World history at warp speed

So the Arab world is not the only place where history has been speeding up a lot in recent months and years… (Whatever happened to Mr. Frank ‘End of History’ Fukuyama? We don’t hear a lot from him these days, do we?)
This week, the Mediterranean Basin has seen three very significant gatherings. At one end of the Med, leaders from Afghanistan and 13 other countries have been meeting in Istanbul, to try to figure out the shape of the country’s post-U.S. security structure. Well, that’s not how it’s been openly described there, I grant you. The non-U.S. participants have been too polite to describe in full detail just what a terrible state Afghanistan is in, ten years after the U.S.-led invasion and occupation, and two years after Obama announced his decision to “surge” more U.S. troops into the country– thereby, quite voluntarily, making the war “his own.”
Back in late 2009, I wrote, in this piece in Boston Review, that the best explanation I could give for Obama having made such an evidently counter-productive decision was because he was planning to use that surge as political cover for a later drawdown/withdrawal…. As is now proving to have been the case. But at what a cost! (And the cost of the past two years of the U.S. war there has, as I noted in that article, been borne overwhelmingly by Afghanistan’s people, along with their neighbors in drone-targeted Pakistan.)
The U.S. military has turned out to be such a force for mayhem in the world in recent years that I can almost not bear to think about it. From Afghanistan, to Iraq, to Pakistan, to Somalia, to Yemen– and now, to Libya… What has the U.S. military brought in its wake?? The collapse of communities, of whole economies, of institutions, and families… Tragedies, wherever you look.
This is not to indict individual members of the military, which as a group of people probably contains as great a proportion of decent, competent people as any group of that size. What has happened has not been the fault of the individual people in the military, but in the fact that it was the military that was used at all in response to all these problems. For each and every one of those “problems”, there were non-military policies that were available and could have been pursued– most likely with, at the end of the day, a lot more success from the American people’s point of view than we ended up winning. But the rush, the urge, the unseemly push to use military force proved overwhelming. Especially to those three presidents– Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama– who had never themselves experienced the horrors of war.
Almost none of this destruction need have happened– if only these men and their advisers had kept fast to the older, more principled visions of America as a country that upholds and strengthen the rule of international law and all the institutions built up around it… If only these men had not been so easily tempted by the ‘flash-bang’ wizardry and testosterone-driven arrogance of war.
But here we are. And at the other end of the Mediterranean this week, there have been two notably different kind of gatherings. At one of them, on Monday, world leaders gave a strong vote to Palestine’s application to become a member of the UN’s Educational, Scientific, and Cultural organization (UNESCO). In that vote, 107 nations (including several substantial European allies of Washington) defied vigorous American arm-twisting to support the Palestinian request.
The U.S. State Department announced almost immediately that it would stop providing the funding it has been giving to UNESCO. Far-reaching legislation passed over recent years by the strongly Israeli-controlled U.S. Congress means that the administration may have to extend its funding cut-off to other agencies, too.
How very, very far the United States has come from those idealistic days, 60 years ago, when it was a victorious America, standing unchallenged astride the the whole world, that exercised wisdom and restraint by setting up the United Nations as a set of institutions based on the key principles of human equality, respect for the rule of law, and the need to stress nonviolent, negotiated ways to resolved conflicts whenever possible.
And today, in the French coastal city of Cannes, a slightly different set of world leaders is gathering at the G-20 meeting to try to figure out how to deal with the continued, deep malaise in the capitalism-led global economy.
The proximate cause for the current world-financial malaise has been the failure of the Euro zone countries to nail down a hard and plausible plan to end the severe debt crisis faced by some zone members. But the deeper crisis is the truly global one that goes back to the world financial crisis of late 2008…. And that crisis was certainly intimately connected to the two phenomena of the disregard of the rule of law in economic affairs– or, more precisely, the disregard of the very necessary role that certain kinds of regulations play, in protecting the operation of free and fair markets– and the eruption of militarism as the major tool used in the global arena by the country that from 1991 until now has stood unchallenged at the apex of the international system.
And now, so many of these chickens are coming home to roost, all at the same time.
On Afghanistan, here will be another conference convened in early December. In Bonn, as it happens. That is, marking almost exactly ten years to the day since that fateful Bonn conference of December 2001 when the relevant world powers gathered together to determine how to form the first post-U.S.-invasion government in Afghanistan. In all these conferences on Afghanistan– the one in 2001, and the two this year– Iran is a significant participant, along with the United States. (China seems to be playing a more prominent role in this year’s conferences than ten years ago; but it is still– probably wisely– keeping to a fairly discreet second-tier rule. The CCP’s leaders have probably been far more concerned about the matters being discussed in Cannes, than those discussed in Istanbul this week.)
But back to Iran. Iran has lengthy common borders not only with Iraq, but also with Afghanistan. When the U.S. military went into first Afghanistan, then Iraq, it did so with the help of some non-trivial sets of understandings with the rulers in Tehran. Today, it is almost impossible to see how Washington can pull its forces safely, and with minimal casualties, out of either of these countries without nailing down some very similar sets of understandings with Tehran, just like in 2001 and 2003…
And now is the point at which Israeli PM Netanyahu starts openly agitating for an Israeli military strike against Iran?
Netanyahu and the other extremist elements in the Israeli government have, with the help of their many allies and acolytes within the U.S., been leading the U.S. government by the nose for the past 20 years… and leading our country to one disaster after another. And now, they want to threaten a completely unnecessary war against Iran??
Truly unbelievable. It is time for this nonsense to stop, and for America’s people to regain control of our own government so it will once again serve our interests and ideals rather than getting jerked around, again and again and again, by a small foreign country.
I came to the United States in 1982. When I first came here, there were constant rumblings of “warnings” or “hot information” or whatever that said that “Iran now seems likely to get nuclear weapons within 3-5 years.” It was always nearly that that same window: sometime “three to five years”, sometime ‘two to three years.”
That was 29 years ago.
(And we’re still hearing it. That AP article linked to above quotes recently retired Mossad head Meir Dagan as saying that Iran might get nuclear weapons “in 2015″… which is, um, three to five years from now…)
Meantime, there has been only one state in the Middle East that has constantly and consistently, for the past40-plus years, actually had a very robust and present nuclear-weapons capability: That is the tiny, bullying state of Israel.
But let’s get back to the big picture of what is happening in the world system these days. U.S. power is diminishing by the hour, and there is a kind of sucking sound in the global system as other powers realize they are going to have to adjust to that. (Actually, I think that is probably what is causing a lot of the otherwise crazy, irrational behavior in Israel these days… I mean, where will Netanyahu and his Israeli-extremist allies be, once the U.S. government is incapable of protecting them any more from the requirements of international law and international fairness?)
So we can expect some more very interesting months and years immediately ahead of us. The international system is changing at, yes, almost warp speed. The heavy bets that so many people had laid on the continuation of U.S. power at the apex of the world system– yes, that includes you, Hosni Mubarak and Zein el-Abidin Ben Ali, along with Benjamim Netanyahu– are proving, very rapidly, to have been quite hollow. A lot of new forces will arise in the chaotic years ahead. But I hope that enough people in the world are now smart enough, and caring enough, and principled enough, that out of this dynamism we can bring a world order that’s much more seriously dedicated to the ideal of the equality of all human persons, and that has a much deeper understanding of the futility and horrors of violence and war, than the world we lived in for the past two decades.
This kind of a good outcome is not, by any means, guaranteed. But the global situation is at least dynamic enough right now that if enough of us work hard and together for these ideals, then we do have a real chance of remaking the world for the better.

3 thoughts on “World history at warp speed”

  1. As a former Naval officer, I must say that you let the US military off far too easy. First the military is now more top heavy with flag rank officers than it has ever been. Wars are essential to justify this largess to the senior officer corps. Secondly, there is a revolving door operation from the senior ranks of the military to the private military industries that rivals the one between Congress and K street. Those “private” companies make a lot of money and pay their retired military executives accordingly. But they are heavily dependent on maintaining the “fear society” and the unending “long war”. That is certainly not to disagree with your assessment that most military, both officer and enlisted, are decent and patriotic citizens to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude (e.g. General Shinsecki); it is simply to point out that the genuflecting to the military is frequently overdone, and the justifiable criticism too often muted.

  2. I’m not sure Fukuyama should be ridiculed…his idea was that the entire world had come to acknowledge the worth of democracy as a form of government and a consumer economy becoming an ideal. There are holdouts but the direction seems clear in the Arab Spring.
    Your remarks about US militarism are on point. The problem with both the US and Israel is that they have unrestrained power and both want to keep it that way in the face of the obvious fact that the future will deny it to them both. The US is broke but insists on pretending it isn’t and Israel is a tiny enclave outnumbered by the people it somehow believed would disappear but never will. Expensive tools like the US armed forces have to be used to be justified. I remember hearing long ago about it being the goal of the US military to be able to fight “2 and a half wars” and by golly those wars were found!
    The US has caught the Israeli disease of unilateral actions and Obama seems to be falling in love with extrajudicial killings of which Israel is the master.
    The most frightening fact on the current scene is the incredible leverage of Netanyahu, PM of a country of 8 million, who is directing the diplomacy of a superpower of over 300 million. The greatest irony of the current scene is that Israel, armed to the teeth, is terrified of the UN moves of the completely subjugated Palestinians, the great majority of whom realize that all their armed efforts were only delaying the realization of their hopes.
    I can easily see the insanity of an Israeli attack on Iran drawing in the US. If it happens, it might just be the finale of this period in US history that has featured military adventures with Israel as bosom buddy. I think the public reaction will be fierce.

  3. Helena, I just want to say that after reading your post about Just World Books I bought Manan Ahmed’s “Where the Wild Frontiers Are” as I feel I know much too little about Pakistan. It really is marvellous, and covers so many topics in his inimitable way, that I feel quite uplifted after only a few chapters. Thank you!

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