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War - A Rational 21st Century Foreign Policy Strategy?


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Interlocking Challenges. The 21st century is presenting the world with a surprisingly dangerous and complex set of interlocking challenges:

  • global warming ;

  • environmental degradation;

  • declining energy resources declining in relation to demand ;

  • the rising insistence of the world’s disadvantaged for respect and a realignment of the distribution of both political power and economic resources.

    Any one of these changes would threaten our world order; together they pose a challenge of unprecedented danger because they simultaneously attack our climate, the cleanliness of the very air we breathe, our economy, and the international political system that we use to manage our lives on our shrinking planet. How can we find the resources to solve all these problems at once? How can we focus our attention in so many directions at once?

    Moreover, their interlocked nature presents a challenge of awesome complexity. Competition for energy resources clashes with demands of poor peoples for a restructuring of the global political system. Finding economic resources to tackle global poverty, create a non-carbon-based energy infrastructure, and clean up pollution simultaneously seems impossible but failure to address any one threatens to exacerbate the political divide between haves and have-nots.

    The interlocking nature of these challenges is dangerous not only because “you can’t solve just one problem" but because it raises significantly the likelihood of new, unanticipated phenomena emerging rapidly and taking us by surprise. The explosion of a global jihad and its current metamorphosis into endless self-initiated, uncoordinated , copy-cat acts of anti-establishment violence sees to be one example. The sudden loss of will by a tired Soviet leadership of a visibly failing and-by its people-increasingly rejected system of government is another. More such surprises can be expected.

    Foreign Policy Principles. To cope with this multifaceted challenge will require a far more thoughtful public debate than has yet occurred. Two centuries ago, as the colonies revolted against Great Britain, such a fundamental and thoughtful debate occurred over the question of how best to design a new form of national government. We are still trying to figure out the details, of course, but the US grew successfully on the basis of a few revolutionary principles of national governance that were defined and agreed upon at that time: power to the people unless expressly reserved for the government, states would have certain rights the central government could not take away, the central government would have three branches to balance each other and prevent the reemergence of dictatorship.

    The challenge of the 21st century may require the enunciation of a similar set of principles to govern how we execute foreign policy. A few suggestions follow:

  • Principle #1. Violence is a poor strategy for solving complex problems.

  • Principle #2. It’s not “truth" but perceptions that matter.

  • Principle #3. Nothing is ever black and white.

  • Principle #4. Taboos exist to protect the guilty.

    Agreement on a set of principles to underlie our foreign policy would help us think about the consequences of proposed courses of action. We may for short-term gain choose to violate Principle #1 and use violence to alleviate some adverse condition of a complex problem we face, but recognizing the principle we are violating will at least help us to go in with our eyes open, realizing full well that the long-term consequences will inevitably be a mess that we will have to clean up rather than deluding ourselves into thinking that the violence we perpetrate will solve the problem. “Solving" the bad sound of an untuned violin with a hammer leaves you with a smashed violin.

    We may choose endlessly to debate the “truth" of an issue, and, indeed, so we should, because such debate is the foundational requirement for acquiring knowledge and understanding, but Principle #2 will remind us that far more important if you want to reach agreement is simply thinking about why the other guy sees the world differently.

    Whenever you hear the claim that X is good and Y is evil, Principle #3 should be a red flag: those who depict the world in black and white are either colorblind or trying to put one over on you. “Evil" is an appellation not designed to inform but to prevent discussion. Closely allied to this practice is that of making some subject taboo.

    Taboo subjects are precisely the things you should discuss. Taboos are covers to protect the guilty from scrutiny. When society accepts a subject as “taboo, " as something one simply does not discuss, society is accepting a loss of freedom. If you live in a democracy and there is a significant issue of policy that cannot be discussed, be suspicious: the elite is trying to prevent you from seeing the truth. A population that becomes skilled at avoiding issues is a population preparing itself for dictatorship.

    Violence Losing Value. Perhaps the most important of the above principles is the first: violence is a poor strategy for solving complex problems. This principle increasingly applies in our increasingly interconnected world regardless of the power of the side that chooses violence: its power not translated into actual ability to resolve problems.

    A powerful country may be stymied because its problems are not amenable to solution by the means available to it. Alternatively, it may be weakened by internal disagreement over goals or policies to achieve them. Or, it may have the ability but not be able to perceive it through rose-colored glasses or a penchant for conservative thinking. Whatever the cause of a great power’s problems, the main consequence in such a scenario is simply to turn it into a larger target.

    In a world of popular participation in foreign policy, rapid communication, asynchronous warfare, and the rise of non-state actors, traditional power wielded via traditional blunt military means may, over the long term, actually harm the user more than the opponent. Such increasingly appears to be becoming the new reality of global international relations. . . a reality missed by those who wield such power.

    Cowboys and Complexity. The explanation for this takes us into the confusing world of complexity, a place where counterintuitive group behavior results from multiple, interacting forces affecting individuals. These forces cannot be simply added or subtracted; rather, the effect of each force varies as a function of the other forces. Removing one force unpredictably alters the impact of the remaining forces.

  • Assassinating the leader of a rebellion may allow the emergence of several new leaders who take the rebellion in new and possibly more extreme directions, as they compete with each other for mastery of the now factionalized movement.

  • Handing the heady concept of “democracy” to a society not ready for it make lead to an explosion of irresponsible articles in public media (something Benjamin Franklin complained about after the American Revolution).

  • Invasion may radicalize a quiescent, conservative population, transforming it into an effective revolutionary movement.

    Force remains force, but the pinpoint application of force that is seen and reacted to by a wider audience doesn’t work as it used to. The death of a rebel now becomes a force multiplier for the rebels. It not only brings in new recruits but provokes sympathizers to undertake their own independent, uncoordinated, unauthorized initiatives, i. e. , new behavior emerges from the individual level outside of the control of any established organization. A wave of apparently coordinated violence results from numerous, independent actions.

    Lethal force may prove useless to resist this wave because no one knows how to apply it against such unpredictable, independent actors. In such cases, standard military force-on-force calculations will not provide much insight into the likely winner. Instead of carrying the day, cowboy foreign policy may only carry the minute, then backfire badly.

    It’s not that we can no longer count weapons and calculate likely winners but that the modern world is being transformed in a way analogous to the transformation of our understanding of physics. Neutonian physics has been replaced by quantum physics, in which the very act of measurement affects what is being measured.

    Similarly, in the 21st century of global public awareness, the process of taking a foreign policy action transforms the situation. It does not matter how accurately the balance of forces was calculated; your action just changed the balance. Examples are legion, but one of the clearest is putting foreign boots on the ground. When soldiers from a global power intrude into the territory of a weak society that has education and modern communications technology, the power calculus is transformed. People become “stimulated:” they network, adapt, take on new roles. Twentieth century realpolitik may prove to have curious and fatal consequences in the 21st century.

    The Cold War’s end turned out not to be the end of history but the beginning of a fundamentally new and complicated phase, or perhaps more realistically, a return to the normal historical processes that had been gaining speed since at least the French Revolution. Fukuyama’s forecasted “end of history” might have been more accurate had we all been more thoughtful, had we realized and acted on our opportunity for collective action that the end of the Cold War presented.

    Opportunity Missed. The Cold War had bottled up and distorted a number of trends. The end of colonialism, which should have left the new states free to organize themselves, was instead replaced by pressures to join sides in the new global conflict between the U. S. and the U. S. S. R. The move toward equality of peoples regardless of ethnic background or geographic location was subverted by the shifting of focus to this new conflict as well. Efforts to achieve North-South equality within capitalism took second place to the perceived need to win the world for capitalism. Democratization was seen either as a luxury that could not be afforded or an outright threat by superpowers more concerned with lining up allies among the ruling elites.

    The Cold War’s end removed these artificial constraints on the process of liberation. It removed the need for all to march in lockstep in a global campaign—there was no more global campaign. Local political disturbances in new states were no longer a threat to the world system because there was no longer an outside power looking for opportunities to take advantage of these disturbances. So the end of the Cold War allowed a return to the process of liberating and enfranchising people worldwide.

    The Cold War’s end—and, in particular, the nature of the Cold War’s end—gave the world an historic opportunity. The war ended calmly and peacefully; no one was defeated, and the two sides ended up shaking hands, albeit gingerly, and agreeing that working together would make the world a better place. Previous wars—World War II, World War I, the Napoleonic wars, the Thirty Years’ War—had ended with stunned populations impoverished and desperate, economies and infrastructures shattered. The Cold War, by comparison, ended as an opportunity.

    For a brief moment in time, it would not be too far from the truth to say that, on a global scale, money and goodwill were plentiful, and security was no longer an issue. The major masses of organized populations—the U. S. , West Europe, Russia, China—were beginning a decade of economic growth with no significant security threat. No fundamental ideological debate was hindering cooperation. Fukuyama had a point – if history did not end, at least it hesitated. We had a chance—and it was a clearly visible chance at the time, not just in hindsight—to do things better.

    It was not lack of economic ability or lack of technical ability or security concerns that stood in the way. Courage, imagination, and a willingness to insist on principle could at the beginning of the 1990’s have enabled the world to start moving down a fundamentally new path: a path of slow, careful, tedious, little steps designed incrementally to bring justice and a sense of being respected to all the world’s various groups whose legitimate concerns had been marginalized for so long in the name of winning the Cold War, or winning WWII, or winning WWI. This, of course, would have amounted to a realization of Fukuyama’s vision: a world of slow, perhaps dull, steps toward justice for all without the distortions of the past ideological campaigns against communism, fascism, expansionism, capitalism. We should read Fukuyama as offering not a prediction (for who after all can ever predict history?) but as an opportunity. He told us, in effect, that we had at the end of the Cold War a very unusual chance to shift the course of history onto a new path.

    During the Cold War and, indeed, throughout known human history, the predominant model has been to build a society and then to expand its power by forcing others to join. The opportunity at the end of the Cold War was to begin developing societies on the principle of making those societies so attractive that others would want to join. Russia took a laudable step in this direction in letting the ethnic republics go free and then trying to entice them back. Unfortunately, ruling elites could not break old habits, and movement down this road came to a screeching halt in a tiny place almost no one, except perhaps readers of the 19th century Russian writer Lermontov, had ever heard of: Chechnya.

    A fundamental change had occurred in the course of world history by 1990: suddenly, now, for the first time, everyone knew everything. Faxes, CNN, and then the Internet meant there were effectively no more secrets. We still have no real idea of the impact of modern communications on world developments, but the well-known impact of faxes on the Tiananmen Crisis and the abortive coup attempt by the Soviet old guard provides clues. It must surely have become obvious to virtually every repressed individual across the globe by the end of the 20th century that whatever excuses had ever been used in the past to justify ignoring, oppressing, disenfranchising, and robbing them no longer held any validity whatsoever.

    The Cold War had been used to justify ignoring a vast array of injustices against “marginal" groups, from truly marginal minorities to the vast majority of the population in some countries. As chance would have it, however, the test case for the new era in world affairs turned out to be Chechnya, where a tiny population that had been resisting Russian expansionism for two centuries took the new world political atmosphere at face value and announced that, “Well, yes, thank you very much for the offer, we will be most pleased to become independent. After all, we have been saying that for two centuries. So nice of you to pay attention. " The Russian response did not go over well: “Ah, well, we…ah…actually didn’t have you specifically in mind; you’re not a “republic, " you see, you’re part of “us" and…well…there’s the oil…and those other internal minorities…Dagestan, and what all…" In the event, two Russian-Chechen wars, near genocide of the Chechen people, heroic attempts at exposure by heroic Russian reporter Politkovskaya (since murdered) and other reporters [see Politkovskaya, A Dirty War; Nivat, Chienne de guerre; Smith, Allah’s Mountains], freedom fighters portrayed as terrorists, and, a generation later, with Chechnya shattered and devastated, and with all sides radicalized, the sad story continues. The world protested a bit but essentially made it clear that it had other priorities. Realpolitik still outbid morality.

    The next big test for the post-Cold War ruling elites came in an equally remote location, the jungles of southern Mexico, where the plight of marginalized Mayan peasant farmers who were not connected to the world economy via the appetite of Americans for their melons, was ignored by the American and Mexican elites as they negotiated the new NAFTA arrangement. The people of Chiapas stood up and demanded to be heard, as they had done repeatedly over the previous 150 years, but this time the repercussions led to the 1994 Mexican peso crisis and a $20 Billion loan guarantee by Washington: a very big bill for ignoring the price of melons.

    One could continue by citing Palestine, Kashmir, Aceh, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Colombia, but one sees the pattern. . . A vast array of highly diverse events, all with long histories but also with some essential similarities:

  • Marginal people demanding to be heard…and respected;

  • Despite the post-Cold War opportunity, the initial reaction across the board was to clamp down, control, use force;

  • But, in the new interconnected world, the local events had global consequences.

    The marginal people were no longer alone, and they knew it. And, somehow, the force used against them no longer seemed as effective.

    The 1990’s were not a decade of evil because injustice was found to exist in the world; that injustice had always existed. The 1990’s were a decade of evil because the world’s elites had the opportunity to address that injustice and they chose instead to look the other way.

    Why does this matter? Because we are now paying the price.

    History may not be predictable, but it is predictable that the pattern of long-term injustice against marginalized minorities leading to unforeseen major problems for the world has not ended. The list of candidates for the next disaster is endless. Indeed, the poor record since the Cold War of listening to mistreated peoples and responding to their pleas for justice has, with a few exceptions (East Timor, perhaps Kosovo and Ireland), only gotten longer.

    Wanted: Public Debate. We need to start a serious, honest debate about the nature of our foreign policy. My blog, www.shadowedforest., is designed to contribute to help stir such a debate. Truth in advertising: the principles advocated in this article as a route to a just foreign policy or any other principles will not solve our problems. That is not the role of principles. Rather, principles provide guidelines and targets. Politicians have struggled every day of the last two centuries over exactly how to implement the principle of separation of powers, but national acceptance of that principle as the target has, so far, done much to keep us free of dictatorship.

    A debate over the principles underlying our foreign policy will raise critical issues that we can no longer afford to sweep under the rug in our increasingly interconnected world, of which the basic one may be: Should our national purpose be to protect our political elites, our country, our Western culture, or all humanity? In fact, given the pace of global integration, do we even have a choice?

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