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Two weeks for the price of one
Last Sunday was Father’s Day, and so I gave myself the day off and didn’t write one of these weekly wrap-ups. In consequence, today’s will cover the past two weeks.
Atlantic and Pacific
In his first visit to Europe since his inauguration, President Biden declared that "America is back," and that our commitment to collective security through the NATO alliance is "sacred." The United States would absolutely honor its obligations under Article V, and would strengthen trans-Atlantic ties that, he claimed, are fundamental to American and European security, going so far as to say that if NATO didn't exist, we'd have to invent it.
But Biden brought another message to Europe: that the most important threat to world order (and to America's place in that order) isn't in Europe at all. It's China. And Biden's team made it clear that their key objective at the NATO summit and subsequently in Brussels would be to bring America's European allies into a common front against the People's Republic.
They achieved some success in that effort. But the question lingers: What on Earth does something called the Atlantic Alliance have to do with a rivalry across the Pacific?
The rest of the column attempts to answer that question, discussing how NATO has evolved since the end of the Cold War, from a defensive alliance into something both more aggressive (launching wars against Serbia and Libya) and less well-defined in terms of mission, as well as what Europe and America might want from each other today. But the ultimate answer to the question is “not much,” and I think that might be a big problem for the budding Biden Doctrine.
Inasmuch as a Biden Doctrine exists, it’s premised on the notion that the world’s democracies need to hang together or they will surely hang separately. There are many problems with this idea. For one, it risks driving countries like Russia and China further together, the opposite of what one would think we would want. For another, it makes it more than a little awkward to maintain or even deepen ties to regimes that backslide from democracy, like Hungary and Turkey (both NATO allies) or like India, an indispensable element in any anti-Chinese coalition; or that were never democracies in the first place, like Saudi Arabia or Vietnam.
But the most fundamental problem with the premise is that it isn’t true. If the United States and our European allies do not form a common front against China, that doesn’t mean that China will become the dominant power on earth, or that democracy will be snuffed out. What it might mean is that the United States will no longer be able to sustain its pretensions to being a global hegemon, and that we will enter upon a genuinely multi-polar world—but that might be what happens anyway. That transition poses grave risks for the world, but the question Europeans need to ask themselves is whether they can best mitigate those risks by tying themselves closely to America, or whether they can better preserve peace by achieving greater independence of action, and with it the ability to mediate.
I tend to incline toward the latter, and I suspect a lot of Europeans feel the same. It’s not just that, as my colleague Damon Linker pointed out, after watching us lurch from Clinton to Bush to Obama to Trump, Europe has every reason not to trust the stability of America’s commitments. It’s that there’s something unnatural and fundamentally undignified about the existing arrangement between the U.S. and Europe. Europe has its own history, its own civilization, its own continent. It should be able to set its own destiny.
For that reason, I continue to expect a European statesman to rise eventually who will capitalize on that sentiment, ride it to power, and force a reset of the terms of the trans-Atlantic relationship. If change happens that way, it’ll likely be more disjunctive and therefore more destructive, particularly for America. Which is why I hope far-sighted leaders on both sides can ease the way toward a healthier partnership.
The Return of the Crime Bill
I’ll touch more briefly on this past week’s column, which was about the clear change in Democratic rhetoric on crime and policing. I may be taking a very New York City-centric view of things, but I think that shift is driven by a few key facts on the ground: violent crime, particularly shootings, is up all over the country; it shows no signs of coming down; it is a real concern of not just Republican voters but of reliable Democratic voters; and it’s happening at a time when police departments are losing people at an unusually rapid clip.
The column suggests that the need to staff up is prompting a shift in rhetoric at the municipal level, which is then filtering up to the national level, but I don’t think that’s literally the case. Rather, I think that’s the subterranean logic, the reason why what’s happening actually makes sense. It’s also what ties the current moment back to the crime bill that haunted Biden during the 2020 primaries. The central objective of that bill was to hire more police officers, and for all that Biden spent most of his time recently talking about gun control, the most important thing he’s actually doing is encouraging cities who are receiving federal funds for COVID relief to use some of that money to hire more police officers.
I’m quite hopeful that the current surge in shootings specifically is something that could be brought under control with appropriate policing, because it really has a been a fairly rapid reversal of prior trends. I’m also hopeful that some of the valuable reformist impulses of the past few years can continue to advance in the context of an effort to restaff police departments. But that, it seems to me, is the challenge for reformers, to make progress within the emerging paradigm rather than railing against it.
The Sound of My Voice
I was asked by the Voice of America to join a discussion about reparations for slavery with professor Jennifer Oast, chair of the Department of History at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. This is the second time I’ve spoken on the subject, having previously been part of a BRIC panel discussion, and I still find it odd. I hope I did the subject justice. My previous writing on the subject—which reveals a definite evolution as you scroll backward—can be found here, here, here, here and here.
Four pieces on the Substack since my last wrap-up:
First was an appreciation of Justice Breyer’s vision for a more modest and deferential (but still liberal) Supreme Court, wrapped in a lament for the state of the Supreme Court wars, and of the lack of recognition on the part of more aggressive liberals of just how weak their position is. This was a pretty despairing piece, and so I’m pretty encouraged that since then the Court has handed down a bunch of lopsided and even unanimous decisions on matters like freedom and speech and freedom of religion. It looks to me like Chief Justice Roberts is himself worried about the Court’s legitimacy, and is working to build those lopsided majorities whenever he is able to do so. It’ll be very interesting to see what he is able to achieve in that regard with Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
I wrote a piece about talking to my son about porn, and what (if anything) to do about parents with their heads in the sand on the subject. I won’t summarize it; check it out.
I encouraged Ross Douthat once again to take the plunge and wrestle with the conflict between Christianity and Darwinism. To be clear: the conflict is not about the fact of evolution itself; that’s not an issue for anyone but a biblical literalist, which Douthat certainly is not. The issue is natural selection as the motor of change and the implications of that fact for Christianity’s understanding of the essential goodness of creation and humanity’s role in creation’s fall from that state. I expect I’ll be returning to this one again.
Finally, I posted my post-mayoral-primary reflections and mused once again on how ranked-choice voting might or might not have shaped the race (and might still do so, since the counting still isn’t done).
The World Elsewhere
Yair Rosenberg continues to be an excellent guide to politics in Israel. His latest is about how Netanyahu isn’t going anywhere, and is focused on disrupting the U.S.-Israel relationship so as to pave his way back to power.
Matt Yglesias continues to be an excellent guide to “Secret Congress,” the place where actual progress gets made despite the appearance of total partisan gridlock. He’s got a great piece here and a follow-up specifically about the infrastructure deal here.
Damon Linker has an excellent column about the surprising weakness of a symposium on writing a new constitution, a subject dear to my heart.
David French thinks that first contact with an alien civilization will not destabilize Christianity. I’m going to write more about this in the future, but for now I’ll just say that the right way to play this game is to imagine an encounter with aliens that are profoundly different from us and also at least as powerful as we are. Christianity’s first encounter with an out-of-nowhere surprise, after all, was via the Islamic conquests of the 8th century. Which were, I would say, at least a bit unsettling.
I saw In the Heights and was surprised by how disappointed I was. This is also something I may write about here. Movies I enjoyed more from this two-week period include Hear My Song, California Split, The Long Good Friday and Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.