Not Just a Personality Clash, a Conflict of Visions

By DAVID BROOKS

New York Times

October 13, 2004

On Sunday I went for a walk in the country, past some extremely skittish cows, and gazed at a wide-open valley without a single building in sight. Then I drove home to my little patch of Blue America, with the traffic getting progressively worse, and the population densities getting higher. I was struck again by how powerfully the physical landscape influences our view of politics and the world.

We're used to this in the realm of domestic politics. Politicians from the more sparsely populated South and West are more likely, at least in the political and economic realms, to champion the Goldwateresque virtues: freedom, self-sufficiency, individualism. Politicians from the cities are likely to champion the Ted Kennedyesque virtues: social justice, tolerance, interdependence.

Politicians from sparsely populated areas are more likely to say they want government off people's backs so they can run their own lives. Politicians from denser areas are more likely to want government to play at least a refereeing role, to keep people from bumping into one another too abusively.

Neither group lives up to its ideals with perfect consistency, but this is what both groups say.

I wonder whether this tension also explains the argument we're now having about foreign affairs.

In the current issue of The Weekly Standard, Adam Wolfson argues that the foreign policy debate between George Bush and John Kerry is really a conflict between two values: freedom and internationalism.

That's a clarifying insight. 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.

The optimism built into this vision is that free people would be able to live in basic harmony. There would not need to be any central authority governing their interactions. Indeed, Bushian conservatives talk about central global authorities like the U.N. the way they talk about Washington - as places where venal elites gather to serve their own interests.

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.

The optimism built into this vision is that nations will sometimes be able to set aside their rivalries and narrow self-interests and work cooperatively to thwart the sorts of global threats posed by Saddam Hussein, or genocides like the one in Sudan. Kerryesque liberals are concerned by the possibility that some nations will go off and behave individualistically or, as they say, unilaterally.

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.

This formulation explains why Bush's foreign policy is not an aberration of conservatism, as Pat Buchanan and the other paleocons argue, but is actually its fruition. This formulation also explains why, in The Times Magazine on Sunday, Kerry compared terrorism to domestic organized crime, gambling and prostitution. In his mind there should exist an effective body of international law. It is a law enforcement problem when some group violates that law.

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.

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.