John Micklethwait Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Globalism and the Conservative Movement in the United States: Conversation with John Micklethwait, Editor in Chief, The Economist; February 6, 2007, by Harry Kreisler

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American Conservatism

Your discussion of America leads to an analysis of the American polity. Our response to 9/11 and other unilateral actions that we've taken have diminished confidence in America's political leaders. In your view, can globalization work without America? Can it work in a multi-polar political context?

I think the guarantor of globalization has been the West. America is definitely the main pusher behind the West, but the fact that both America and Europe -- [despite] disagreements about farm subsidies, the transatlantic alliance has pushed the markets to be opened up, it's generally pushed for freedoms to be opened up. That is one of the great beneficial changes of all time. Just in China the six, seven, eight hundred million people dragged out of poverty -- that's an incredible thing to achieve.

The problem with the West at the moment, as I see it, are the fundamental divisions in terms of attitudes between Europe and America, and those are beginning to play out. What is difficult is that people tend to look and say it's just a matter of personalities: if we hadn't had George Bush, if we hadn't had Donald Rumsfeld, we hadn't had Jacques Chirac, we would not be in this situation. But I think it's deeper than that. George Bush may exemplify certain American characteristics, but those are characteristics that are not that odd in America. If you look at -- again, we're drifting into another book, but America is fundamentally a much more conservative place than Europe is, and some of the differences between Europe and America which were hidden throughout the Cold War have begun to emerge, and how we deal with that is actually very important.

So, drawing on the analysis of your book, The Right Nation, what you're saying is, the differences that Bush came to represent between the United States and the rest of the world [suggest] that he was more representative of the country and its history and tradition than he's given credit for, and that we're not going to see drastic changes if Democrats come in.

No. You've already seen in the mid-term elections last year, the Democrats who were elected tend to be -- on cultural issues, "gods, gays, guns," they tend to take a fairly conservative approach. From my perspective they were annoyingly left-wing when it came to things like trade. They were not good on that. But in terms of the type of things that this huge conservative movement has fought for -- you know, your success as a political movement tends to come when you change the opposition, and I think you can make quite a strong case that if you look at the Democrats at the moment, they are actually putting forward a philosophy which is certainly way to the right of any European conservative party. If you take John Kerry and you take the British Conservative party, by any measure John Kerry has a much more conservative vision than the British Conservative party. And the British Conservative party is by far the most right-wing out of the main European conservative parties.

On what kind of issues?

On the size of government. You know, the Tories would go for a size of government which is considerably bigger than Ted Kennedy's most wildly outlandish visions. Or in terms of crime and punishment, you look at the kind of boasting Kerry did about sending people to prison. Prison's a very good example of just one thing which people have barely begun to notice, but Bush got all that stuff about being the sort of serial executioner, somebody who sent people to death by a standard which horrified Europeans. In fact, actually just in general, on crime and punishment America takes a much, much tougher line than Europe. America sends people to prison at five times -- five times the rate than they do in Britain, and Britain is the the toughest imprisoner in Europe. So, there's another series of differences.

There's a fundamental difference when it comes to government. The polling evidence on this is incredibly clear. You ask Europeans and Americans the same question, "Do you think government is there to be used as a way of empowering you and giving you a chance to go off and make all this money, or do you think it's there to be a safety net?" Europeans will go by 70% to 80% for the safety, Americans will go exactly the other way. I think those are difficult things to handle, and the one we haven't even begun to touch on is religiosity, patriotism -- again, the differences between America and Europe are quite big in all those things. So, I do think there are issues there to deal with.

You're saying in the book that America is a lot about values and not class, and that makes it distinctive, say, in comparison with Europe and its history.

It definitely makes it distinctive in terms of voting. I mean, these are broad generalizations and people can come up with individual bits which are different, but the overall picture is very difficult to disagree with. In most other countries in the world class matters more than values; not in America. Values really matter. We saw that in both the two elections that Bush won. And there are exceptions. There were plenty of working class workers who supported Margaret Thatcher, and so on, but it is still a fundamental difference.

You believe that because of what America is, these conflicts with Europe and the rest of the world will remain, but you're also suggesting that American power is unmatched in regard to indicators such as military power, expenditure on research and development. Demography is another thing that you point out, our geography, the great expanse. These are measures that remain high for America, even if things look bad at a particular time.

Yes. I think the neoconservatives got it wrong to the extent that they thought that America had -- how can I put it? -- a positive dominance. America could dominate, foreign policy could steer where everything was going to go, [but] that apparently did not work in Iraq. A friend of mine, Niall Ferguson, his stuff on that is absolutely clear. As an imperial power America does not have enough troops, it hasn't begun to think how to do that. So, from that perspective, America, the "positive dominant force," doesn't have as much strength as the neocons thought. On the other hand, as a negative force, America is still -- it's very difficult to get anything going in the world without America being involved, a classic example being the environment. America's ability to stop things happening is gigantic.

So, if you look over the next ten to fifteen years, America is still going to be the dominant power in that sense. Even your most wild expectations about either the European Union or China [must allow for that]. These things do change over time, but for the moment at least, America is the strongest one. As a result, I think you're going to see a slightly different attitude in America than you're going to have elsewhere. Whoever is the strongest power in the world, regardless of how much they may want to reign in that power, does have a role. You end up being the world's policeman, whether you like it or not. You could argue that policemen always take a slightly conservative view as a result, but that's the way America is slightly bound to be. Demography also helps. America has a younger population than Europe has.

You pointed out that your magazine begins at the height of British power and became a ...

Single-handedly brought it down.

[laughs] No, but at least you were there to report it. Let's put it that way.

I guess the question is, do you see a cause of concern when you look at America, that our power might become diminished, that we might be the "former hegemon" in the way Britain is, and is there anything that we can do about what you see?

There are two things. One, you can take a very long-term view and you can say, well, in 2040 the Chinese economy will be as big as the American one. I think that's too far out to really start worrying or thinking about.

In terms of what America can do, at the risk of belaboring a point, there's more that America can do in hearts and minds. I remember after the Iraq war -- The Economist supported the Iraq war. Another thing we were very big on, very early on, is we slammed straight into Guantanamo and said Guantanamo was a disgrace and wrong, and the reason was not only did it transparently not work, it was fundamentally un-American, it didn't stand for any of the things America did. One of the things America has got to do in its battle with deeply unpleasant forces is to sing from the right songbook. It's notable that when you get back to the last big struggle America won with the Cold War, you could point towards human rights as one of those things where America was conspicuously on the side of the good guys, where you had the Helsinki Agreement and all those type things, as a way of attacking the other side. Now you have the ludicrous -- and I'm not in any way praising this, it's obviously deeply wrong and critical -- you have the Chinese daring to upbraid America about human rights. Once you get in that kind of position, the battle for hearts and minds, the damage done by Guantanamo, the damage done by Abu Ghraib is real, is substantial. If you look at the type of battle that America is now in, it does require those types of things. And so, I think there is plenty of room to be done in that area.

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