’s a power-sharing arrangement. The Founding Fathers were trying to set up a system where different factions possessed different institutions. The presumption was that in the end, these factions would cut things down the middle and compromise. But now we have a faction in our politics that doesn’t believe in compromise, and it’s a fundamental cause of the gridlock we are now seeing.

How long has that been systemic?

I would say you could trace it back to the early 1980s, but it’s really intensified in the last ten years. We didn’t see any people running for U.S. Senate who explicitly rejected the idea of compromise until around 2010 when we began to see Republican candidates saying, ‘I’m against compromise, and I’m proud of it.’

Politics is not about compromise. You engage in character assassination; you lie, you cheat, whatever. Everyone talks about how uncivil politics has become, and it’s true. We have seen a huge decline in the civility of American politics.

Thirty years ago, two of the most important members of Congress were Dan Rostenkowski and Bob Michel. Rostenkowski was a Democratic chair, he was the number two guy in the house, and Bob Michel was the Republican leader. Both were from Illinois, and at recess, they used to get in a car to drive from DC to Illinois together and stop at a steakhouse on the way. It was a friendship, and that is unthinkable today.

There are no Republicans like Michel now. The leaders who came later viewed politics as a battle. If you would drive in a car with a Democrat, the only thing you would do is fight with them nonstop. There has been a big change, and you can tell I’m blaming it on the Right. I don’t think there has been a change in the American Left.

There is a big story here about the American conservative movement. I think it’s understudied, and I’m critical of my colleagues who study politics but have not written about it.

This is very concerning. How do you suppose we can break the Right’s narrative, especially when they have such a hard-line agenda and such a militarized approach? Should we be concerned for the future?

When I am asked about this, I say we will have domination on our political discourse and our politics by the conservative movement until a non-Right peer movement that is equal in its skillset and the strategy appears. Today there is nothing on the horizon that looks like the seeds of a peer competition to this movement. The conservative movement is a juggernaut.

As I said, there are about 40 organisations that are showing no sign of flagging in the quality of their execution. They have a cradle-to-grave way of mobilising talent and training their people.

It really does sound militarised.

Well, it’s more Leninist. Lenin believed politics has 6-8 axioms. One of which was that political struggle is for the long run. You don’t do anything fly-by-night. You are patient. That involves recruiting people young, training them well to keep them loyal and giving them a long-term reason to stay with you.

Once people have learnt to be effective, you don’t let them go out and join Wall Street and go into business. You want them to stay, but to do that, you need to have an infrastructure that can offer them long-term careers, and the conservative movement does that.
There is nothing like that in the centre or the non-Right. A young graduate can’t say, ‘oh, I’d like to be a non-conservative policy worker’ because no system they can fit into can guarantee any placement.

“He [Barack Obama] doesn’t hang with the Washington elite. He likes to hang around with his old friends from Chicago. ‘Hey Barack! Just for these eight years will you immerse yourself in this smelly place called Washington and spend time with these people, having a beer?’”

So, talking about public diplomacy, evaluation and discourse in the U.S., where do you think it went wrong for America? I know that The Tobin Project aims to introduce the issues you have written about over the years.

This goes back to the point about individualism in the U.S. and a rise of a new ethic of greed as a lifestyle and the need to replace that with an ethic of contribution or caring for the common good.

You raise two separate questions, both under the rubric of ideas. One is recognising that many of these things stem from ideas, not realities, and that military force will not solve them – you have to change the terms of the debate.

I have been frustrated that the American approach to the Al Qaeda problem has not been addressed – the ideas piece; both Bush and Obama have been incompetent in trying to affect the terms of debate abroad. They haven’t invested at all in dealing with the Al Qaeda worldview. I think this is a grotesque worldview that is not hard to defeat but we’re only spending a billion and a half on public diplomacy.

The Bush Administration’s view of the Middle East was that the only thing wrong with the region was that people were not frightened of the United States. They had a bully theory in politics, and thought ‘these shitty little countries are acting up cause they’re not scared.’

The Iraq war was an effort to intimidate the region and show that we can beat nasty misbehaving countries with one hand tied. One reason I think Rumsfeld wanted to under-resource the war in Iraq and Afghanistan was to show the region we could whack people we do not like without even breaking a sweat. But the world doesn’t react well to a bully. You’ve got to reassure the world that you care about other interests as well as your own.

You would expect a level of common sense or a certain degree of reflection to prevail, especially at that level?

You’re describing the enlightened person. Enlightened people are mindful, thoughtful and always looking at their own performance to try to improve it.

But that’s not the way the world really works, the way the world works is that organisations resist evaluation because it threatens jobs; if any flaws are found in performance, people are going to get reassigned or replaced, so the best thing to do is to not be evaluated.

And my view is that society operates the same way. Who is supposed to evaluate national, cultural and policy ideas, the widely accepted ways of doing things?

It’s really academia and the press. And I think, in general, they do a poor job. They do a poor job because they meet a lot of resistance. They are corruptible and they are often called on to evaluate social actors who are strong and are not going to appreciate criticism. The Tobin Project was set up to be a counterweight to that, to pull academics in and ask them to contribute and evaluate public policies.

We have seen rogue agents of terror popping up in Sydney, Madrid, Bali and elsewhere. You’ve said previously that you think the narrative Al Qaeda is using is that “the last thousand years have seen an unrelenting onslaught inflicted by the Christian world on the Muslims” You go on to mention that some of this aggression is spun quite a bit. So how does the U.S go about containing this new zeitgeist of ubiquitous terror that seems to be so evasive and effective?

Well, I think the current level of terror attacks is tolerable, if we were to continue as we have over the last 14 years that would be fine. We would have some awful news every 4-5 months, but the total number of people killed is way smaller than the number of folks that died in our various World Wars.

To me, the whole logic of reacting big to 9/11 was based around the expectation that we would face more 9/11’s. We kill as many Americans on the highway every month as were killed on 9/11. I mean if you want to save American lives, you’d be better off reducing the obesity rate – put some taxes on Big Macs. That will save a lot more lives than preventing more 9/11’s. The danger is a nuclear 9/11. The danger is WMD terror: the danger is those bad actors will get hold of much more powerful agents and will bring them to bear. That is the scenario people should focus on. You asked about the 21st century and where we’re going? I’m pessimistic because I don’t see an end to the WMD terror problem.

“The Bush administration’s view of the Middle East was that the only thing wrong with the region was that people were not frightened of the United States. They had a bully theory in politics, and thought ‘these shitty little countries are acting up ‘cause they’re not scared.’ ”

Stephen Van Evera

Do you think China and the emerging nations are responsible nations within this context?

I’m not really that close to policy discourse in China. I would say that I don’t think their elites are even asking these questions. The notion that there is a global commons and that they have to help protect it along with everyone else hasn’t even broken through to the way their governmental, intellectual and academic policy elites think.

If you listen to what they have to say on the climate change problem, it’s all “me, me, me” – I’m focused on whether I’m being assigned a fair or unfair share of solving it. Since I’m being asked to take care of something unfair, I’m not going to help. The Chinese and the U.S. did agree on climate change last fall. It was all very well for the future, and you saw the Chinese signing on to something that looked like progress. But in general, both societies are wholly focused on their own development, and you see very little recognition that there is also a global commons that we all share and have to protect together.

I think the problems of emerging WMDs will worsen when we see further development of the science complexes in India and China. Because then it’s no longer a matter of one country’s policy – we’ll need some international management of emerging technologies.

But I think that goes back to the dangerous diet of individualism. If you mention climate change to people, they agree it’s awful, but really what they’re saying is that they don’t want to give up their share.

Yes. I guess it’s the tragedy of the commons. Everybody sees an immediate interest, such as driving an SUV or heating a house with propane. You have to present them with a solution.

To me, the net cost is really minimal when you lay it out. When you assume a sensible program for handling climate change, it really doesn’t impose much harm on people. It’s a myth that has been sown by the carbon industry in the U.S.; they have a very good propaganda operation. If you think about it, the project of transforming the world energy complex away from carbon is much simpler than the problem of transforming the U.S. economy in World War II to a war economy.

From 1941-1944, the U.S. transformed its economy from devoting 1.5% of GDP to defence to devoting 45% to defence. The energy complex is about 8% of the economy, and we can slowly phase it in over the years. With infrastructure like that, you’re always replacing it, so what you should do is take every opportunity to replace infrastructure with something green; you do not have to throw it away overnight.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Heartland Institute and the George C. Marshall Institute? Both are very effective propagandists arguing that climate change is not happening and the solution will cost jobs.

It sounds like the tobacco argument back in the 80s.

Yes, it does, and it’s interesting. If you dig deeper, you will find that some of the names are the same. The George C. Marshall institute used to be involved in making the pro-tobacco argument. It’s not an accident because the strategy used by the tobacco industry and the carbon industry is the same. They sow doubt. They don’t set the objective of convincing people of anything; their strategy is to sow enough doubt about the climate change argument that people will accept we should put off action until later; we shouldn’t spend any money now because we’re not sure.

Not sure if it’s a wise strategy because, in the end, we’re all doomed. No guy is sitting on the top floor of his oil company who will survive, with what you’re saying is coming.

You’re getting into a mystery I’ve often thought about, which is what do these folks think they’re doing for their grandchildren and what discussions happen at thanksgiving in their homes? It’s really dismaying. They can be such bad citizens.

Have you ever thought about running for office?

As a kid, I aspired to. I thought I’d be a senator and solve everything. Trouble is, I cannot remember anyone’s name. If you cannot remember names, you’re doomed. I had to throw that idea out!

Especially when you’re fund-raising?

Right. I’m a dreamer. There’s a role for everyone. I’ve got several friends who are in public life, and I admire them greatly. One of my old roommates is a congressman in Vermont, and he is wonderful. Public life is a very specific role – you have to work with other people’s ideas and stay within white lines.

“I mean, if you want to save American lives, you’d be better off reducing the obesity rate - put some taxes on Big Macs. That will save a lot more lives than preventing more 9/11’s. ”

What do you think of Obama generally, as a person?

I think he has an excellent general policy mind, and he has good common sense. He made good judgments early in his administration on the general outline of U.S. foreign and domestic policy. He recognized solving the financial crisis should take top priority. He was correct in implementing healthcare at the same time. He was correct in the way he reshaped his foreign policy, focusing on terror and WMDs and pulling out of distractions like the Iraq war.

He then failed in implementation; he’s not a good implementer. He set the right course and then walked away. He is not a manager, so his foreign policy has been diverted into Ukraine and into drawing red lines in Syria that should not have been drawn. Domestically, he also lost momentum because he did not develop a strategy for shaping the debate in the U.S. He’s been very poor at explaining himself to the American people. He should have learnt from Ronald Regan. He made some very basic mistakes. For example, he never used surrogates; Regan shaped debate because he didn’t give speeches all the time; he mobilised his entire cabinet. He had everyone singing the same message so that it would fill the airwaves.

Obama has this idea that he personally has to go out and give speeches so the world will listen to them. Of course, no one does listen because the airwaves are so full and noisy, and no one believes anything. His media strategy has been terrible.

He is an aloof person, and I think that’s led to trouble. He doesn’t hang with the Washington elite. He likes to hang around with his old friends from Chicago.

How Barack Obama’s legacy is remembered will be up to the history books. What do you hope America does in the next four years under the new leadership or term? What steps do you think America can take? How do you think things will play out?

I am fearful that the conservative movement will continue to define U.S. domestic and foreign policy. As I said, I don’t see a peer competitor emerging in domestic affairs, and I’m afraid that the movement will cause a lot of harm to the U.S. and the world.

The movement is heading more and more towards extreme programmatic and tactical ideas. They are quite closed off from the rest of society – they drink their own bathwater. I think this is the reason for their extremism. If they seize control of all branches of government, I fear that they are going to take extreme actions. If they take the House, Senate and the Presidency and they already have five votes in the Supreme Court, I would expect them to abolish the filibuster in the senate and put through a radical program.

Right. So, I guess we will have to wait and see if history will be kind to Obama.

I think it will be. When all is said and done, he got the big things right, and that’s the most important thing

A brilliant civilian analyst of military matters who understood war far better than the generals of his age. Too bad we can’t clone him.

Wars tend to escalate, and to continue beyond the point where they serve a useful purpose. Remember this before starting wars.

A magnificent compilation of fact and insight on WWI origins.  Not for casual readers but indispensable for researchers.