Wednesday, September 17. 2014
Every year dozens of books are published about a topic that only a handful of Americans care about: specifically, those with cushy "think tank" jobs, plus a few military officers and State department bureaucrats who aspire to those jobs. Most assume that the US has a rightful role running the World Order, with some fretting that China or some other nation is going to butt in and offering sage advice on how the US can secure its rightful role. Against these stalwart hegemonists, now and then someone will argue that a "multipolar" isn't such a calamity, but they are in the minority, and are still so obsessed with dominance they needn't fear about losing their status as Very Serious Thinkers.
The books, of course, are nonsense, predicated on unexamined ideas: that chaos and war are the natural state of the world, that order is so valuable you have to accept it from whoever can impose it, that inequality is the best we can do given man's venal nature. That is, of course, the way conservatives think about everything. Unfortunately, it is also the way liberals usually think about the foreign world, given how readily they have sucked up the prejudices of the West's imperial past. In 2003 Jonathan Schell published an antidote to that kind of thinking, a book called The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People. It was published just as the neocon ideology had become fashionable and powerful enough to "create new reality" in Iraq, and predicted failure for such hubris. Ten years later the results should be clear, but still the foreign policy elite natters on, too absorbed in their own prejudiced thoughts to have noticed their failures.
Case in point: a new book called World Order by America's most venerable war criminal, Henry Kissinger. Fortunately, we don't have to actually read the book: we can skim through the New York Times' review by John Micklethwait -- editor-in-chief of The Economist, the kind of journalist who makes his living chronicling the rarefied world of conservative "think tanks." (Micklethwait's most famous book is The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, which every 4-5 pages reiterated the mantra that conservatives are America's "idea people." He also wrote A Future Perfect: The Challenge and Hidden Promise of Globalization  and God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World , extolling the wonders of free capital flows and fundamentalism, respectively. His latest is The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State, about how the future belongs to oligarchies that are able to usurp the powers of the state.) Rarely has reviewer and subject been so perfectly matched to bring out the worst in a book.
However, before we dive into the review, I should point out that there is an alternative approach to international relations that is wholly absent in the thinking of Kissinger and Micklethwait: the idea that order can be obtained through the consent of equal nations with a common commitment to basic, inalienable human rights and a just body of international law. In the wake of two horrific world wars, and the advent of even more destructive nuclear weapons, that idea got so far as the founding documents of the United Nations -- before that body got turned into a cartel of superpowers -- and the basic ideas have reappeared occasionally since. I could elaborate more, but for now just keep the idea in mind.
The first quarter of Micklethwait's review is sheer flattery:
It's not as if Kissinger didn't have the ear of the Bush Administration after 9/11. He was, after all, Bush's first pick to chair the commission that would report on the 9/11 attacks. (He turned the job down for fear of having to disclose who his consulting clients were.) If he had any reservations about Bush's approach to Iraq or anything, he was remarkably circumspect about voicing them. And since when has Churchill been an expert on anything? He always said he hadn't been elected to preside over the dismantling of the British Empire, but no one did more to wreck it, which he repeatedly did by insisting on substituting his prejudices for any understanding of or empathy for the empire's subjects. On the other hand, Kissinger's own record is nearly as bad. The suggestion that he would have handled Syria and Ukraine better than Obama has -- admittedly a low bar -- overlooks how much his own policies contributed to those conflicts today.
The Westphalia treaties ended the 30 Years War in 1648 with a set of agreements between nations/states/cities to respect each other's autonomy and work with each other in prescribed ways. This later led to an ever-adjusting set of alliances to maintain a balance of power -- which mostly worked to keep the peace in Europe (and to export war to the third world) until its colossal failure in 1914. Kissinger always thinks in the past, and far enough back as to ignore recent novelties like the European Union, so balance of power is the best he can do. Unlike the neocons, he recognizes that the US isn't the sole power in the world, one suspects this has less to do with realism than with the fact that it takes multiple powers to balance.
After all, while the neocons hate Kissinger, he has never really reciprocated. The reason, I think, is that both worship power. It's just that the neocons think they have so much power they can create their own reality, and Kissinger, well, he's never been to type to point out "the Emperor's new clothes" -- he's too much of a flatterer for that, too worshipful of power.
The review goes on and on iterating Kissinger's past examples, a litany of Richelieu, Metternich, Palmerston, Talleyrand -- curiously enough, courtiers like Kissinger and not the monarchs they served. Kissinger goes on to belittle the European Union:
For Kissinger, historical change not accomplished by force hardly counts. Then he explains Putin and Russia:
Again, nothing like a historical factoid to explain away current behavior or policy. This one is about as facile as trying to explain the Bush occupation of Iraq as the latest wrinkle on Manifest Destiny. It may indeed be that a nation capable of the former is predisposed to the latter, but that leaves a lot of intervening history unexamined in favor of a pat answer.
I suppose this is where you notice that Micklethwait is British: he can't quite fall for the poor, tiny, beleaguered Israel line that is political orthodoxy in the US. Kissinger has been around the block enough to know better too, but to say so would take principles, or courage, neither a Kissinger staple. Propounding ignorance about Islam, on the other hand, takes neither. It's right up his alley.
Another remarkable example of Kissinger's ability to look at al the complexities of history and only see power relationships, then to take the narrowest thread and explicate it through some totally unrelated event in European history. Sure, Britain united India politically -- more Bismarck than Napoleon, I'd say, until they also split it into two warring halves -- but they also destroyed India economically. (One thing I wonder is whether Kissinger would have been so successful had stayed in Europe, where his audiences and patrons might actually know much of the history he revels in.)
Middle Kingdom? Another example of forcing the present into the distant past so he can avoid having to understand what's happening there. I like the line -- "Good men do not become soldiers" -- but modern China does not lack for soldiers, or for nails. While modern China must in some sense continue to reflect and resonate ancient China, the nation's remarkable economic growth of the past 20-30 years is more due to forced modernization. This is a modern (perhaps even postmodern) phenomenon -- unexplainable through ancient history, but also non-analogous to the processes that created similar results in Europe and America. In particular, China (and most of East Asia, Japan a partial exception) achieved its wealth without building on imperialism, so is unlikely to look at the world the same way Europe and America do. Needless to say, that's a thought Kissinger is incapable of.
One of my favorite rock lyrics is from the band Camper van Beethoven, and goes like this: "If you weren't living here in America/you'd probably be somewhere else." There are several problems with being self-centered. One is that you can't see yourself as others see you, and as such you have no clue when you do something wrong. Back when the US army was smaller than Bulgaria's it still did things that were wrong -- 1890, the very year Micklethwait cites, was the date of the Wounded Knee Massacre -- but those wrong things were much smaller in scope and more isolated from the rest of the world than they are today. I don't know why Kissinger/Micklethwait complained about the size of the 1890 army. Back then, the US was already the most prosperous nation in the world, without getting into the trap of managing overseas colonies (although it often treated Central America like one). Nor was the US isolated: with the possible exception of the UK, no nation traded more all around the world. What more do they want?
The notion of America as an "indispensable nation" dates from WWII, when latent industrial might turned the tables against the Axis -- although we conveniently forget that most of the actual fighting was carried out by the Soviet Union and China. Unfortunately, Americans had too good a time in that war -- a massive Keynesian stimulus, strict profit controls, and a sense of common purpose pushed a previously depressed economy into overdrive, while all of the war's destruction took place elsewhere. By the time the war was over, over half of the world's industrial capacity resided in the US, and America alone had the financial power to jumpstart the world economy. After some early gestures to build a peaceful world community, Truman got distracted and decided that the US should side with capital in the international class war, so efforts like the Marshall Plan were turned into political weapons against not just the Soviet Union but the whole working class. The "Cold War" somehow managed not to destroy the world, but the US repeatedly supported desperate attempts by colonial powers to recapture their empires, and corrupt dictators and oligarchs when independence was inevitable, while isolating nations that had the gall to turn toward communism. Ultimately, the big loser of the Cold War wasn't the Soviet Union, which gave up the game, but America's own middle class democracy.
Micklethwait, possibly echoing but at least distilling Kissinger, described the Cold War thusly:
After the Soviet Union fell, America's foreign policy elites were beside themselves with triumphal glee -- proclaiming The End of History and looking forward to The Clash of Civilizations -- but their triumph was little more than a con. Had Reagan's rhetoric caused the Soviet Union to disintegrate, why did communist states the US confronted much more aggressively (like Cuba and North Korea) stay communist? If communism was a dead end, how was China able to post the world's strongest economic growth record over the last 25 years? Moreover, when you sift through the real rubble of the "Cold War" you find enormous chasms where the US took the wrong side of history and left enormous destruction in its wake: the "chaos in the Middle East" that Micklethwait bemoans is largely the result of America's Cold War embrace of Salafist jihadism -- a program, by the way, initiated in the 1970s when Henry Kissinger came up with the bright idea of propping the ultraconservative Saudi monarchy up as a US proxy in the Middle East (and soon thereafter Afghanistan). To say "America's moral order worked" is well beyond insane.
This isn't to say that the US should have no role in the world (although that would clearly be an improvement over the one the US has practiced for nearly seventy years now). Clearly there are useful and valuable things a large and rich nation can do in the world -- the $750 million Obama just proposed to fight the ebola epidemic is a nice gesture (although, as Nick Turse recently documented, the US has a terrible track record of running "humanitarian projects" in Africa). But what needs to be done is for the US to meet other countries in forums that give everyone a fair and equal shake, and for that to happen the US has to stop throwing its weight around, trying to bully everyone else into submission. More specifically, the US needs to develop a genuine commitment to peace and human rights, to equality and justice, to a sustainable stewardship of the earth. To do that, a good first step would be to stop listening to Henry Kissinger. In fact, a good step would be to extradite him to the Hague, to finally be tried as the war criminal he was (and is).
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