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Sunday, February 22, 2009

From the Periphery to the Center?

Almost since I began making these posts in 2004, I have been intermittently arguing that diplomatic success, in a sense, has warped the perspective of our foreign policy leadership. For more than four hundred years, from the time of the development of quasi-modern states in Europe in the early 17th century until 1945, violent conflicts within western civilization dominated international politics. When states managed to keep the scale of these conflicts within reasonable bounds (roughly from 1661 to 1789 and from 1815 to 1914), civilization advanced; when they did not (1618-48, 1792-1815, and above all 1914-45) it declined. (This was essentially the subject of my 1990 book, Politics and War.) As early as the seventeenth century those conflicts had spread onto other continents, but those theaters were always secondary, not primary. Meanwhile, the non-Christian nations of Asia rapidly fell so far behind Western Europe as to be incapable of a serious military challenge--a trend that was finally reversed by Japan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, eventually with dramatic results.
The Second World War still looms as the most decisive event in hundreds of years because it seems to have put an end to internecine warfare within western civilization. Since nearly everyone who remembers the last great war of this type is now dead, we have all come to take this advantage for granted. We should not. Europe now has a measure of economic and political unity, including an almost completely common currency. The major European nations have been allies of the United States for 60 years. So has Japan. All of this happened, ironically, partly because of the threat posed after 1945 by the Soviet Union, the other victor in the Second World War; but the basic structure has survived the break-up of the Soviet Union, and indeed has been expanded eastward. True, some old issues are not completely dead, and could revive, particularly under the pressure of intense economic distress. I was recently informed that some Germans, the descendants of those millions [sic] expelled from territories lost to Poland in 1945, have formed an organization designed to regain their property. On the other side of the globe, the postwar generations in both Japan and China seem to be more militantly nationalistic than those who actually remembered 1945. But by and large, the modern industrialized, commercial states have stopped planning for war with one another. That is an extraordinary development.
The foreign policy leadership of great powers, however--and the United States is literally the only country in the world today whose leadership has the habits of mind of a traditional world power--tends to be full of professional dragon slayers, always in search of a new task. During the last ten years, conflicts occasioned by the encounter between western civilization (including its Israeli outpost) and the Islamic world have become the major focus of our attention, leading to two interminable, indecisive wars designed to remake parts of the Islamic world in our own image. To Muslims this looks like renewed western imperialism, and it has been extraordinarily counterproductive. The American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has made Iran and Pakistan more dangerous enemies. In Pakistan, about which we have been kidding ourselves for over a decade now, anti-western forces are getting stronger and stronger. Fred Kaplan in Slate had a good piece last week on the difficulty of securing Pakistani cooperation to end the Afghan War, but even he slid over the critical fact: that the most powerful elements of the Pakistani military and security forces want the Taliban to win in Afghanistan. All we have been able to do by opposing it is to strengthen the Taliban within Pakistan as well.
Having tried to re-introduce the kind of western political control that went out of style after 1945, we now need to pull back. President Obama is beginning his term by sending more than 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan. I am determined for the moment to remain optimistic, and to hope that this initiative will turn out to be a parallel to the Challe Offensive which France launched in Algeria in 1959, the year after General de Gaulle took office as President in France. That offensive actually was more successful than anything we can do in Afghanistan (which has at least five times the population of Algeria at that time) could possibly be--it eliminated any serious military threat from Muslim rebels, albeit without securing the loyalty of the native population. But all de Gaulle really wanted to do, it turned out, was to build a position strong enough from which to negotiate a withdrawal after negotiations with the enemy. As Kaplan notes, General Petraeus himself has stated that some Taliban elements will have to be part of a new deal. I remain hopeful that we can be pretty much out of both Iraq and Afghanistan by the end of 2011.
The danger, of course, is that we could be induced to remain by a significant new terrorist attack on American soil. That possibility returned to the foreground of my mind after reading a review of Steven Coll's new book about Osama bin Laden, One Big Unhappy Family, the by Roy Halladay, a British scholar, in The New York Review of Books.. It tended to confirm something I had been told by Arab students where I work--that Bin Laden has never really been very interested in the United States at all (and that he is much less interested in Israel, even, than we are inclined to believe.) Bin Laden wanted to establish Islamic rule over various Arab states, including Algeria, Yemen, and above all his own Saudi Arabia, but during the 1990s he had little show but a series of bloody failures for his efforts. Attacking the United States at home and inducing us to engage in the region was an attempt to change the terms of the debate within the Arab world, and thanks to our cooperation, it succeeded brilliantly. He now faces the task of turning Barack Obama into another George W. Bush.
Those few foreign policy thinkers like Andrew Bacevich and myself who believe that a calm withdrawal is in order would have little chance of actually winning a debate within the foreign policy elite. We are too accustomed to our predominant role for that. But our ally, obviously, is the suddenly critical state of the western economy, which will require all our attention and resources at home. Eighty years ago economic collapse led to the advent of expansionist regimes in Germany and Japan. There is no sign of anything like those regimes anywhere in our post-1945 alliance. Russia is another matter, but the periphery of Russia is another area where we would be well advised to scale back our objectives. During the 1930s the democracies struggled with economic decline while Germany and Japan planned for expansion. Now we seem much likelier to struggle with these problems together, using the same institutions that were built up after the Second World War.
That struggle, however, increasingly looks like a very long one. We are almost surely in for years of further economic decline no matter what the Administration can do. Our financial system is still in a state of collapse. Although no one seems to want to nationalize the banks, this seems slowly to be emerging as the only alternative. Let me pronounce myself in favor. To take over a controlling position (at bargain prices) in our major banks and slowly sell off their nearly worthless assets for whatever we can get would allow a new, sounder banking system to emerge from scratch. The older generation has had its turn; let us allow the younger ones to rebuild based upon new principles. Boomer financial geniuses, alas, have turned out to have feet of clay--and very brittle clay at that. Ten weeks ago, I told the story of the campaign the late Bill Strauss and I started in 2003 to hold down the compensation of the managers of the Harvard Endowment, who were receiving bonuses of up to $20 million annually. Our original protests, in which a number of classmates joined, focused on the moral issue of individuals enriching themselves with non-profit funds to such an amazing extent, while tuition continued to increase. Now however the crisis has turned out to be one of competence, as well as of ethics. The Harvard Endowment lost about one quarter of its value last year. (That did not prevent six managers from collecting a total of $28 million in bonuses last June.) A new story in Forbes now reveals the depths of the financial catastrophe into which modern financial practices have led it. Having lent out more than 100% of its assets, Harvard now finds itself with a large portion of them tied up in illiquid holdings (and apparently has continuing obligations of its own to private equity firms, as well.) Larry Summers himself decided to lock a huge loan, designed to finance university expansion in Allston, at what looked five or six years ago like a favorable interest rate--a decision which has led to additional huge losses. It is impossible to see how all this will sort itself out. More important, however, is the high esteem in which the managers who created this situation were held before the crash. That reflects the false principles upon which our whole financial sector has been operating.
Let us once again, however, look on the bright side. My favorite section of Politics and War dealt with the era of the French Revolution and Napoleon, when a combination of rapid political change, breakthroughs in military organization, and the opening of high positions to the middle class created more than twenty years of almost continuous European war. Concluding that section, I argued that military and political distinction were virtually the only targets for ambitious young men, and that the advent of the industrial revolution had fortunately given them something else to think about--something that would not only allow their fellow citizens to live in peace, but might actually benefit them. The financial wizards of our time--first and most brilliantly characterized by Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities--have done damage that will take a generation to repair, but they could have done much worse. We can still make the twenty-first century a relatively unmilitarized one.

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