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Does the U.S. Need to Have a Mission?

David Brooks surveys [1] the political scene and concludes, as he always does, that we need more “leadership” for the sake of national greatness:

Some leader has to be able to digest the lessons of the last 15 years and offer a revised charismatic and persuasive sense of America’s historic mission. This mission, both nationalist and universal, would be less individualistic than the gospel of the 1990s, and more realistic about depravity and the way barbarism can spread. It would offer a goal more profound than material comfort.

If some leader were able to “digest the lessons of the last 15 years,” why would he be inclined to promote the “historic mission” that Brooks has in mind here? Why wouldn’t one of the lessons to be learned from the last 15 years be that the U.S. shouldn’t keep trying to fill the role that it has tried to fill in previous decades? If Western establishments have “lost faith in their own capacities of understanding and action,” perhaps that is because they have been responsible for a series of a major, costly failures that have discredited them.

If the U.S. is “no longer willing to occupy the commanding heights and oversee global order,” as Brooks puts it, perhaps this is because that task is impossible or so costly as to not be worth it. Perhaps Americans are realizing that we don’t have to do this. We are definitely realizing that we often don’t know what we’re doing in any case. Suppose instead that the U.S. doesn’t have or need to have a “mission” at all, but could instead aspire to become a normal, prosperous country without any of the delusional self-importance that comes with having a “mission.” We would not presume to be upholders of a “world order,” and consequently wouldn’t consider every crisis or conflict around the world as our problem to “solve.” We might then admit that our attempted “solutions” often make matters worse than they were before. We might even show some of that epistemological humility Brooks mentions from time to time and acknowledge that we don’t understand the rest of the world well enough to fill the role he wants the U.S. to play.

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13 Comments To "Does the U.S. Need to Have a Mission?"

#1 Comment By Uncle Billy On October 20, 2015 @ 11:19 am

The whole idea of “American Exceptionalism” is bunk. The US Government should not be trying to be world policeman. We need to pull back, and focus on our own country. Rebuild our infrastructure. Make life better for our own citizens. We are not going to change the middle east, so we should stop trying and focus on our own nation.

#2 Comment By SDS On October 20, 2015 @ 11:32 am

“Suppose instead that the U.S. doesn’t have or need to have a “mission” at all, but could instead aspire to become a normal, prosperous country without any of the delusional self-importance that comes with having a “mission.””

But, then, what would David Brooks write about? He would have to get a real job…..

#3 Comment By Montana Marvin On October 20, 2015 @ 12:02 pm

Have you ever seen, after a house cat kills a mouse, it keeps playing with the dead mouse because it wants to prolong the joyous moment? In the same way, USA has prolonged the victorious euphoria from 1945 for 70 years or now (with varying degrees of success). Hopefully one day enough of the dinosaurs that are stuck in the past (and their spawn like Rubio and Walker) will fade away and the world can move on.

#4 Comment By Florence On October 20, 2015 @ 12:21 pm

Amen and amen!!

#5 Comment By Mr. Libertarian On October 20, 2015 @ 12:38 pm

I read the entire David Brooks column referenced supra, and I have to say, even by Brooks’ low standards, it was confused, rambling, mealy mouthed, and so devoid of content and argument, that it is hard to make out what the point of the column actually is. It seems just like the lament of the Establishment, that cannot figure out why its deluded dreams are all crashing down around it. There are of course, answers, but not the answers the Brooks of the world want to swallow.

#6 Comment By AJ On October 20, 2015 @ 12:58 pm

@Mr. Libertarian

Brooks seemed to be speaking in metaphor, that the outlying planets don’t respond to the gravitational pull of the sun and instead exert their own gravity, tearing the established order apart. So, yes, I think you nailed it, the lament of the Empire, standing there shimmering and shining, but few seem to want to orbit anymore.

He also made the obligatory Washington dig at Putin, “the cold-eyed thug.” But if American democracy is as dysfunctional as he says, and I think it is, why are we attempting to export it, and why does it lament that we can’t?

You are right, Brooks rambles and makes no sense at all.

#7 Comment By agorabum On October 20, 2015 @ 1:17 pm

The last 15 years has shown that we should avoid the classic blunders, #1 being don’t get involved in a land war in Asia.

#8 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On October 20, 2015 @ 1:56 pm

“This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.”

#9 Comment By Fred Bowman On October 20, 2015 @ 5:26 pm

The only “Mission” that America should be on is “How to Return America to a Prosperous Republic”. Of course the reality is going to be an America that slowly destroys itself with all it’s “Imperial Delusions.”

#10 Comment By Neal On October 21, 2015 @ 5:10 am

Brooks is brilliant. He is giving us a window into the world view of the elite consensus. All these big picture ideas about human society and the geopolitical games played by the masters of the universe are on display in that last paragraph.

“It would offer a goal more profound than material comfort.”

See… our actual experience of life isn’t important. What’s important is that the elites articulate and pursue profound goals. History is littered with leaders who thought this way. Some had truly profound goals while others simply disguised their greed and psychopathy with propaganda (Hitler, Stalin, etc.) The fact that people suffer as a result is unfortunate but ultimately serves the greater good. Which, I suspect, is mostly about the elites being able to do whatever they damn well please.

#11 Comment By jk On October 21, 2015 @ 6:18 am

Makes perfect sense: The US should remain the global punching bag/bullet sponge while rich EU, Asian, and Middle East nations do not need to spend on defence and freeload of the US AND take of their people and economic/social infrastructure…no thanks.

“Continual war for continual peace” and other forms of US led central planning and social engineering experiments have been tried and 100% of the time caused worse unintended consequences for past 15 years.

The US is already deeply in debt and has third world conditions in some parts.

#12 Comment By El_longhorn On October 21, 2015 @ 9:53 pm

Amen, Dr. Larison. Preach on.

#13 Comment By JQA On October 21, 2015 @ 11:15 pm

“Mission” = “Monsters to Destroy”:

“Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force…. She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit…. “

– John Quincy Adams