By Paul Kennedy

A few weeks ago I was asked by a group of highly intelligent and observant Dutch executives to talk upon the theme of "handling big contradictions," especially on the international political and economic levels of decision-making. I was happy to oblige them, because this is something I have been thinking about a lot, as I observe our leaders and policy-makers grappling with problems for which there is no obvious and easy solution. It is all too often just a choice, alas, between an unpleasant solution and an even worse solution.

Moral philosophers have agonized about this dilemma over centuries: Can you justify an evil act because the only alternative was a far worse act? National leaders feel it even more, and much more acutely. Should Queen Elizabeth I of England have ordered the execution of Mary Queen of Scots because her councilors warned her that, if she did not, the Tudor kingdom would be imperiled? Should the atomic bomb have been dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 (a dreadful decision, yet there was many an estimate that a full-scale American invasion would have led to many more Japanese -- and Allied -- deaths)?

Hard choices. Little wonder that ultra-realist Bismarck would claim that, when God came to judge emperors and statesmen, He would apply different criteria about right and wrong than He applied to individual moral failures.

What, then, about some of today's hard choices for our leaders, obviously by no means as critical and dreadful as a decision to drop an A-bomb, but serious nonetheless? Consider only four such challenges, taken right from today's headlines, and in ascending orders of seriousness.

In Britain the relatively new Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition under Prime Minister David Cameron is faced, as it handles economic policy, with a choice of bad paths to pursue or the option of even worse ones. Given the volatility of global markets and the delicate position of the pound sterling, the British government is under intense pressure externally to cut the enormous central-government deficit. Not for Cameron is there the easy but ultimately dangerous solution of printing hundreds of billions more U.S. dollars and coolly assuming that foreigners have no choice but to buy them, as the Obama administration is doing.

But how, then, to reduce to close the British budget gap: by compelling people to work until later in life, as well as contributing more to their pensions?; by slashing well-regarded public educational and health-care spending? -- all these, as we have seen recently, being guaranteed to bring millions of protestors onto the streets. Or should defense expenditures be cut, thus bringing the Royal Navy to its lowest strength in hundreds of years, causing despair among the armed forces' leadership, and sheer disappointment in the Pentagon that one of the last few of America's effective NATO allies is losing its fighting capabilities? Anybody got a bright, simple solution here?

Even more difficult, perhaps, are the hard choices facing the European Union's leaders as they grapple to head off the default and collapse of Greece. The motive here has little to do with any love of Athens, but is driven instead by a great fear of the consequential and impossible pressures upon Portugal, Ireland, perhaps even Spain and Italy, maybe the disintegration of the common European currency and of the "European idea" itself. Hence the repeated and reluctant acts of bailing out the Greeks by large infusions of capital from the European Central Bank and the IMF, bringing the EU away from falling over the brink -- at least until Greece runs through this latest tranche of tens of billions of other people's money.

Such dancing with national default is made even more farcical by the volatile enthusiasms and panics of the stock markets, as could be seen in Wall Street's uncritical buying spree late last week. Should my Yale colleague, the noted economist Robert Shiller, dare to take his steely gaze from the awful U.S. housing market, he will find here another example of "irrational exuberance." Apparently, few in the stock markets have bothered to take note of a trenchant criticism of the European bankers' highly dubious policies of "extend and pretend" (or "delay and pray") published in, of all places, the business section of the New York Times ("Playing Make-Believe With Greece," by Floyd Norris, July 1). For Monsieur Trichet, and the French and German governments, the term "hard choices" seems to have slipped out their vocabulary.

Larger and more worrying still than even a Greek default and euro confusion would be some marked setback, with social disturbances, to four impressive decades of economic growth in China. Far too many visitors to Shanghai (especially), Beijing and the booming coastal regions come away glaze-eyed at all the wonders of this largest of the so-called "Asian miracles." A long time ago it was said that all roads led to Rome. After 1945, understandably, the roads which the new tributaries took led to Washington. Nowadays, at least judging from the hordes of CEOs and bankers and their lawyers headed to the Orient, it seems to many of them that all roads lead to the People's Republic of China -- while in turn the state visits made abroad by the PRC's leaders look ever more like those Old Master portraits of, e.g., the state visit of the Emperor Maximilian I to Augsburg and elsewhere.

What's missing from this facade of grand success are the worrying signs that the Chinese miracle is fraying its edges, and weakening in its under-structures: the vast numbers of unreported peasant protests, and the frequent arrests which follow; the pent-up demands by a BILLION people for a middle-class life to be reached within a SINGLE generation; the colossal housing bubble; the irreversible environmental degradation; and perhaps the worst problem of all, the fact that China is simply running out of fresh water stocks. Only those who are blind cannot perceive that the nervous Chinese communist leadership is riding on a tiger; how can they get off without being devoured by the massive uncontrolled force that Deng unleashed three decades ago?

Given everyone else's problems, it might be thought that the United States is sitting pretty, and it is certainly well advanced in some basic regards (fresh-water supplies, sustainable agricultural resources, a fine demographic profile for the future, large technical resources, and a massive military edge). So, a sarcastic Jonathan Swift-type remark might be: If America is so well endowed compared with most other societies, why is it growing so slowly, why is its housing-cum-banking sector so troubled, why are the federal deficits and the trade deficits so stubbornly large, why is its infrastructure falling behind, and how can it reasonably be expected to carry out large and distant military operations on such troubling economic foundations? The chief reason, one suspects, is that U.S. politics has increasingly taken on the appearance of a pantomime, and a very confusing one at that. Every character in the pantomime -- the president, the houses of Congress, the media, the lobbies and special-interest groups, the angry "man in the street" -- puts the blame on some other player or players.

And so the game goes on, with the financial and credit weaknesses rotting the core. And yet none of these players has come up with a plausible way of handling America's big contradictions, especially the dangerous deficits, so nothing serious and convincing can be achieved, despite (or, perhaps, because of) the cacophony of voices of participants and "experts" touting their own magical cure.

All this brings us to a final thought. The problem with intellectuals and pundits (like myself) is that while we are rather good at describing these "big contradictions," we are usually hopeless when it comes to offering coherent solutions -- that is, measures which are both beneficial and realistic. This seems to me particularly true of those economist-pundits who crowd the opinion pages. "Increase the government's stimulus to the economy," some say; "Cut the deficits," others plead. Neither alternative has a chance of working if it runs against the discipline of the markets, which generally hate increased federal expenditures but worry about the consequences of draconian cuts into entitlements and basic services. Tenured academics do not face that market discipline, but governments do, which is why they have to make compromises when they grapple with hard choices.

There is nothing new in this. Athenian assemblies, Roman senates, Renaissance princes, modern military commanders from Wellington to Eisenhower, all grappled with nasty decisions. It was, after all, their job, and its essence was well summed up by that 18th century French remark: "Gouverner, c'est choisir." To govern is to choose.

We might remember all this the next time we are about to berate our present battered and hard-pressed political leaders, and their less-than-perfect solutions to impossible problems. Politics is, after all, the art of the possible, not the art of miracle-making.

(Paul Kennedy is Dilworth Professor of History and director of International Security Studies at Yale University; and the author / editor of 19 books, including "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.")


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