Saturday, September 02, 2006

Preparing for the coming crisis

The current issue of the New York Review of Books, along with the day’s news, includes a great deal more evidence of the political order that has ruled the world for the last sixty years, or, in some cases, more. The process is still only beginning, and things in nearly every continent are likely to get worse, but anyone who dares to look it in the face can, perhaps, begin to grope towards a new approach to American foreign policy, in particular, that might help get through the next twenty years with relatively little dislocation, rather than to descend, once again, into global chaos.

One might begin with Mexico, which slid into a prolonged civil war about 90 years ago, and is therefore, according to Strauss and Howe’s theory, a bit overdue for drastic change. The first indication of such was the election of Vicente Fox and the downfall of the Institutional Revolutionary Party in 2000, a sure sign that the old order was finally dead. Now, six years later, it does not seem too alarmist to suggest that civil war threatens Mexico again. Claiming fraud, narrowly defeated leftist presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador has refused to accept his reported defeat by Felipe Calderón, and yesterday prevented Fox from delivering his farewell address in person. López Obrador is calling on his followers, who are already demonstrating in the hundreds of thousands, not to accept the result and has announced he will form a “parallel government.” If widespread violence breaks out the millions of Mexicans living in the United States will almost surely have to take sides, and the Bush Administration will have to try to something to halt the conflict, just as Bush’s fellow promoter of democracy Woodrow Wilson did on the eve of the First World War. Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War and the restoration of democracy rather than military rule in most of Latin America has produced a series of leftist regimes, and Hugo Chavez is taking over from the infirm Fidel Castro in organizing a worldwide anti-American coalition. And in Brazil, the police of Sao Paulo seem to be fighting an intermittent guerrilla war with huge criminal gangs--a story that is not getting the attention it would seem to deserve.

Asia remains relatively quiet, but Ian Buruna has a remarkable essay in the New York Review about the growth of aggressive nationalism in China, South Korea, and Japan. While the Chinese are protesting Japanese atrocities that began 66 years ago more loudly than ever, a growing movement among post-war Japanese is trying to throw off the guilt of the war, and even to argue that Koreans should be more grateful for the benefits of Japanese colonialism. This seems once again to be a generational effect. Those Japanese old enough to remember the war and the atomic bombs knew at some level what their leaders had done to them, but their children, who grew up in prosperity, have lost sight of it. Of course, sixty years of coexistence have done little to reconcile India and Pakistan, either.

In Africa civil war is threatening once again to break out in the Sudan and Somalia is riven by conflicts among militias, some of them fundamentalist. Nigeria remains a dictatorship and the Congo, surely one of the most unfortunate regions of the world during the last 150 years, suffers from civil war. Since so much of Africa has been independent for less than 50 years its great crises may still lie ahead, but there is relatively little reason for optimism.

Eastern Europe, in a sense, has something to cheer about. Its new crisis begin around 1990 with the collapse of Communism, and with the major exception of the terrible civil war in Yugoslavia it has reshaped itself with remarkably little bloodshed. In the former Soviet Union itself the war in Chechnya was a great tragedy, but seldom if ever has an old and huge empire given way with so little bloodshed. Russia is, to be sure, evolving into a new kind of authoritarian state rather than a democracy, and President Putin would like to restore Russian influence in some of the new republics, but he shows no sign of going on a military crusade of which Russian forces are almost certainly incapable anyway.

In the Middle East, of course, the collapse of the old order has been accelerated by American foreign policy, which has contributed significantly to recent events in Lebanon, in the Palestinian territories, and most of all, in Iraq. Washington is waging a cold war with Iran that threatens to become a hot one. Statements by world leaders over the last days, however, suggest that Washington will have to go it alone if it chooses to attack Iran. The Russians have specifically rejected sanctions against Iran because they look too much like the prelude to armed conflict, and some Europeans have been quoted along the same lines. That, no doubt, will lead to more Washington backgrounders explaining how the United States must act precisely because no one else will, but cooler heads inside the Beltway might yet prevail.

Europe remains committed to international law and the peaceful resolution of disputes. That is natural. No region had risen so high, and none fell so far, as Europe during the twentieth century, and memories of the aftermath of the Second World War, if not the war itself, are still fresh among much of Europe’s leadership. There, too, however, the shibboleths of the postwar period are breaking down, as the French and Dutch rejections of the new European constitution showed last year. And Europe faces a potentially terrible problem among its Muslim populations, many of whom will almost surely side with Islam against the West if the armed clash of civilizations in the Middle East continues.

In the midst of growing instability the government of the US, tragically, is threatening to accelerate the collapse of world order by attempting to solve more and more problems by force. As I have remarked many times before, this is an extraordinarily risky step for the most globalized and richest nation in the world to take—which is why the British, during the 150 or so years when they occupied that position, tried to avoid general war as much as possible. The last six years have vastly increased our economic vulnerability, worn out our military, and devastated our standing around the world. Here as in so many areas of American life, the Boom generation has thrown out its parents’ legacy. The enormous gulf between the philosophies of the two Presidents Bush symbolizes something much bigger.

The attempt to create paradise on earth by spreading democracy and capitalism around the globe, it seems to me, is failing spectacularly, just as it did in the 1920s. It surely is not too late for the United States to reverse course, although I do not believe that will happen until a new Administration comes to power. Here are, it seems to me, a few steps it might take—some of them largely rhetorical, but potentially critical all the same—to try not only to restore our prestige, but more importantly to help the world through a difficult passage in the same way that certain European and American statesmen managed to do in the 1860-80 period, thereby avoiding a major European and world conflagration along the lines of 1791-1815 or 1914-45.

First, it seems to me, should come a reaffirmation that the international system should allow nations with different values to live together in peace—including both socialists (who are far from extinct) and Islamic fundamentalists. The fiction that we can solve the world’s problems by spreading democracy at the point of precision-guided munitions is too expensive to maintain any longer. The Muslim world needs to move towards modernity, but our attempts to force it to do so are having the opposite effect. Such a course would also allow us to reinvigorate the United Nations, whose supervision our current government has already evaded and would like permanently to escape on the grounds that so many of its members do not share our values. We should realize that differences in values are what require us to have a United Nations in the first place. Within that framework, terrorism, which ultimately threatens every constituted authority, can more successfully be fought.

Second, rather than trying to solve the non-proliferation problem by wiping out hostile regimes (and thereby accelerating nuclear programs by every government the United States opposes), we should attempt to reverse proliferation on the only possible basis: a commitment in principle to do away with nuclear weapons altogether, combined with specific proposals for deep cuts in existing arsenals. Hardly anyone one realizes this, but we have actually been committed to this course for almost 40 years under the Non-proliferation treaty which we are now accusing the Iranians of violating. The possible abolition of nuclear weapons presents great technical problems, but they would be easier to solve, surely, than the problems created by actual nuclear wars. While we may never reach that goal, it is the only basis on which international cooperation to control these weapons, in my opinion, can possibly be achieved.

Thirdly, we should once again affirm that the most desperate need of all the peoples of the world is peace to enable them to work, eat, and pursue worthwhile lives. That would mean, among other things, an end to the practice of punishing the citizens of countries whose governments we oppose by economic embargoes. The no-war, no-peace policies that the United States has pursued against Cuba for forty-five years and against Iran for twenty-seven have been much worse than useless. Economic sanctions have almost never brought about a worthwhile political result.

Fourthly—and here the news from California offers some real hope—we should reverse our position on global warming, and make a real effort to develop new renewable energy sources as an alternative to a new neo-imperialistic struggle among the major industrial powers to control the world’s petroleum reserves.

And lastly, the United States might invite other leading democratic nations to convene a panel of experts to design a cheap, reliable and totally secure system of voting, one that uses modern technology when appropriate but not in any way that will undermine confidence in the voting process. Democracy will not ultimately survive too many elections like the United States's in 2000 and 2004 and Mexico's this year.


Such proposals will not stop conflict in many areas of the world during the next twenty years. They could, however, moderate it, especially by establishing the United States as a genuine force for peace capable, as George F. Kennan once wrote, of “creat[ing] among the peoples of the world generally the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problems of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a world power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time.” Equally importantly, if a genuine military threat to the safety of critical areas of the world truly emerges, those values, like those enunciated by Franklin Roosevelt in 1940-1, could provide the foundation for the great coalition that once again would be required to meet it. The Bush Administration’s policies are losing favor not only with world opinion but also, according to polls, with the American people, but so far the Democrats have been unable to formulate any clear alternatives. Here are some suggestions.

14 comments:

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Anonymous said...

To a shocking degree, the map of Europe today resembles the map of Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. Have we fought 2 world wars and all the rest only to be brought back to the starting point?

Will the 21st century be Groundhog Day, again and again, with only the names of the chief imperialist nation changed?

Would like your opinion on this.

Anonymous said...

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Abdurahman Warsame said...

Great blog, history is essential to understand what's happening. I'll add your blog to my blogroll if you don't mind.

I've a comment on something you said "The Muslim world needs to move towards modernity, but our attempts to force it to do so are having the opposite effect", my problem with this is that in some people's minds they confuse modernization and westernization. Malaysia is modern and so is UAE (dubai) if modernazation means using modern methods and technologies. If you mean democracy and elections, then the palestinian territories have free and fair elections - modern?

davesgonechina said...

Hey, found your blog through Abu Aardvark (Marc Lynch's blog).

I was wondering, since I don't have a subscription to NYRB, did Ian Buruma mention that a new movie just came out in China called "Tokyo Trial", a docudrama (from description I'd say more accurate than Path to 9/11) about the Tokyo war crimes trials after World War II. It's getting a bit of press and like every other movie in China is available for a dollar from the DVD pirates.

Abdurahman Warsame said...

[...I often hear some thinkers/intellectuals – often American - talking about "bringing modernity" to Muslims, for example David Kaiser says in his blog that "The Muslim world needs to move towards modernity ... [...]

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