Sunday, June 25, 2017

A Difficult World

Sometimes it's easy to see what should be done.

In December 1941, few doubted we needed to beat the Nazi's and the Japanese.

In 1966, it was obviously pointless to battle against Vietnamese independence. The Vietnamese deserved freedom. They'd whipped the French convincingly. We couldn't prevail without destroying the people whose hearts and minds we supposedly sought to win. Their independent spirit and historical enmity toward China meant they wouldn't be China's puppet.

Starting the second Iraq War was obviously unwise. We'd obviously win the “war” quickly; but then be uncomfortably ruling over a spirited set of ethnic and religious factions spoiling for a civil war. No matter how wisely we tried to rule, we would inspire many more terrorists seeking vengeance against us.

This ain't hindsight. Many said these things at the time. I'm no expert, but as the Iraq War started, I wrote a friend a letter saying this. 

But now?

Hordes of U.S. citizens are angry that life ain't what it once was. So to win elections we have to promise jobs (even while robots snag more and more of those) and a stronger economy (just when our graying work force is diminishing and our vast military spending undermines our ability to compete). The postwar period in which we dominated, which feels like normal to most of us, ain't at all normal and won't last. 

Internationally, Russia is a troublesome enemy. Putin is smart, greedy, and conscienceless. One can see why Putin wanted us to elect Trump: Trump not only owes Russians money, but is a shallow, inexperienced fellow whose narcissism makes him predictable and easy to manipulate. Trump has already rewarded Putin in several ways.

Meanwhile China waits. Understanding what China wants and why requires careful study. Threading our way forward, neither kowtowing to China nor stumbling into a destructive war, requires nimble tactics. Both sides will need their best minds concentrating on this. And we have . . . ?

These international conflicts will be waged in a dizzying variety of fields, some well beyond the ken of most of us. Russians mucking with our elections in new ways, tricking folks who'd say they hate Russia into mouthing Russian lines. Hacking and cybersecurity, plus the usual economic and political battlefields. 

Hard to see how a guy who can't read something as long as this column will make intelligent decisions; but he's not the real problem. We are.

We screwed up in Viet Nam and elsewhere by misunderstanding the world as wholly a battle between Communism and Capitalism. Us against the Soviet Union and Peoples Republic. Those countries were actual enemies worthy of serious concern. But folks like the Vietnamese, simply seeking freedom, saw the world differently. Had we recognized that, we'd have saved lives, dollars, and political currency.

What's blinding us now?

American exceptionalism, of course. We're a wonderful country. We've had a fantastic run. I hope we continue as a beautiful – and democratic – success story. We won't cease being a major player. But success encourages us to credit only our greatness – forgetting that vast natural resources and a protective ocean helped.

The fortunes of countries rise and fall. Rich countries get soft. The top dog spends so much on protecting its wealth that it's less likely to discover the next Great Thing. There's also a strong temptation to try to maintain supremacy by declaring war on the nearest rising competitor. And to use fear of the other. Racism. 

One can only hope that Trump's comic-book ineptness will reawaken a desire for wiser, more patient leaders who put our country's real needs first.

[The column above appeared this morning, Sunday, 25 June 2017, in the Las Cruces Sun-News, as well as on the newspaper's website and on KRWG's website.  KRWG will also air a spoken version several times during the week.]

[Viet Nam is the largest and one of the clearest examples of a mistake our leaders made often during the postwar period, the Cold War.  We were locked in a battle against the Soviet Union, and the Peoples Republic of China, and wanted as much of the populated areas of the world allied with us and not them.  Both sides also quietly funded or initiated efforts, meant to appear as representing strong local sentiment, to undermine governments we didn't like.  Unfortunately, since the rhetoric (though not the reality) of the Soviet Union was friendly to the freeing of oppressed peoples, we let ourselves be pushed into supporting empires (such as French possession of Viet Nam) or  dictators or oligarchies that stood against any serious improvement of the average person's life.]

[American exceptionalism seems to me more subtle than its adherents or those who scoff at it seem to believe.  We can and should take pride in our Founders; in their insistence on freedom and democracy, relatively new ideas in their time.  Jefferson, Franklin, and others were giants.  George Washington remains one of the very few men in history who lead a military rebellion, became sufficiently popular that he probably could have been named President for Life, but walked away.  Not once, but twice: immediately after the war, when we tried our ill-fated experiment with a weak national government in the Articles of Confederation, then again after two terms as President.  Our energy and resourcefulness have been rightly admired by all.  However, for our rise to the top of the heap of nations, it's fair to give credit to geographical and other factors for which our leaders can claim little responsibility.  We had a huge, contiguous land, teeming with natural resources and protected by oceans from the kind of constant military strife Europe and other continents experienced.  Other than during 1861-65, wars have not been fought on our territory, destroying homes, factories, towns, and families.  We've also benefited from a host of other factors, including that our native language (partly from our activities, but more from the British Empire) became the closest the planet has to a universal language.]

My thinking was much influenced quite a while ago by reading The Rise and Fall of the Great Nations, by Paul Kennedy.  Wikipedia's summary of the book's thesis states, "In The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), Kennedy argues that economic strength and military power have been highly correlated in the rise and fall of major nations since 1500. He shows that expanding strategic commitments lead to increases in military expenditures that eventually overburden a country's economic base, and cause its long-term decline. His book reached a wide audience of policy makers when it suggested that the United States and the Soviet Union were presently experiencing the same historical dynamics that previously affected Spain, the Netherlands, France, Great Britain, and Germany, and that the United States must come to grips with its own "imperial overstretch".[7]

However, the Cold War ended two years after Kennedy's book appeared, validating his thesis regarding the Soviet Union, but leaving the United States as the sole superpower and, apparently, at the peak of its economy. Nau (2001) contends that Kennedy's "realist" model of international politics underestimates the power of national, domestic identities or the possibility of the ending of the Cold War and the growing convergence of democracy and markets resulting from the democratic peace that followed.[8]"
I want now to read Nau's criticism of Kennedy's ideas.  

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