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|International levee and international breaks
By Daniel M. Ryan
The now-notorious United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 really tore it. The most aggressive resolution aimed at Israel since 1980, it passing without a United States veto caused predictable outrage. So predictable, it’s not out of line to opine that the soon-to-end Obama Administration allowed it to pass in order to stick a thumb in the eye of Israel. For the first time in a long time, the long-dormant calls to “Get the U.S. out of the U.N. and the U.N. out of the U.S.!" have traction.
The folks that are ti8cked off by Resolution 2334 have called it a BDS-type maneuver to shaft Israel. The defenders have said that 2334 is the same-old-same-old extension of international law, held to be a necessary levee against world violence.
What if they’re both right? This question’s an uncomfortable one, to be sure, but it has to be asked. As the sadder parts of world history have demonstrated, ideals that promise to stamp out world war have a gloomy track record of borrowing from the future. The disillusioning facts of history show that international law is the third time ‘round for the First World – and that the other two flew apart when stretches of international peace climaxed with World War.
International Peace, Part I: “Cousins Don’t Fight Cousins”
As diplomats and history buffs know, the geopolitical nineteenth century started with the Conference of Vienna in 1815. It ended a brutal war that was the worst Europe had endured since the Thirty Years’ War. Yes, 1803 to 1815 were within sight of 1618 to 1648 in terms of awfulness. Although the Napoleonic Wars were billed as Europe’s War, there was a harbinger of the future in the War of 1812. For the first time, a European conflict had spilled over into a different continent by dragging in a Nation that was not European. Although the War of 1812 can be compared to the French and Indian War of 1754-63, the former saw the United States involved after it has broken its jurisdictional ties to Europe. In this sense, the Napoleonic Wars were “World War 0.”
The Conference of Vienna, shepherded by the hard-headed Klemens von Metternich, settled upon restoring the status quo ante as best they could. There was no idealism in this plan; it was just seen as the best way to clean up the awful mess. To the extent that ideals were involved, they were discredited when the Revolutions of 1830 and 1848 discredited Metternich.
But as the nineteenth century aged, geopolitical observers noticed something unusual. Even though European wars still broke out, with the most shocking example being the Franco-Prussian War that midwifed the German Empire, they were becoming less frequent. For Europe, the nineteenth century was clearly less warlike than the eighteenth.
Classical liberals credited this trend to a combination of minimal government and growing trade relations between nations. You don’t shoot your customer base.
The more self-confident liberals saw Free Trade in much the same way that the idealistic globalists see globalization today. With Free Trade spreading prosperity and facilitating economic interdependence between nations, the warlike spirit would slowly ebb. Folks would eventually learn that war was more and more costly, even for the victors. It would take a very long time, but capitalism and the spirit of value-for-value enterprise would mold people into thinking that folks in other nations were not rivals but customers (or suppliers.) This slow molding, through enterprise and peaceful co-operation would eventually make the martial spirit obsolete. The bolder liberals proclaimed that the martial virtues were already on their way out.
Although this theory became the consensus in liberal circles, it did not become the go-to theory amongst diplomats and geopolitical observers. They came up with a different theory.
It was built on royal families intermarrying with each others’. By the close of the nineteenth century, Royal Conferences became more and more like extended-family reunion. For example, Kaiser Wilhelm II was the grand-nephew of Queen Victoria. (Fun Fact: had the laws of primogeniture not disqualified females, Wilhelm II would have become the legitimate King-Emperor of the U.K. He would have sat on two Imperial thrones, both inherited; the U.K. imperium, he would have inherited from his mother..) This theory explained wars’ dwindling by claiming, “Cousins don’t fight cousins.” In down-home lingo: “You can have a feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys but not one between Hatfields and Hatfields.”
By down-home standards, Wilhelm II and George V were kissin’ cousins. That’s one of the reasons why the four-year bloodbath of World War I was such a shock. The bloods, eager to go to war because they saw it as a God-given opportunity to live up to their noble-fighter ancestors, thought that WW1 would be a quick one: “The war will be over by Christmas.” Once everyman saw that they still had the noble fighting spirit of their illustrious ancestors, the world would be righted and the impertinent liberals would be put in their place.
In fact, the liberals ended up worse. The bellicosity and mass carnage of WW1 was a real body-blow to their self-confidence. Then as now, they subscribed to a “Wag the Dog” theory of war. Bellicosity in the commoners’ ranks was simply the displacement of the resentment they endured under the aristocratic class system. As aristocratic governance was replaced by democracy, and as arbitrary government was replaced by rights-based rational government, everyman would be less and less aggravated and therefore less and less warlike.
World War 1 left this notion in tatters. Not unlike Communists after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the classical liberals saw their very worldview shattered. Some retreated into eighteenth-century-style antidemocracy; they drifted towards the early Progressives. Others, not willing to give up on the wag-the-dog theory, fell in with the socialists that loudly claimed the war was orchestrated for the profits of the “Merchants of Death.” Some gave up on the Enlightenment: they were easy prospects for the theories of Sigmund Freud. They comforted themselves with the thought that the Enlightenment’s theory of rational man was obsolete because it had been outmoded by Freud’s discovery of the id. The continent-wide bloodbath has its roots in human aggression, nothing more.
Only a small minority, mostly economists, doughtily stuck to the old liberalism. The giants of this small minority, like Ludwig von Mises, because the ur-scholars of modern libertarianism.
The bloods had it much worse. Their gung-ho hopes and overconfidence left their ranks decimated. Instead of a revival of the aristocratic-martial ethos, World War 1 wrecked it – wrecked it in brutal Darwinian fashion. The unkindest cut, at least in the U.K., was a savage post-war deflation which flattened the agricultural sector. Since the feudal system deeply depended upon agriculture, the 1919-20 depression was the final blow. In the Continent, post-war restructuring wiped away the aristocratic system and most of the monarchical system. In the U.K., the remnants of the feudal system were wiped away: partly, because desperate lords wanted the entail system broken so that they could sell off their “Idle Acres.”
International Peace, Part 1 had ended in brutality, rivers of blood, sorrow and tears. However, the statesman did not give up on the ideal: if anything, the carnage made them more eager to find a system that would work. They were aided in that aim by the savage bellicosity of WW1 turning into a savagely cynical pacifism. . Even Smedley Butler, then the most-decorated Marine, fell into it. The 1920s and most of the 1930s were the “No More Vietnams” era, on steroids.
Son Of International Peace: “One Language, One Nation, One People”
But not before a last gasp of vindictiveness tarnished 1919’s Versailles Treaty. Pushed largely by the French, who were still smarting over the German Empire exacting tribute after winning the Franco-Prussian War, the Versailles Treaty was the most punitive settlement in centuries. It was a profound contrast to the level-headed if cynical settlement in Vienna, John Maynard Keynes, benefitting from the pacifism already taking shape, made a name for himself by criticizing the Treaty in The Economic Consequences Of The Peace.
It was the first treaty in European history that explicitly included war-guilt. It also started up the League of Nations, an international organization devoted to making sure that the “war to end all wars” lived up to its billing.
One of the problems confronting the League was to find a way to determine whether or not a war was unjust. Since war-guilt was now in play, they needed a reasonably verifiable standard to determine whether or not a warring nation was guilty. They also needed a complementary standard to determine if a war was just. What was the dividing line between a war of conquest and a war of liberation?
Building on the nation-state as a natural unit, they settled upon the principle of “one language means one people and one nation.” Like the “cousins don’t fight cousins” principle, it made intuitive sense. Unlike the aforementioned, it offered a way to verify whether or not a war was a war of conquest. If Ruritania took over Atlantis, and Ruritanians spoke Ruritanain but Alantans spoke Atlantean, then Ruritania was clearly a conqueror. It’s a sure bet that the victorious Ruritanians would keep speaking Ruritanin, and a safe bet that the new Atlantan government would conduct its business in Ruritanian. Thus, Ruritania’s occupation government evinced a war of conquest because it imposed an elite with a different tongue on the poor Atlantans. How could any kind of democracy, let alone a democratic republic, function if governance took place through a completely different language – a foreign tongue?
On paper, on the drawing board, this standard looked like a prayer-answerer. It not only tied the “unjust war” question to the new age of republicanism, but it also provided the perfect justification for busting up the Austro-Hungarian Empire and making the Habsburgs a relic of history.
But, like most political ideas that look grand on paper, this new standard generated a lot of headaches.
The most visible one was implied by the question: what about the linguistic minorities in the new-nation jurisdictions of newly-liberated peoples? Why can’t they benefit from this new principle too? To see what trouble this caused, imagine how the red counties in California would react if the Cal-Dems managed to pull off CalExit. (Fun Fact: Had the Quebec sovereigntists managed to bull through separation, they would have faced this exact problem with respect to the indigenous Cree in northern Quebec.) This problem did crop up with regard to the new nation of Czechoslovakia. Although Czech-speakers did constitute a majority, they were only a thin majority. There were enough Slovaks in the nation to put a real question mark on the principle.
More ominously: what about linguistic minorities whose language was the same as the former conqueror? Like the problem in “Czecho-Slovakia,” this problem surfaced in Eastern Europe. As far back as medieval times, Germans has a reputation of being skilled and hard workers: economy-growers. Noting this, sovereigns and sovereign States welcomed colonies of Germans into their jurisdictions. Being Germans, they stuck together and showed little desire to assimilate; the bulk of them were quite content to keep speaking German. Naturally, the Germans in countries that were later conquered by a German-speaking monarch found life pretty good. When those conquests were reversed, primarily by busting up the Austro-Hungarian Empire, life became not so good.
It’s a saddening but predictable facet of human nature: when a people are liberated, they turn to feeling their oats. If they’re liberated jurisdictionally, then they find they can feel their oats through the laws. This saddening fact is not confined to vengeance. To this day, Slovaks have good cause to remember interwar Czecho-Slovakia with bitterness. (As noted above, the Czechs were the majority.) This feel-the-oats temptation was accentuated, and even more yielded to, when the bottom dropped out of European economies in the 1930s.
To make matters worse, the above-discussed unintended consequences were the minor flaw in the League-of-Nations schema. The major flaw lay in the way that the “One Language, One People” rule could be gamed. As you’ve already guessed, a bellicose man who became Germany’s Chancellor in 1933 gamed it right up to 1938. By abusing that rule, Adolf Hitler got to be Fuhrer of a Germany that was even bigger than the German Empire of old. Because of those old colonies of Germans, he could pose as the liberator of the German-speaking peoples even as he was acquiring a taste for outright conquest. It wasn’t just the embittered pacifism that gave him his speed.
As we all know, the Son of International Peace era ended with a world war that was bigger than World War 1. The sequel ended like the original.
Return Of The Son Of International Peace: International Law
Except on one vital and crucial attribute. Unlike the embitterment that followed World War 1, World War 2 ended with Good vanquishing unambiguous Evil. The delight that came with the Allies crushing the Axis proved to be Miracle-Gro for the new ideal of world government. A world government that would keep the piece through international law.
The Eastern Establishment of the now-dominant United States went gaga over this ideal. It seemed the apotheosis of practical idealism. What made it seem practical was the fact that the number of world governments had shrunk since the Industrial Revolution. The long-term trend was quite clearly jurisdictional consolidation. Italy was no longer the agglomeration of city-states, regional states and the Papal States. Germany was no longer a crazy-quilt of kingdoms and principalities. Colonization, brutal though it sometimes was, had the effect of standardizing government somewhat. The British Empire was not what it was, but a jurisdictional tie still existed through the British Commonwealth. France had its colonies; even little Belgium had one. All over the world, the number of sovereign jurisdictions was slowly shrinking. It was a simple matter of extrapolation to imagine a Grand Alliance between the powers that became the United Nations’ Big Five slowly turning into One World Jurisdiction and preparing the globe for World Government.
These enthusiasts were not flummoxed by the Soviet Union’s double-cross that kicked off the Cold War. Instead, they saw it as part of the sometimes-brutal process of consolidation. The United States would see to the Western Hemisphere. The U.K. would see to its colonies and Commonwealth. France would do the same, the Soviets would see to Eastern Europe, and China would oversee the Far East. As time went on, as the globe became more and more “One World,” assimilation would evolve the world’s governments to quasi-standardization. The ones with a taste for tyranny would learn in time that the velvet glove was better than the iron fist. Through the U.N., the still-dominant First World democracies would lend them a hand up from tyranny to democracy. It would take a lot of time, but the long-term trend pointed towards World Government. Consolidation was the way of the future.
As for the League-of-Nations debacle, global-government boosters decided that its fatal flaw was pushing democracy without liberalism: without rights. By promoting democracy with human rights, or by promoting human rights period, the U.N. regime would prove to be a League of Nations that would endure. In harmony with this new plan, the U.N. proudly unveiled its Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Implicit therein, but not explicit, was the idea that international law could redress rights violations. The document itself was a moral statement without political teeth until 1976.
The structure of the United Nations did show the “practical” gradualism. It was set up as an artificial nation; representatives from each member State were Ambassadors to it. As such, they were all appointed. This part of the structure got around the awkward questions prompted by a body that put democracies and dictatorships on an equal footing.
As we know, the nations were not put on an equal footing. The U.N. was organized similar to a Parliament, with the General Assembly comprising the backbenchers. The stand-in for the Cabinet was the Security Council, comprising the Ambassadors from fifteen nations (until 1966, eleven.) Mimicking a Parliament, ambitious nations (back-benchers) could buck for a temporary membership in the Security Council (Cabinet appointment) lasting two years. Like a Parliament, the strivers were divvied up into regions to make for geographical diversity in Council.
But unlike a Parliament, five nations were guaranteed permanent membership in the Security Council: membership that was theirs by right. Four of them, the U.S., the U.K., France and the Soviet Union, were the principal Allies of WW2. The fifth, China, was included on the hunch that it would be the big wheel of the Far East. Since it was ravaged by Imperial Japan, it could be seen as an Ally too. In a very real way, the structure of the Security Council froze the geopolitics of 1945 in amber.
In itself, this resining didn’t warp its connection to geopolitical realities all that much. The U.K. and France are not what they were, but their status as prior Great Powers make them like elder statesmen. Russia is not what the Soviet Union was, but it’s still the big kahuna of Eastern Europe. Adding China proved to be an inspired move ahead of its time.
No, the unintended consequence did not lie in freezing 1945 geopolitics in place. It came with the jurisdictional-consolidation trend not only halting but reversing.
Unintended Consequence: Favourable Winds, Unfavourable Undertows
The consolidation into One World was just about out of fuel. Like the grand reversal of the bond market from the close of the 1940s to the opening of the 1980s, the reversal started small but gathered strength with momentum. From the standpoint of 1947, the decolonization of the Indian colony into two different nations (India and Pakistan) looked like an aberration. But as we now know, it was a portent.
As of 1945, the number of member nations in the U.N. was 51. As of now, it’s 193. The number of member nations has never gone down; it’s always gone up.
In other words, the trend through virtually the entire lifespan of the U.N. has been the opposite of consolidation. Instead of the Age of Geopolitical Mergers, the Age of the U.N. has been the Age of Geopolitical Spinoffs. Instead of assimilation and unity, the real world has experienced devolution and fractiousness.
It didn’t seem that way at the time because some of that diversity was under the thumb of the Soviet Union. This fact gave the U.N.-globalists hope. Though they did deplore the lack of human rights in the Soviet Bloc, they liked the consolidation. The assimilation theory was retooled as “convergence,” which held out the hope that the Soviet Union – scarred by the horrors of Stalinism – would evolve into a benign dictatorship or oligarchy that would protect its subjects’ human rights instead of just paying lip service to them. On the free-world end, the capitalist counties would evolve into mixed economies: into something like the U.K. before the Thatcher revolution. At some day in the future, the U.S.S.R and its satellites would transform themselves into social democracies; by that time, the Western powers would either be close to that form or already there. The vision of the one-world international socialists imagined a future where all developed nations, both Western and Eastern, were more-or-less social democratic. The Third Worldism that bubbled up with decolonization, the U.N. One Worlders regarded with complacency. It was nothing more that the developing nations’ answer to British-style socialism. Like the Soviet bloc, they too would grow into stable left-wing democracies.
As hard as it is to believe now, the One-Worlder international socialists seriously believed that the governments of the world would converge towards democratic socialism. Once the officials recognized that their systems of governments were similar enough to be standardized, they’d get down to the business of building a real World Government by handing over some sovereign-nation powers – including taxation powers - to the U.N. Eventually, the U.N. would be to nations what the U.S. government is to the several States. One World. One Government, One Humanity. With not only international trade but also cultural exchanges to push it along.
They had no idea that “Convergence” was nothing more than a pleasing illusion. While the brutal consolidation of the Soviet empire made for a pro-consolidation tailwind, decolonization (and the seething resentment of the folks trapped in the Soviet satellites!) proved to be a hobbling undertow.
Unintended Consequences: Devolution And A Responsibility Vacuum
For those not enthused with the ideal of One World but with no real ill-will to the United Nations, the U.N. in the sixties looked a lot like an international debating society. A hot-air club, headed up by people who had a taste for the good life. Rumours flew about (to take one example) Soviet diplomats using their supranational privileges to run smuggling rackets.
True to its international-peace mission, the United Nations did up their game in 1948 through peacekeepers: troops, typically armed only lightly, that were borrowed from member nations and sent into conflict regions of the globe on peacekeeping missions. These troops are the “Blue Helmets” you may have heard about. They got off to a swimming start in 1948, when blue helmets arrived in the then-new state of Israel. But soon enough, it became clear that a lot of their “peace missions” were proxy fights of the Cold War. Absent that, the Blue Helmets didn’t cut an imposing figure: for one, Egypt’s Nasser stared them down in 1967. By ‘68, there was lots of grist for the merry fellows who pegged the U.N. as the World Capitol of Hot Air. It was quite clear that the real action was with NATO, or with the Warsaw Pact or the Chicoms for those on the Communist side of the Cold War. Perhaps because they recognized this, the U.N. descended into becoming a Third Worldist wealth-transfer operation. It also descended into becoming the World Capitol of international nagging.
In a significant way, this descent was inevitable. The original designers settled on the appointive-ambassador system to punt away the problem inhering in some – but not all – of its members representing dictatorships. Given the primacy of democracy in the First World, there was no way in Hades that First-World governments would turn over any independent powers to the unelectedU.N. Their citizens would not have stood for it: least so, the citizens of the United States. A nation of “No Taxation Without Representation” would find it intolerable.
And of course, the dictatorship members – definitely including the so-called People’s Democracies – would slam down hard on any move to make the U.N. an elective body. Because dictatorships and democracies mix like oil and water, the U.N. was stalemated. There was no way it could acquire enough legitimacy to gain independent powers – not while one class of nations would slam down hard the path which the other class of nations considered the path forward.
Thus, the U.N. as a governing body was neutered even in the straightforward framework of the Cold War. As the geopolitical deconsolidation trend reached maturity, the clash became worse: it morphed from a stalemate to a cacophony. The trouble was, Third Worldism proved to be more than the poor-nation’s social democracy. The ominous portent came in 1975, with the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 asserting that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination". Its dark foreshadow heralded the beginning of the post-Cold-War Clash of Civilizations.
And at the time, it highlighted the fractious reality concealed by the United Nations’ glossy ideals. Because of the fractious clashes, the U.N. proved to be even more un-unified post-1960s than in the mid-Cold War. Had it not been for Third Worldism providing a tin cup to bang at the prosperous West, the U.N. would have been even more powerless than it was. This helplessness created a responsibility vacuum that would not be filled until the Soviet bloc collapsed and the Cold War ended. That vacuum was filled by none other than the United States.
On the surface, United Nations Security Council Resolution 687 – the one that laid down the international law to the defeated Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War – appears to be a break with the impotent past and the birth of a United Nations that’s ready to crack down on rogue states. Even better: a United Nations that’s finally ready to do something about tyrannies that also prey on their own subjects: i.e., commit genocide. Ostensibly, the U.N. has gotten over its funk and was getting down to be a real force combatting the Hobbesian hell of international anarchy.
But it doesn’t take much insight to figure out that the real force of international policing is the United States. Left by itself, the U.N. is as hamstrung as it always was. Left to itself, its international law is little more than stirring words.
In a very real way, the United Nations is now Caesar’s wife. Full of sentiments, motivated by finer feelings, it wields the power of repute and tongue. But – as any Roman subject would laconically assure us – Caesar’s wife is nothing without Caesar. And these days, in the early 21st century’s geopolitics, Caesar in none other than Uncle Sam. He sure acts dutiful and even henpecked at times, but he’s the one with the clout.
That’s why Prime Minister Netanyahu tore into President Obama after Samantha Power declined to veto Security Council Resolution 2334. He didn’t blame Caesar’s wife; he cannily put the blame on Caesar.
The Son Of The Return Of International Peace: The Fatal Flaw
We all know that “International Law” might have borrowed from the future in a manner similar to “Cousins Don’t Fight Cousins” and “One Language, One People, One Nation.” Why else would there have been such fear about a nuclear war between the United States and Russia? No-one as much as suggested that such a war could be staunched by the United Nations before it went nuclear. It’s a funny kind of tornado insurance when the policyholders flip out as if they were uninsured when they see a tornado approaching.
The root problem with United-Nations-promulgated international law is that it’s a body of lawmakers that are unusually detached from the governed. As belaboured above, the dog’s-breakfast of governments – nowadays: democracies, semi-democracies, sham democracies, dictatorships, thugocracies, theocracies, plain old kleptocracies, and good-old-fashioned monarchies – means that any push to gain legitimacy that’s acceptable or intuitive to one class of government will be intolerable to another class. So, because it attempted to mix immiscible kinds of government, the United Nations is a body whose potential for independent governance is de facto neutered.
Add to the above the fact that the members of the U.N. ‘parliament’ serve at the pleasure of the respective Heads of the “lower-level” nation-States. It’s as if Congressional Representatives and Senators were all appointed by State governors who could fire them at will. Governors who were not commanders-in-chief of militias, but of independent full-fledged militaries.
Politicians are easy to malign, especially these days, but they do serve a crucial function in a democracy: they keep in touch with the interests and opinions of their constituencies. Yeah, this does result in a lot of corruption. But it also results in the laws being promulgated by people with a special sense of what laws are implementable – and which ones are not. “No, I can’t get on board with that one: my constituents would throw me out on my ear.” Or more usually, “I can go along with this one, but my constituents would be kind-of disgruntled unless you add this, that, and this other. And it’d be wise if you excised that.”
Granted that the democratic system is not perfect in this regard. Granted also that even a Constitutional Republic isn’t perfect: its checks and balances did not prevent the Prohibition fiasco. The fiasco of a duly-enacted Constitutional Amendment (the highest bar there is in the American system) authorizing a law that proved to be only semi-enforceable. But that one fiasco doesn’t change the fact that a system wherein the lawmakers are politicians – folks with the special gift of sensing out interests they deem good for their representees – those fiascos are minimized. To put it bluntly, politicians’ wisdom minimizes the chances of a law emerging that sounds compellingly noble but is a nightmare to enforce.
With respect to currently-instituted international law – very much including the compellingly noble parts – what kind of people are putting them together? Do those people have the same down-home horse sense that a wise old pol has? While mulling over these questions, please remember that the mechanisms of enforcement – regardless of what they’re called – resemble either unpaid mercenary work (unpaid by the host nation) or a plain old invasion. If you’re not sure what I’m driving at, try asking a graduate of West Point or Annapolis - arguendo - why the Allies didn’t stop the Holocaust before it got to those six million. I suggestarguendo because there’s a chance you’ll get back a biting reply. With this preparation, do you have confidence that the promulgators, approvers and disseminators of international law know in their guts why the aforementioned was a stupid question?
The kind of horse sense I’m referring to is the type that prompts questions and comments like these: “So you’re in Atlantistan and they’re cheering you. Wonderful! But do you know why they’re cheering you? Are they applauding because they expect us to set up a democracy for them, or are they cheering because they’ve got the idea that Allah’s commanded us to be their muscle?” (Remember the earlier point that formerly-subject peoples acquire a taste for feeling their oats once freed?) “So they’re treating you like invited guests? Great! Any signs that you’re beginning to wear out your welcome?” “Is bribery a way of life down there? If it is, you’ll nation-build a nation-wide Tammany Hall.” “The way you describe it, your list of ‘heroic whistleblowers’ is a bunch of paid snitches. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to ask the advice of a retired cop on how to handle ‘em? While I’ve got you, do you know what SWATting means?”
We ruefully know that the fifteen-year experiment in nation-building has been a series of disasters. Afghanistan is a partially-ungovernable kleptocracy: a nation-scale Tammany Hall in the parts where the established government has reach. Iraq turned into a mess in large part because the Sunnis feared that the newly-liberated Shiites had developed a taste for feeling their oats. The Arab Spring birthed at least one Islamist state; had Egypt’s military not cracked down, that nation would be ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood. With Gadaffi gone, Libya has become a failed state; it’s questionable if Libya even has a single central government. To get back to Iraq, the critical mass needed to get ISIS off the ground came from those disaffected Sunnis. With regard to Syria, we don’t know who genocided whom. Is there any faction there whose story adds up?
One of Sir Humphrey’s witticisms from Yes, Minister implied all that Sixpack Blighty cares to know about international conflicts is, “who are the goodies and who are the baddies?” When Joe Sixpack is talked about that way, it’s good fun because we know Joe has a job and other responsibilities to fulfill. We know well that Joe Average lacks the time, energy and informational resources to get to the bottom of an international incident, so he needs the shortcut. That’s why witticisms like the above are jolly good fun.
But it’s profoundly unfunny when a geopolitical-tier statesperson relies on the same shortcut. At that level, corner-cutting can lead to real disasters.
The fatal flaw of the current international-law regime as it stands today, is that the experts-in-charge are lacking in the horse-sense wisdom to spot an implementation nightmare before it happens. The United Nations, from the perspective of ordinary law-making, is an artificial greenhouse in which flourishes people that are clever, articulate, well-studied, well-prepared – and are lacking in practical-minded geopolitical street smarts. They’re not even at the level of the wise old toff who observes, “You do realize that your ‘nation-building’ is nothing more than temporary colonization. That is why your natives, even the friendliest, always get restless.”
A New Case For Geopolitical Realism
Implementation-wise, the main vulnerability of the international-law regime is that it overwhelmingly depends on the United States as the enforcer. To use cryptocurrency jargon, the United States is a single point of failure at the implementation level. To use down-home talk, Uncle Sam is the strongest muscleman in the town. He’s strong and good-hearted enough that some other folks are getting the idea that he can be wheedled into fighting their battles for them.
When this state is assimilated, it’s a real surprise that foreign governments aren’t lobbying Uncle Sam even harder.
The first step towards geopolitical realism is grasping the disillusioning fact that other nations have an interest in getting Uncle Sam involved in their conflicts. As any sadder-but-wiser muscleman will ruefully disclose, those interested parties do let their interests override their honesty. To put it less elliptically, they’re not above heartstring-tugging snow jobs. Those who want the U.S. to play city-on-a-hill geopolitics should ask themselves if it’s wise to wear your hot buttons on your sleeve.
Once this disillusioning point is assimilated, the case for sphere-of-influence and balance-of-power realism follows. We live in a sad old world wherein we’re largely ignorant of how foreign lands tick. The more foreign they are, the more ignorant we are. I say flatly that America does not have a monopoly on this ignorance: every nation has it. It’s an inevitable consequence of us humans having limited CPU power, not to mention limited time, energy and informational resources.
We also live in a world where foreign governments are not above working the angles. The more powerful you are, the more closely you’re studied by folks who hope to get something out of you. This urge is not confined to money or a sweet pay-to-play dealie. It also encompasses getting you to fight a battle that they want you to fight. I’m old enough to remember that the Kuwaiti government amped up the support for the Gulf War by hiring Hill & Knowlton: a big lobbyist shop.
Given our in-built limits, it’s sometimes a hard chore to distinguish information from snow-job misinformation. As a general rule, we’re better at skinnying the workings of a nation that’s close to us and/or shares a common language and culture with ours. We know a lot more about the workings in Mexico than we do about the workings in Guyana.
It’s this disillusioning wisdom that underlies the realist principle of respecting spheres of influence. I have no problem stipulating that Vladimir Putin is a bad guy, but his intelligence services are far more likely to know what’s going on in the Balkans than ours are. That’s a sad consequence of proximity correlating with knowledge.
An even more saddening piece of wisdom is the fact that there are evils – even horrid evils – that are beyond our power to remedy. There are times when we’re like a brain surgeon who knows perfectly well where a brain tumour is but can’t excise it because doing so would fatally damage a part of the brain that lies between it and the skull. To get back to that arguendo we know from World War 2 that soldiers fighting for a regime that’s objectively evil will still fight like swift-moving zombies to the end. It doesn’t matter that they’re dying for an evil lie; what’s relevant is that they fight to the finish. In other words, right and might do not correlate as well as we’d like.
In the here and now,realism requires understanding that the keepers of the international-law tablets are not good at gauging implementation difficulties. Professional soldiers, including the crusty ones who say “Sir, we can’t do that”, are not rivals, competitors or infighter shafters. They’re part of the team. Consequently, they deserve to be listened to. Presuming that their words are in bad faith only makes the artificial-greenhouse problem worse.
Metternich and the Conference of Vienna were not heroic; they did not trumpet soul-stirring ideals. They just did a good job of keeping the peace. Certainly, they did a better job that the soul-moving idealistic League of Nations.
Daniel M. Ryan, as Nxtblg, is shepherding the independently-run Open Audi Initiative Prediction Market Shadowing Project. He has stubbornly assumed all the responsibility and blame for the workings and outcome of the project.