Friday, December 20, 2013

Should governments help each other?

It now seems clear that the modern state reached the zenith of its power during the middle third of the twentieth century.  Driven by a series of great wars, revolutions, and technological changes, states mobilized unprecedented numbers of men and resources, and enjoyed a remarkable degree of loyalty from their peoples.  The western model of states based upon rational thought--whose offshoots included Communism--spread to nearly every corner of the globe and seemed to be wiping out any fundamental challenges to itself.  Religious authority was in retreat even in most of the Islamic world for the first two thirds of the twentieth century.  During the Cold War both the United States and the Soviet Union tried to strengthen states in all the nations that belonged to their alliances.  States also assumed responsibility for the health of their nation's economies.

The world rejoiced when perhaps the most highly organized state of all, the USSR, declined and then suddenly collapsed in the early 1990s.  Francis Fukuyama boldly proclaimed the end of history and political conflict.  But now, almost a quarter of a century later, the Soviet collapse strikes me as a kind of canary in a global coal mine, a symbol of things to come.  States have weakened, militarily and otherwise, in much of the world over the last two decades.   Conscription survives in only  a few countries with major security threats, such as Israel, the two Koreas, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.  Taxation has fallen drastically in most of the world, and global financial giants make governments tremble.  The United States routinely carries out drone strikes that violent the most fundamental sovereignty of foreign govrnments and pay no respect to the lives and property of their citizens.  Globalization has taken national economies out of the control of political authorities.  With the exception of North Korea, even surviving Communist states exert far less control over their people and economy than they used to.   And religious authority has made an astonishing comeback, not only in much of the Muslim world--including Turkey, once a secular bastion--but even here in the United States.

This development is not entirely unwelcome; it has had many good consequences.  The aggressor states of the twentieth century unleashed wars that killed tens of millions of people, and despite China's new round of saber-rattling over maritime rights, no one seems in the least likely to start such a war any time soon.  The casualties in civil wars in places like Iraq and Syria still horrify us, but they do not compare in the least even to those in the opening conflicts of the Second World War, such as the Spanish Civil War and the Sino-Japanese war.  We now fear terrorists that can kill hundreds or perhaps thousands of people, not armies that could kill hundreds of thousands, occupy whole nations, and redraw the map.  Yet our new environment undoubtedly presents dangers of its own--and states are making them worse.

The Second World War was an ideological fight to the death, but when it was over, the United States and the Soviet Union in effect accepted each other as the two leading nations of the world, especially after Stalin's death and the Cuban missile crisis.  They competed for influence around the globe and spied upon each other, but they did very little to undermine one another's societies and governments. The third world was their main battleground.   Today, on the hand weaker states are trying to increase one another's weakness in various ways.  The Chinese hack into our computers; the United States has spied upon world leaders all over the globe.  Russia is continually trying to intervene in the affairs of other former Soviet states, such as Ukraine.  The Middle East has become the site of a wide-ranging religious war between Sunnis and Shi'ites, waged without regard to national sovereignty or traditional rules of diplomacy.  Russia has also given asylum to Edward Snowden, an American who has embarrassed his own country to an extraordinary extent, and who has in so doing become a hero to millions of people around the world who distrust states, including many right here in the United States.  Snowden exemplifies another trend, the use of contractors, rather than lifetime civil servants, to do important government work.   An American Assistant Secretary of State visits Ukraine and meets openly with the leaders of protesters in a political crisis, an unheard of development in earlier eras.  On the other hand, Secretary of State Kerry's recognition that a deal with Syria over chemical weapons made more sense than air strikes was a welcome exception to this trend--it acknowledged the authority of the Syrian state in an attempt to make its civil war less violent.  The same applies, of course, to the potential nuclear agreement with Iran--although here in the United States the pro-Israel lobby is working to make the project fail.

The weakness of states reflects profound intellectual changes as well.  Nationalism is now almost the exclusive province of xenophobic extreme right groups, rather than an encouragement to make one's own country a better place, as it was in Kennedy's America or de Gaulle's France.   Religion has trumped citizenship in large parts of the world, and has threatened to do so in some parts of the United States.  In the western world, at least, the academy has lost interest in the great dramas of citizenship and statehood.  For more than half a century we have taken the remarkable civic achievements of our parents and grandparents for granted.  They have decayed as a result.

Here in the United States last week's news was actually relatively encouraging.  The budget deal signals an enormous power shift within the Republican Party and suggests that its attempt to dismantle the federal government--now finishing its third year--could soon be abandoned.  Yet that will leave us with a status quo in which the federal government, to say nothing of the states, remains a shadow of its former self with respect to its power to promote the general welfare, much less play a major role in planning our economy.  In any case, the trends I have been discussing are far too profound to be reversed merely by a couple of elections or a budget deal.  They represent a turning point in western and world history, and I expect future generations to be dealing with their impact long after we have left the scene.


CrocodileChuck said...


"Secretary of State Kerry's recognition that a deal with Syria over chemical weapons made more sense than air strikes was a welcome exception to this trend.." (snip)

Uh, that's not my recollection at all. Kerry made a throwaway remark about Syria abandoning these, then scuttled its chances, saying 'its never going to happen'.

If it wasn't for Vladimir Putin stepping up, it never WOULD have happened.

Putin: the best thing that's happened to US whistleblowers this year, and a feckless US Sec'y of State.

Joseph Young said...

Just to state the subtle, the Millennial Generation standard of living will be about the lowest in the past eighty years.

We have both figuratively and literally returned to the Gilded Age.

I do think that the most likely outcome is a return to the 20th Century, as the response from those movements was due to the poor functioning of Liberal Democracies.

And to be frank, I see very little similarity between New Deal America (Democratic Socialist) to Gilded America, (Liberal and Neoliberal)

And to be even more frank, it didn't matter if the state was Capitalist or Communist, the paradigm conquered both Superpowers anyway.

Aunt Katie said...

Many thanks for this essay.

I will take nationalism and civilizationalism, with all their warts, over globalism.

Unfortunately, our weak nationalist system fed comfortably into globalism eventually.

Here's a link, I hope, to macMillan's recent article.

ed boyle said...

I had to write an essay once in the early 90s about the international changes on a continental basis due to creation of trade blocs like EU, Nafta, ASEAN. What Russia is doing is trying to form a competitive trade bloc against the EU with its former soviet republics. The EU is negotiating with the US for a free trade zone. If the Chinese nationalist tendencies were not so strong then the saber rattling there would have given way to siimilar tendencies in the whole East Asian area not just South East Asia.

Since religious decline in Europe and language education in schools, along with mass tourism abroad and TV bringing cultural awareness beyond steretoypes people have a feeling of being Europeans, not Germans, French, British as much as used to be the case. In the USA and Mexico and Canada similar is occuring.

Russia is a multinational state with a large percent of muslims for many centuries so that a broad-based Russian-orthodox nationalism is unlikely to catch on, although in certain cases skinhead surges can be seen among young people due to mass illegal immigration of caucasians and central asians to do menial labour in the big cities. Similar is seen in Europe against Turkish, Arabs, etc.

The Chinese have a great diversity just as the Indian subcontinent does within its own cultural area. However the Japanese and Koreans and Taiwanese are in the American "orbit". The USA has another cultural focus. East Asia before colonial times was in China's trade/military sphere. As long as USA remains strong there and the Chinese independent a long-term peace will be endangered.

Russian borders were endangered for hundreds of years from Poland, Lithuania, Sweden, then Prussia, France, Habsburgs and the united Germany. Western Ukraine was always a problem area betweeen East and West therefore as I am learning reading a Kruschev biography (by Taubmann from Harvard, perhaps an acquaintance of yours). The English were also occassionally trying to invade Russia from the north or the south or interfere generally(in civil war for example).

So in toto we see blocs like muslims, Russians orthodox, Western Europe moderate christians, American sphere(more conservative religious). Europe is in Brussels with a tendency of Berlin towards the East(Eastern Europe as well as Turkley), Paris towards North Africa and Britain towards North America. The three major European powers then balance the interests out informally to form a flowing balance between too much influence for either of the two former superpowers or a total degradation of the Muslim South. The Russians on their side keep a delicate power balance between the Chinese and Europeans/Nato, supplying both with gas/oil and/or military technology and allowing US troop/supply movements across a corridor to Afghanistan to pacify Taliban(easier than doing it themselves) and maintain stability in central Asia/Middle East post 9/11. US / Russia direct argument is of course Syria where Russia's only naval base abroad is and how exactly to deal with Iran.

The Americans have great interests in Chinese and Japanese trade (much more than Europe) and great influence in Europe and Latin America.

The Muslims have no real center, Saudia/Gulf states against Teheran is clear but then there are others as the Turkic states of Turkey and across central Asia and then North African Arabs and the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis and lastly South East Asian mulsims as maybe 7 different zones of influence covering from Europe to Asia and even in black Africa. Defining a muslim in the world is like defining latinos on the US census.

ed boyle said...

(a bit more)

So all blocs(except muslims except through Al Quaeda attempts similar to Marxism/socialism in 19th century for proletariat) are becoming more homogeneous within and closer to one another through trade while trying to keep their own bloc identity(based on an understanding of their basic culture).

The worst problem is that the muslims are so diverse generally and exist in most other areas and that the Japanese and Koreans don't "belong" to the American orbit long term. Perhaps the Chinese will become democratic and form an EU type bloc with them and ASEAN after a war with the Nato forcing a capitulation as after WWII. How else to get reform in China is hard to see unless it takes generations of gradualism to get it done. A similar occurrence could take place in Russia and without Putin probably would have, i.e. disintegration and impositon of US style rules and trade.

Maybe USA won't remain as global policeman if they lose oil supplies internally and from Middle East. Then things could go back to historical norms with Europeans, Russians , Muslims and East Asians solving their own problems on the basis of their own cultural rules and regionally (no more global conflagrations). This would have to presume a lack of modern tech. which could go as quickly as it came over 50-100 years decline of fossil fuel resources. Due to distance problems America would then be insignificant globally. In traditional shipbuilding, canons, etc. the Chinese, Indians Russians could always hold their own in the future against energy poor Euro-Americans I would presume.