Conflict or compromise
William Natbony is an attorney and business executive specializing in investment management, finance, business law and taxation. He is the author of The Lonely Realist, a blog directed at bridging the partisan gap by raising questions and making pointed observations about politics, economics, international relations and markets.
Conflict or compromise is the choice facing Americans today. Oh, that also is the choice facing international relations between China and America.
“We are in a period of clamor, of bewilderment, of an almost tremulous unrest.” If this resonates as a description of today’s America, and it certainly should, it wasn’t spoken today. It was said in 1913, and could have been said at any number of similarly fraught turning points in history.
Today’s crises are not merely rhyming, they appear to be repeating. Just as in past eras, Americans need to decide whether to escalate their disagreements – both internal and external – into open conflict or work toward compromise. Compromise is much the better choice!
There are any number of Americans who sit at opposite ends of America’s political spectrum and urge the adoption of their extremist points-of-view. They fervently believe that they are “right” and those who disagree with them are “wrong.” They profess to have broad public support and allege that they speak for “truth” where their twisted adversaries speak “falsely.” They divide the world into those who are “good” and those on the other side of the political divide who are innately “evil” (categorizing those in the amorphous middle, at best, as misguided or, at worst, irrelevant). Their belief system mirrors that of countless generations of religionists, racial purists, political utopianists and assorted zealots who have seen the world in two colors, black and white, the Godless and the God-blessed. History teaches that the divisive wounds they inflict, if allowed to fester, will lead to bloodshed and economic devastation. America experienced such a lesson in bloodletting and devastation during the Civil War and for decades thereafter.
America’s diverse society has been built on a foundation of democracy and individual freedoms that are at the core of America’s unique brand of capitalism. America’s success – with the world’s most innovative industries and its extraordinary standard of living – derives in part from the American people’s focus on producing, buying, selling and investing (after all, “the business of America is business”).
America became a 20th century powerhouse because it integrated those business values into its democratic institutions and nourished them during disparate Republican- and Democrat-dominated administrations. Since the country’s birth, Americans have shared a common belief in the virtues of the free enterprise system – what Adam Smith referred to as benevolent self-interest— deeming politics, religion, race, ethnicity, sexuality and culture as peripheral to the fundamental pursuit of economic success. The result has made American democracy a consistent winner in the global Darwinian race, an outcome that now is being internally undermined by an overheated partisan pursuit of political, religious, racial, ethnic and cultural correctness.
America is nearing a flash-point where either compromise triumphs over perceived partisan righteousness and if it doesn’t, the American experiment will surely fail. Compromise is critical to our path forward; a path that would ensure the continuation of America’s economic and political success, however grudgingly such compromise might be achieved.
Partisanship has warped Americans’ hard capitalist edge. Extremists have carefully crafted what often are fictional comparisons between “our” beliefs and “theirs,” between “us” and “them,” the “good” that “we” know as being truth and the “evil” distortions “they” purvey. Yet there have always been divisions and disagreements in American politics, religions, races, ethnicities, and cultures. Reconciling those differences has furthered America’s foundational strength through the building of common-purpose bridges that reinforce American values and democracy and encourage entrepreneurship, innovation and economic success. Unfortunately, the durability of those bridges now is being tested by widening divisions that increase inter-religious, inter-racial, inter-ethnic, inter-sexual and inter-cultural resentments. Compromise has made the democratic process work. Without that compromise, conflict seems inevitable.
What is true in America’s domestic affairs is equally true in America’s international ones. What for the past few decades has been a mutually beneficial economic partnership between the U.S. and China now is a geopolitical competition that is undermining their economic cooperation and success, with spillover effects on the global economy. Henry Kissinger made this precise point in a recent Bloomberg interview: “On the current trajectory of relations, I think some military conflict [between the U.S. and China] is probable. But I also think the current trajectory of relations must be altered [so that the U.S. and China} actually engage in the sort of dialogs that I’ve suggested.” Such dialogs would represent the necessary first steps towards compromise.
Ronald Reagan’s description of America as a “shining city on a hill” – a beacon of democracy and a global incubator of opportunity and achievement – has been tarnished by the past several years of internal political partisanship and its fallout. The way to increasing American credibility and restoring Reagan’s Shining City role model is by resolving problems through agreement, not through conflict, not by tearing down existing institutions and alienating significant portions of the American public. America’s Civil War was a disaster for the country. A second Civil War could be terminal.