Category Archives: Global affairs

Counter-Tamil end-game in Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan government is proceeding with what looks like the end-game (for now) of a decades-long campaign against Tamil separatists in which both sides have committed numerous war crimes and other atrocities. Reuters tells us today that the SL army is closing in on the last small enclave of land still held by the separatist LTTE (Tamil Tigers). The Colombo government says there are 70,000 people still trapped inside that enclave. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says there are 150,000 civilians there.
Al-Jazeera English has some very disturbing reporting from the war-zone.
A Sri Lankan friend wrote to me recently that the Security Council needs to act speedily to try to forestall the possibility of an anti-Tamil genocide. Certainly, the US government and all portions of the “international community” should be forceful in reminding the Colombo government (and the LTTE) of its obligations under international humanitarian law. There can be no meaningful “victory” for the people of Sri Lanka in a situation in which the country’s Tamil citizens are targeted for rights abuses, killing, repression, and marginalization from full social and political inclusion.

America enters the 21st century

Okay, it’s a bit late, but I think it’s happening.
For the past eight years it has felt as if we being thrown back into some of the worst years of the 19th cntury. Years when the imperial armies of ‘white’ northern nations set out on expeditions to completely re-make (and control) distant portions of the non-‘white’ world.
But a majority of US citizens have now, a little belatedly, started to understand that we’re not in the 19th century any more.
Thank God.
Back in the 19th century, ‘white’ leaders wrapped up in the certainty of their own self-righteousness were able to launch those campaigns of imperial aggrandizement and control, and to have a reasonable chance of their success, for two key reasons:

    1. They fielded raw military power that far superior to anything that the indigenes of the distant terrains to be conquered could muster; and that military power could be used to quell any resistance and impose imperial control; and
    2. Most citizens of the ‘white’ imperial nations were really not convinced that non-‘white’ peoples had a humanity equal to their own or were worthy of equal consideration as God’s children.

Thus, during the 19th century the British, French, or other European armies could set out from their homelands to seize control of distant land-masses, or the US Cavalry would set out ever further westward to bring under Washington’s control vast portions of the lands of Indian nations. (‘Treaties’ be damned.)
But hear this: we aren’t in the 19th century any more. Now, a whole span of 108 years separates us from those days. And during the 20th century, two important things happened:

    1. Raw military power, on its own, became progressively less useful, thanks to the rapid improvement of information technology. Back in the 19th century, whole distant nations could be brutally subdued, or even genocided completely, and few people back in the imperial heartland would ever learn about the massacres. All they would ever learn would be incomplete snippets of the news; and even that would come in very late, and through channels dominated by the imperial armies themselves. Since then, the global information environment has been transformed. We get nearly real-time news of distant events through numerous channels, only some of which are controlled by the neo-imperial military. Foreign wars, as I have long argued, have thereby become just about unwinnable.
    2. But there’s been another important change since the 19th century, too. During the 20th century the international norm of the fundamental equality of all human persons became far more deeply embedded and more widely respected than it was back in 1899. So those distant casualties from imperial wars now matter to citizens of the ‘metropolitan’ countries, when we learn of them through today’s information technologies, much more than the vastly more numerous casualties of the 19th century ever ‘mattered’ to most citizens of London, Paris, or New York.

So there you have two great achievements of the 20th century: The exponential improvement of the means of worldwide communication (with the concomitant decline in the usefulness of military power), and the much broader international recognition of the norm of human equality.
Which have brought us to a 21st century in which whole new ways for the world’s peoples to be in this world together are now not just possible, but mandatory.
And yesterday, 62.5 million US voters– a clear majority of those who cast a ballot– finally seemed to understand that.
Jane and Joe Six-pack: welcome to the 21st century.

Obama discussing HIV/AIDS in South Africa

Thanks to Dominic who sent me the link to this YouTube video of a meeting Sen. Obama had in August 2006 with some leaders and township-based activists in South Africa’s HIV/AIDS Treatment Action Campaign.
A newsletter that the Treatment Action Campaign sent out today noted that,

    During the closed session of their meeting TAC members suggested to Senator Obama that he run for president. Obama took a strong position on preventing and treating HIV/AIDS…

Watching this video gives you a good reminder that the outcome of today’s election will have a major impact on the lives of billions of people around the world. Including the millions in sub-Saharan Africa who’ve been stricken by HIV/AIDS.
Bush administration spoksepeople have put a lot of emphasis on the generosity of the support it’s given to anti-AIDS efforts in Africa. But those efforts have been horribly held back by the Bushists’ staunch insistence that prevention campaigns should focus only on sexual abstinence rather than the full spectrum ‘ABC’ (Abstain; Be faithful; or Condomize) approach.

What is this ‘G-7’ anyway?

Willem Buiter gives the gathering of finance ministers of the so-called ‘G-7’ nations a very low grade for the quality of the decisions they made (or failed to make) during their meeting in Washington yesterday.
Buiter also raises some excellent and much-needed questions about this whole grouping called the ‘G-7’, which is considered by many in the west to constitute the either the leadership of the world or the leadership simply of the world’s financial system.
He writes,

    With a bit of luck we will in due course replace the current G-7/G-8, which is flawed both by errors of omission and errors of commission, with a new G-8, consisting of the USA, the EU, Japan, China, India, Brazil, Russia and Saudi Arabia, which includes all political-economic entities that have global systemic significance and which will meet regularly to address global economic and financial issues.

… As it happens, I’ve been reading Kishore Mahbubani’s excellent recent book, The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East, which has an excellent short section on the G-7…

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Piracy: Another fruit of US over-stretch

Many indeed are the fruits, on the international scene, of the two developments that:

    1. First of all, the US claimed the right to dominate all the world’s major sea-lanes, with the assurance that by doing so it would assure the safety of everyone’s peaceful commercial sea-traffic, and then
    2. The naval forces of the US and its allies became hopelessly over-stretched as they found themselves unable to disentangle from the mission of maintaining and protecting the US’s long and vulnerable military supply lines into Iraq and Afghanistan.

And thus, in recent years, we’ve seen a quite unexpected rise in piracy in several key sea-lanes… including most particularly those off the long and curvy coast of Somalia, a country where mishandled US interventions, a US-spurred Ethiopian invasion, and other factors have combined to bring about the chronic and abject collapse of central state institutions.
Today, Der Spiegel has a fascinating insider’s account of how one recent act of off-Somalia piracy progressed– and how it was finally resolved through a pay-off of around $1.1 million.
Reporters Udo Ludwig and Holger Stark base their account on interviews with the ship’s German owner. They write that finaly, after some weeks of tough negotiation,

    On Thursday morning of last week, two boots were moored to the Beluga freighter, the hijackers’ speedboat on one side and the tugboat [sent by the shipowner, carrying the ransom money] from Mombasa on the other. A doctor examined the crew and the pirates counted the money. Martin, the head of the security firm, recognized the pirates. He had handed over a similar sum of money a few weeks earlier to secure the release of the German ship “Lehmann Timber.” The pirates divided up the money and placed it into 18 bags, presumably to pay 18 different clans. Then they left the ship, and the “BBC Trinidad” was allowed continue its voyage to Muscat.

So that incident was resolved safely, thank goodness, though many other acts of piracy around the world are not.
Wouldn’t it be great if the Somali people could reach an internal political agreement that would allow them to constitute an accepted and non-corrupt national government capable of providing decent basic services to the citizens… including public security both on the land and at sea? Then Somali fishermen could fish in safety; Somalia traders and shipowners could ply sea-based trade in safety. And, oh yes, international shipping could have its safety assured by the Somali and other coastal governments…
The military arrogance displayed by the US in recent decades around the world, and the serious overstretch that has resulted– along with the state failure that has been the result of US policies in so many countries: All these phenomena have had real and wrenchingly difficult consequences for people around the world, and disproportionately for the world’s most vulnerable and politically marginalized peoples.
The world desperately needs an alternative.

Two big crises for Washington: Financial meltdown and Af-Pak escalation

Washington’s decisionmakers are today confronted with two huge and hard-to-handle crises. On Wall Street the large brokerage firm Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, after Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson decided the US taxpayer couldn’t afford to bail it out Merrill Lynch and the insurance firm AIG are also in very bad trouble. And in Afghanistan and Pakistan, tensions between the US and anti-US forces, primarily the resurging Taliban, have escalated to a point where they now pose a serious political crisis to the broadly pro-US (and nuclear armed) government of Pakistan.
Each of these crises points out the extent to which Washington, on its own, is no longer able to exert control over aspects of international life that until recently it was easily able to dominate.
Regarding the Wall Street crisis, the actions and preferences of foreign investors– primarily those from East Asia– has been crucial. The timing Paulson’s actions regarding Lehman– where he intensively explored a number options before he finally decided not to intervene– and earlier, in the case of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, was reportedly chosen to allow him to have the maximum impact before the Asian and European stock markets opened after their weekend. One of the banks he was hoping could help bail out Lehman was Britain’s Barclay’s Bank; and one of the other chief candidates to help out was reportedly a South Korean investment entity. But he was unable to clinch any of these deals.
Meanwhile, in the single, rapidly agglomerating crisis zone that I am tempted to call Af-Pakistan, it is becoming increasingly clear that the US– even with its NATO allies– is quite unable, without the help of the world’s other big powers, to calm the tensions and start to resolve the deep political problems that underlie the present crises in both constituent parts of Af-Pakistan. (I made this argument, regarding Afghanistan, in this early-August CSM piece.)
Some of the most thoughtful, up-to-date, and consistent reporting on Af-Pakistan is that provided by Joshua Foust at Registan.net. Today he writes this about the latest reported US raids into Pakistan:

    I really don’t understand how the U.S. can be expected to craft an appropriately subtle policy for the area—even if CJCS Mike Mullen is at the helm (I have tremendous respect for Adm. Mullen). For one [thing]… there is the messy problem of sovereignty—like it or not, whether you agree with how it’s being handled or not, that is sovereign Pakistani territory.
    Pretending the Pakistani government has done nothing about the tribal areas is daft: at American insistence, they have lost nearly 1,000 troops trying to quell the uprising there since 2004—about double what NATO and Coalition nations have lost in Afghanistan since 2001. Though only now, since removing the odious Pervez Musharraf, has the government been trying negotiations not with the militant leaders but the few tribal leaders left alive who are willing to take a stand, these have not been given a chance to succeed. It takes time—during the war against the Faqir of Ipi from 1936-1947, the British had miserable luck even getting the local maliks to tamp down on anti-British violence, though on occasion it worked. But the Faqir was only undermined after Partition, when agitating for a Muslim State became unnecessary…

Foust very helpfully reminds us that anti-Islamabad, anti-western agitation in Pakistan’s tribal areas “is not a new problem—there is no reason to re-invent the wheel or hyperventilate while pretending it is.”

I certainly agree it’s not a new problem. However, if the tribal agitations– and also, the US’s violent over-reactions to them– succeed in seriously destabilizing the Pakistan government, then that has huge further political ramifications for the entire strategic situation in that very sensitive part of the world.
Actually, the stance and policies that the US is now adopting towards Pakistan look somewhat comparable to the stance that Israel adopted for many long decades towards Lebanon, which was also a US ally.
Both in the days when the PLO had an armed presence in Lebanon, and later, when Hizbullah grew up there, Israel would (and still does) claim the “right” to launch “punitive raids” into the country, whether under a doctrine of “hot pursuit” or some other pretext. Indeed, some of those raids sent ground forces deep inside Lebanon, where they would stay and run an occupation regime for some length of time: most famously, the 22-year occupation of the so-called “security zone” in South Lebanon.
All this though Israel prides itself on being a law-abiding nation and a US ally, and while Lebanon was also a US ally…
In Af-Pakistan, the structure of the conflict is a little different. It is the US occupation force in Afghanistan, not the Afghan government, that is undertaking the raids into Pakistan. And Pakistan is directly an ally of the US. Go figure.
This morning, the BBC reported this:

    Pakistani troops have fired shots into the air to stop US troops crossing into the South Waziristan region of Pakistan, local officials say…
    It emerged last week that US President George W Bush has in recent months authorised military raids against militants inside Pakistan without prior approval from Islamabad…
    In the latest incident, the tribesmen say they grabbed their guns and took up defensive positions after placing their women and children out of harm’s way.
    Pakistan’s army has warned that the aggressive US policy will widen the insurgency by uniting the tribesmen with the Taleban.
    Last week the army chief declared that Pakistan would defend the country’s territorial integrity at all cost, although the prime minister has since said this would have to be through diplomatic channels rather than military retaliation.

It is possible to conjecture that the US military’s current round of stepped-up operations inside Pakistan may be connected to the Bush administration’s desire to capture Osama Bin Laden before the US election, November 4. But whether that’s the case or not, the operations are certainly doing a lot to destabilize Pakistan’s already fragile governance system– while they have done nothing at all to improve a situation inside Afghanistan that the EU’s outgoing envoy has now described as “the worst since 2001.”
It is hard, at this point, to figure out how these two big crises might affect the election here in the US.
On the economy, McCain yesterday continued to insist that “the fundamentals of the US economy are strong.” He looked as though he was trying to run on a bit of an anti-Wall Street, populist platform? Obama, more seriously and more plausibly called the fall of both Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch “the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression” of the 1930s.
He also took the opportunity to criticize McCain’s broader economic philosophy:

    “It’s a philosophy we’ve had for the last eight years — one that says we should give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else.”
    “It’s a philosophy that says even common sense regulations are unnecessary and unwise, and one that says we should just stick our heads in the sand and ignore economic problems until they spiral into crises…”

Not a lot of detail there yet on the specifics of how Obama would deal with the country’s roiling financial instability. However, he has given enough specifics about his tax policy and other aspects of economic governance to show he has a good grasp of how the economy actually works. (Unlike McCain.)
On Af-Pakistan, Obama’s has been quite clear for many months now that he supports the use of US military power against suspected terrorist targets inside Pakistan, even without gaining the permission of Islamabad.
This is just one of the ways in which, as Dan Eggen writes in today’s Wapo, “Bush’s overseas policies [have begun] resembling Obama’s.”
Eggen writes that Obama’s aides say that some of the recent foreign-policy moves Bush has taken

    complicate matters for McCain, who is more hawkish than his opponent on issues including the crisis in Georgia and the war in Iraq.
    “What we have here, in many ways, is that a McCain presidency would look a lot like a Bush first term and a move back in that direction,” said Rand Beers, who.. is now an unpaid adviser to the Obama campaign. “The flip side of that is that John McCain is therefore to the right of George Bush, which I don’t think is the way he conceived of his campaign.”

But the Af-Pakistan situation– like the Wall Street crisis– could still get a lot worse in the six weeks between now and the election. At a first guess, that would seem to be bad for McCain’s chances, and good for Obama. Except that in a situation of acute foreign-policy crisis, US voters might well show a strong tendency to seek a sense of security from a “trusted, older white guy” person.
It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened here…

Realism, war, and pacifism

Is pacifism the new Realism? Or is Realism the new pacifism? I’ve been toying with both arguments for a while now, including back in June when I made the first of them in connection with the panel discussion I did at USIP on ‘Foreign Policy and the next US administration.’ That was linked to my growing, evidence-based conviction that foreign wars have been become growingly unwinnable.
Okay, so then came the Russian-Georgian War. Russia to a great extent (though not wholly) “won” that war. So if we judge that Georgia is “foreign” for Russia–as by and large I think we must– then they had waged a foreign war and won it.
(Some Russians might perhaps argue that Georgia is not actually foreign for them, and/or that they engaged in the war to save the lives of the Russian citizens– both Ossetians and Russian peacekeeping troops– who were getting badly attacked in Ossetia. Neither is a trivial argument, but on balance I don’t think either of them holds up sufficiently.)
What is much more the case, it seems to me, is that long-distance foreign wars have become very nearly or wholly unwinnable. I argued one part of this when I blogged about ‘The Return of Geography’, a couple of weeks ago.
I would like to note now, though, that some of the most serious and cautious thinking about the Georgia-Russia war– as, earlier about the US invasion of Iraq– has come from pillars of the Realist and “Old” (paleo-)conservative movements in the United States. That, while Obama and many other Democrats have been bending very strongly toward a McCain-like level of pro-Georgian partisanship and anti-Russian outrage over the whole Georgian issue– and while Obama and many other Democrats have been worryingly belligerent in arguing for escalations of US force deployment and use in Afghanistan and also against Pakistan..
In this recent article (PDF, and registration required) in The American Conservative the paleocon former CIA officer Philip Giraldi wrote candidly that,

    The fighting between Georgia and Russia is yet another foreign-policy disaster in which Washington might have encouraged a war where there was no conceivable American interest. It is also, by all accounts, the latest intelligence failure…

(He also wrote that when the Russians invaded, the 130 US military advisers– serving soldiers and DOD-financed contractors– who were in Georgia immediately regrouped to Tbilisi, while the many US-paid Israeli mercenaries working as ‘trainers’ there were evacuated back to their country so rapidly “that they abandoned their classified training manuals.”)
Giraldi’s piece is well worth reading. We should remember, too, the excellent and very constructive role that he and other paleocons have played for some years now in running the Antiwar website and making other contributions to the battle of ideas against neocon militarism.
In that same issue of The American Conservative Pat Buchanan’s take-down (PDF, registration also required) of McCain’s lead foreign-policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann is also worth reading. Scheunemann is the same man who, as a well-paid lobbyist for Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili, has had as one of his primary missions the winning of US support for Saakashvili’s reckless war venture into South Ossetia.
Buchanan doesn’t mince his words when he writes about Scheunemann:

    He is a dual loyalist, a foreign agent whose assignment is to get America committed to spilling the blood of her sons for client regimes who have made this moral mercenary a rich man…
    Scheunemann came close to succeeding. Had he done so, U.S. soldiers and Marines from Idaho would be killing Russians in the Caucasus and dying to protect Scheunemann’s client…
    Now Scheunemann is the neocon agent in place in McCain’s camp. The neocons got their war with Iraq. They are pushing for a war on Iran. And they are now baiting the Russian Bear. Why would McCain seek foreign-policy counsel from the same discredited crowd that has all but destroyed the presidency of George W. Bush?

It is possible to argue that Buchanan and his colleagues at The American Conservative are more paleocon than they are ‘Realist’… and that perhaps their flavor of paleoconservatism comes with more than a dash of isolationism. (Though compared with the bellicose zeal of the neocons and their friends among the liberal hawks, isolationism looks like a distinctly preferable alternative these days.)
So the main place where Washington’s Realists hang out is at, guess where, the Nixon Center. And there, too, there has been some good, solid thinking going on about the Georgia crisis. For example, in this (Word doc) testimony that Center director Paul Saunders delivered to the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe September 10, he shared the following lessons:

    First, the Bush Administration has profoundly over-personalized U.S. relations with Georgia…
    Second, U.S. officials must be much more careful when and how they put American credibility on the line…
    Thirdly, it is now clear that Russia’s commitment to and interests in Georgia and other former Soviet Republics along its southern frontier exceed our own… [Return of Geography, anyone?]
    Fourth, we should learn a powerful lesson about “precedents” and “vetoes”. American officials and others argued vociferously that NATO military action against Serbia without approval of the United Nations Security Council, and American and European recognition of Kosovo’s independence without Serbia’s consent, did not establish a precedent because Kosovo was a unique case. The problem with this is that we are not in charge of what others interpret as a precedent. We decide on our national interests, the best policies to advance them, and the best arguments to explain them. We don’t get to decide how others see what we do or how they decide to respond…
    Finally, we should remember what NATO did right during previous rounds of enlargement: insist that prospective new members resolve internal problems with their ethnic minorities…

Well, there’s a lot more good sense in Saunder’s testimony, as well. And I see that The National Interest, which is the Nixon Center’s flagship publication, has a lot of other good analysis of the Georgia crisis, too.
So what I want to note here, firstly, is that all this good sense from the Realists is pushing clearly toward a much less belligerent and more diplomacy-focused policy toward Russia than either McCain or Obama is currently espousing. Secondly, I’d note that many of these same people were also against the invasion of Iraq, back in the day.
Historically, in this country, the ‘Realists’ have been people who took a big-picture look at the balance of power in world politics and argued for robust– often very belligerent– action by the US government, using all its many levers of power, in order to maximize a version of “the US national interest” that was chauvinistic and was generally dominated by the interests of US corporations, not necessarily the US citizenry.
Looking at the “global balance of power” in the way they did most often meant that they respected the traditional, post-Westphalian view of national sovereignty, which is more or less that whatever a government does inside its own country is its own business and not that of anyone else.
The neocons and their allies among the liberal hawks broke clean away from that view, arguing that the US could and should use all the elements of its national power (including, if necessary, military power) to end dictatorships and to “bring” human rights to populations formerly denied them.
How “rights” could ever meaningfully be “brought” to long-oppressed populations by outsiders, and on the tips of cruise missiles, was a conundrum they never satisfactorily solved.
Personally, having lived for six years in a situation of active war, in Lebanon, I have quite a bit more sympathy with the Westphalian model than most of my colleagues in the western rights movement. I have seen at first hand the degree to which warfare is itself a massive motor for the abuse of the rights of all persons living in its path. The idea that westerners might fairly easily go to war in an effort to improve the rights situation of others is one that could only be dreamed up in salons thousands of miles distant from any actual war zone.
Also, though it is true that, under the Westphalian model, there are high “walls” of sovereignty around each country that protect the ability of dictators to carry on oppressing the subjects trapped behind them, throughout history those walls of sovereignty have also– much more significantly– protected the ability of settled and more liberal-minded populations to progress toward greater democracy, and respect of human rights, without the various despots who were their neighbors having any recognized “right” to intervene to abort their liberal project. Too many of the neocons and liberal hawks have forgotten that aspect of Westphalia’s history.
So personally, I see some things of value in the position of the Realists– historically, and even more so today, when the raw pragmatism and respect for empirical ground truth that underlie their approach has brought them to a situation of extreme caution in their attitude toward war.
So maybe pacifism is becoming the new Realism, as well as the other way around?
I think what my form of Quaker pacifism adds to the traditional Realist way of looking at things, though, is that it adds a commitment to caring about and according equal respect to every one of the world’s people, not just those who happen to be my compatriots, and a commitment to undertaking the kinds of nonviolent mass actions and other nonviolent initiatives that by themselves, without the use of arms, can actually transform political realities towards a greater respect for everyone’s rights.
I like to think that these are very pragmatic, or one could even say ‘Realist’, ways to look at the world, too…

US’s global dominance ‘Reduced’: It’s nearly official!

Thomas Fingar, the U.S. government’s highest ranking intelligence analyst, recently told a semi-public audience that he envisions a steady decline in U.S. dominance in the coming decades, according to this intriguing report in today’s Wapo.
Joby Warrick and the venerable Walter Pincus wrote the WaPo piece. They add that the still unpublished report that Fingar was previewing in his recent speech,

    also concludes that the one key area of continued U.S. superiority — military power — will “be the least significant” asset in the increasingly competitive world of the future, because “nobody is going to attack us with massive conventional force.”

This argument that raw military power– the one area in which the US still quite clearly outpaces all other world powers– has rapidly declined in significance (or, one might say, in utility) in recent years is a very important one. It is certainly, an argument that the country’s legislative as well as executive branches should take into good consideration as they ponder the priorities for the already deeply in-the-red US federal budget over the years ahead.

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Italy gives Libya $$ compensation for colonial rule

… That’s $5 billion-worth. Probably nowhere near enough if you recall it’s been 65 years since the Italians were booted out by the British Army. (If Italy had compensated Libya in 1943 and the Libyan government had simply put the money into safe investments at, say, 5% then Italy could have gotten away with paying only $250 million, back then.)
But better than nothing. Berlusconi, visiting Banghazi, also handed back the head of a Roman-era statue that Italian soldiers had looted from Cyrene, in Libya, back in 1913.
Wow, Asia and the rest of Africa: When will the rest of you get your compensation from the foreign colonial powers?
And the Palestinians???
And the natives of America, north and south?
Berlusconi is an interesting character. Truly a maverick for such a rightwinger. He’s also been one of the most firmly anti-confrontation figures in Europe in the present to-do over Russia.

The return of geography

Some of the commentary on the whole Russia-Georgia affair has talked about the “return” of history, in somewhat post-Fukuyaman terms. (Though Fukyama himself has denied that what is underway now is a simple return to the older Cold War dynamics.)
But it strikes me what is happening these days is much more a “return” of geography to world affairs than a return of history.
Not that the hard facts of geography ever went away, any more than the ongoing dynamic of history. But Tom Friedman was only one of many western-bubble commentators who saw the world as a sort of endlessly level playing field in which the factor of distance (whether physical or cultural) had lost most of its salience.
In a geography-free world, it might have seemed quite “natural” that just one set of values and global priorities, which oh, by a remarkable coincidence happened to be those of the US-dominated west, would always prevail and indeed would necessarily be desired and recognized as superior by all the world’s (increasingly homogenous) people. In a geography-free world it seemed natural– or indeed, actively laudable– that a handful of western-educated lawyers in a courtroom in the wealthy and well-ordered city of The Hague would “know what is best” for millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa reeling from the blows of IMF-imposed pauperization, the widespread destruction of their lives and livelihoods, and the existential disorder of the civil wars that were thereby fueled.
In a geography-free world, it must have seemed just as doable and justifiable to many Americans to engage in military forms of “regime change” in distant Asia as it has long seemed to be in Central America.
But now, geography is back. It has come back most noticeably, perhaps, in the form of huge increases in fuel prices in recent months. But even without those fuel price hikes Americans would already, by this point, have been starting seriously to notice the cost of continuing to sustain the country’s massive military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For the US to maintain a military unit of any particular size in Iraq is, it turns out, considerably more expensive than maintaining a unit of the same size in Guatemala. (Who knew?) It is even more expensive than it is for Russia to maintain a unit of that size in Georgia, which is right next door.
Back in January 2003, when I went with a bunch of fellow peace activists here in Charlottesville, Virginia, to persuade the city council to declare our town a “city of peace”, I made a fairly short argument about how– based on my 30 years of experience as a student of Middle East strategic affairs– I saw that the imminent invasion of Iraq was most likely not going to be the promised cakewalk; that the US troops would likely find themselves bogged down in distant Iraq for several years; and that the sheer cost of sustaining this deployment would reverberate down through every sector of the US economy, including to the level of budgets for the states and cities.
I pointed out too– there, and in some of my writings at the time– that after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, within three years the cost of sustaining the post-invasion occupation had sent inflation in Israel sky-rocketing and brought Israel’s economy to its knees. And Iraq, I pointed out, was considerably further away from the US homeland than Lebanon was from Israel… Therefore, the longterm cost of sustaining the post-invasion occupation would likely be even higher.
Well, for various other reasons, we haven’t had Israeli-style hyper-inflation here (yet.) But the costs of the post-invasion occupation have proven to be just as damaging to the longterm health of our economy as I feared.
It’s largely about geography, you see.
And if you think the geography of maintaining a military presence in Iraq is high, well, just think about doing the same in the landlocked massifs of Afghanistan… There, even the Soviets– some of whom lived right next door– couldn’t afford to maintain the level of occupation force that would have been needed to quell the anti-Moscow insurgency of the 1980s.
The “return of geography” will have a number of deep ramifications in all the different dimensions of world affairs: strategic, socio-political, economic, and cultural. Most likely, geography-based “spheres of influence” will make a comeback. (Of those, of course, the US’s own Monroe Doctrine, which covers the whole of North and South America, is by far the longest established.) The specificities of human geography will be strengthened, too, as against the claims put forward by bubble-dwelling values universalists who made the ill-founded claim that their universalism was quite “culture-neutral.”
Does this mean we are doomed to revert to the formation of competing blocs, international arms races, and war? I say no. Just because there will be spheres of influence and a re-emergence of “cultural difference” doesn’t mean that all conversation is suddenly ended. Indeed, the existence– and more importantly, the recognition– of difference can and should be seen as an invitation to globe-circling conversations about these matters. That, it seems to me, is the biggest difference between today and the 19th century. Today, citizens of just about all the world’s countries have the ability to engage in unmediated, level-playing-field conversations across national borders, about all the matters that concern us. That has never happened before.
If we can open ourselves up to having these conversations, in a respectful and egalitarian spirit, there is so much we can learn about the world, about each other, and therefore about ourselves! (That’s one of the things I love about the blogosphere, and the main reason I keep coming back here.)
We can also start to understand the dubious nature of some of the claims made by our own governments.
For example, if the US has a “Monroe Doctrine”, why should Russia not have something similar of its own? Why should what’s sauce for the goose not also be sauce for the gander?
… Just one final point here. Many Americans have a very scant understanding (or appreciation) for the discipline of geography. In the UK, when I grew up and today, young people undertook several years of study of geography in high school and many of them then went on to study geography, as such, at university. Here in the United States there is almost no such systematic study of the subject. It exists in the K-12 curriculum only as small portions within the broader subject known as “Social Studies,” most of which is focused on history and civics. And only a handful of US universities offer undergraduate or graduate degrees in geography.
This always surprised me. Here’s the US– a country with, by British standards, huge amounts of geography and not very much history– and the students were supposed to spend endless amounts of time parsing the minutiae of what one “Founding Father” or another thought about something 230 years ago while ignoring the many opportunities they have, right here, in this extensive and beautiful country, to gain a rich and multi-layered understanding of geography.
Well, guys, geography is back. And nowadays, it’s decidedly global. Let’s figure out how to deal with that.