Towards A Good Samaritan World

Thursday, May 19, 2005


Time to fisk one of most un-prescient articles I've read this year: "How America Became the World's Dispensable Nation," by Bush-hater Michael Lind, in response to the State of the Union.

In a second inaugural address tinged with evangelical zeal, George W. Bush declared: "Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world." The peoples of the world, however, do not seem to be listening.

It's true that when Bush made the speech, it was not particularly well-received. But its meaning was transformed a few days later by the Iraqi elections. So that's what he was talking about everyone (at some level) thought. Since then, we've seen a democracy movement in Lebanon force the Syrians to withdraw; we've seen dictator Mubarak of Egypt promise multiparty elections; we're now seeing a push for democracy even in Syria (!); there's been a coup in Kyrgyzstan and now civil unrest is shaking Uzbekistan too. Not all of this is good, and it's a reminder that, if freedom is the "untamed fire" Bush spoke of, well, untamed fires are dangerous. But the world was most certainly listening.

A new world order is indeed emerging - but its architecture is being drafted in Asia and Europe, at meetings to which Americans have not been invited.

Examples? What do you have in mind?

Consider Asean Plus Three (APT), which unites the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations with China, Japan and South Korea. This group could become the world's largest trade bloc, dwarfing the European Union and North American Free Trade Association. The deepening ties of the APT member states are a big diplomatic defeat for the US, which hoped to use the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to limit the growth of Asian economic regionalism at American expense.

Since the time of Lind's writing, North Korea has accelerated its nuclear brinksmanship, and there has been an escalation in tensions between Japan and China, with Chinese mobs looting Japanese shops while Japan has hinted at support for Taiwan. The US is Japan's only ally, a key force for deterring/containing North Korea, the quiet guarantor of the status quo in Taiwan, enjoys close relations with India, one of the few countries where Bush's re-election was welcomed, and is a huge market for the products of the whole region. Is Lind seriously claiming that the Pacific Rim countries are not at all worried about the growing power of China? America is more indispensable to the balance of power in Asia than ever, and our role as economic locomotive for the region is not much diminished either. To see Asia consolidating itself against the American hegemon is a fantasy.

In the same way, recent moves by South American countries to bolster an economic community represent a clear rejection of US aims to dominate a western-hemisphere free-trade zone.

Consider, as well, the EU's rapid progress towards military independence. American protests failed to prevent the EU establishing its own military planning agency, independent of the Nato alliance (and thus of Washington).

Europe? Military independence? Be serious now. Not that I would mind. The US has been pressuring Europeans to increase their military spending for some time. The past four years have underlined Europe's military impotence (Britain excepted). The huge military gap between Europe and the US will not be closed anytime soon-- and most European nations know it. For every France and Germany shadow-boxing at military parity with the US, there's a Netherlands, a Britain, and several former Soviet satellites pointing out that only America, and certainly no newfangled European entity, can guarantee their security. And with Putin paying homage to the legacy of Stalin, the American alliance is more precious than ever for the EU's newest members.

Europe is building up its own rapid reaction force. And, despite US resistance, the EU is developing Galileo, its own satellite network, which will break the monopoly of the US global positioning satellite system.

This is of no military importance. US "resistance" to Galileo was not because Galileo was somehow a threat, but because it's a waste of money.

The participation of China in Europe's Galileo project has alarmed the US military. But China shares an interest with other aspiring space powers in preventing American control of space for military and commercial uses. Even while collaborating with Europe on Galileo, China is partnering with Brazil to launch satellites. And in an unprecedented move, China recently agreed to host Russian forces for joint Russo-Chinese military exercises.

Yes, China's on the rise. China is also a repressive communist regime and hungry for resources, in short, a potential threat. The threat of China makes America more indispensable, not less, as Japan, Taiwan and India are well aware. Without the US, China would probably have overrun Taiwan before now, and, having gotten a taste of conquest, would be eyeing other vulnerable neighbors.

The US is being sidelined even in the area that Mr Bush identified in last week's address as America's mission: the promotion of democracy and human rights. The EU has devoted far more resources to consolidating democracy in post-communist Europe than has the US.

Certainly, the EU is to be praised for its role in spreading democracy in post-communist Europe, or at any rate in the ten new member countries and a few others. But that's old news. It's been going on since the 1990s, and it's largely over. So this hardly constitutes the US "being sidelined." What's more, America, by facing down the Soviet Union, did at least as much to make it possible as Europe ever did. More recently, America played the most active part in the recent elections in Ukraine. Europe may have subsidized more NGOs, which may or may not have been of some use, but the basic reason the post-communist countries are democratic is because they're post-communist, and Reagan deserves far more credit for that than anyone in the EU. (Really, no one is promoting democracy today other than the US and our allies. This is one of Lind's most outrageous claims.)

By contrast, under Mr Bush the US hypocritically uses the promotion of democracy as the rationale for campaigns against states it opposes for strategic reasons.

Really? How does Lind know? Does he have some kind of privileged access to Bush's head? More to the point, though, would it be "hypocrisy" if the US promoted democracy only when this coincided with US strategic interests? Why? Is being liberated only a good thing when the motives of the liberator are pure?

However, if Lind wants to make a charge like this, he at least owes it to us to explain what "strategic reasons" motivated the war in Iraq. (Afghanistan is clear enough.) Is it, perhaps (wait for it)... BLOOD-FOR-OIL?!? But did we want the price of oil to go up, or down? If down, we failed to, but didn't seem to mind; if up, that helps Bush's oil-industry buddies, but wouldn't it hurt him at the polls? Or did we go in to prevent weapons proliferation-- in which case Lind had better come up with an argument against the Bush-lied-people-died crowd, because Lind must think Bush was telling the truth...

Actually, Lind would be closer to the truth if he reversed his formulation and wrote "under Mr Bush, the US hypocritically uses strategic reasons as the rationale for campaigns against states it opposes because of its commitment to the promotion of democracy." But either formulation misses the point of Bush's Second Inaugural. Bush claims that "our interests and our values are one"-- that promoting democracies serves our strategic interests, because democracies are inherently peaceful. He may be right or wrong about that, but Lind had better understand Bush before he starts mouthing off about him.

Washington denounces tyranny in Iran but tolerates it in Pakistan.

Can't we distinguish degrees of evil here, Lind? Isn't nuance allowed? Musharraf is a relatively liberal, pro-Western autocrat, in an unstable, very poor, and corruption-plagued country that has had several disappointing democratic episodes. Iran is a repressive theocracy that finances terrorism. There was a time when critics accused Bush of seeing the world in black and white. How the tables turn.

In Iraq, the goal of democratisation was invoked only after the invasion, which was justified earlier by claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was collaborating with al-Qaeda.

Demonstrably false; Bush's message to the Iraqis before the war was "The tyrant will soon be gone." Not that there would be anything terribly wrong with Bush awakening to the value of democratization after the invasion, if that had been the case.

Nor is American democracy a shining example to mankind. The present one-party rule in the US has been produced in part by the artificial redrawing of political districts to favour Republicans. The role of money in American politics continues to grow. America's judges - many of whom will be appointed by Mr Bush - increasingly behave as partisan political activists in black robes. America's antiquated winner-take-all electoral system has been abandoned by many other democracies for more inclusive versions of proportional representation.

I'm with him on gerrymandering. As for the rest, Lind is applying the poisonous rhetoric of moral equivalence. "One party-rule?" Yes, Americans have been electing Republicans lately. Lind uses a phrase which sounds akin to "one-party state," as if Republicans are totalitarian just for winning elections. And what do you make of "America's judges - many of whom will be appointed by Mr. Bush?" Well, yes. That's the Constitution for you. Judges have to be appointed somehow, don't they? Is Lind in favor of a hereditary judiciary?

In other areas of global moral and institutional reform, the US today is a follower rather than a leader. Human rights? Europe has banned the death penalty and torture. The US is a leading practitioner of execution.

There's a difference of opinion here about the definition of "human rights." In the American system, murderers can forfeit their right to live. In European countries, you don't have the right to read certain books, or say insulting things about Islam, or fire a useless and insubordinate employee. Take your pick.

Under Mr Bush, the US has constructed an international military gulag in which the torture of suspects has frequently occurred.

Some of those torturers are already behind bars. Beyond that, well, we're working on it...

The international rule of law? For generations, promoting international law in collaboration with other nations was a US goal. But the neoconservatives who dominate Washington today mock the very idea of international law.

Which international law are we talking about here again? The international law according to which Saddam Hussein, in virtue of having killed his way to the top, plunged his country into useless wars, annihilated all freedom of speech, and killed millions of people, was recognized by the whole world as legitimate ruler of his country, while those who aspired to liberate his people were called outlaws. If that's what your talking about, I agree that "mocking" is not the proper attitude to have. If that's international law, it must be condemned.

The next US attorney general will be the White House counsel who scorned the Geneva Conventions as obsolete.

I think "quaint" was the word. There's reason to be worried about this. But please be circumspect and stick to the facts.

A decade ago, American triumphalists mocked those who argued that the world was becoming multipolar rather than unipolar. Where was the evidence of balancing against the US? they asked. Today the evidence of foreign cooperation to reduce American primacy is everywhere - from the increasing importance of regional trade blocs that exclude the US to international space projects and military exercises in which the US is conspicuous by its absence.

If you call the bad guys bad guys, they may get mad and gang up on you. But sometimes it's the right thing to do, nevertheless.

It is true that the US remains the only country capable of projecting military power throughout the world. But unipolarity in the military sphere, narrowly defined, is not preventing the rapid development of multipolarity in the geopolitical and economic arenas - far from it. And the other great powers, with the exception of the UK, are content to let the US waste blood and treasure on its doomed attempt at hegemony in the Middle East.

Who says we want hegemony in the Middle East? Not President Bush, that's for sure.

That the rest of the world is building institutions and alliances that shut out the US should come as no surprise. The view that American leaders can be trusted to use a monopoly of military and economic power for the good of humanity has never been widely shared outside the US.

Probably most people have never thought about it in quite those terms. But Israel, Taiwan, the Baltic states, and others who have pressing reasons to think about it seriously tend to believe precisely that "American leaders can be trusted to use a monopoly of military and economic power for the good of humanity." Even the Europeans, who are so anti-American these days, quietly show that they believe the same thing by under-investing in their militaries.

The trend toward multipolarity has probably been accelerated by the truculent unilateralism of the Bush administration, whose motto seems to be that of the Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn: "Include me out." In recent memory, nothing could be done without the US. But today, most international institution-building of any long-term importance in global diplomacy and trade occurs without American participation.

This begs the question of how important international institutions are. No doubt some are much more important than others. But we posted our man at the World Bank without difficulty, even though it was the hated-and-feared architect-of-the-war Paul Wolfowitz.

In 1998 Madeleine Albright, then US secretary of state, said of the US: "We are the indispensable nation." By backfiring, the unilateralism of Mr Bush has proved her wrong. The US, it turns out, is a dispensable nation. Europe, China, Russia, Latin America and other regions and nations are quietly taking measures whose effect, if not sole purpose, will be to cut America down to size.

You almost get the sense from this paragraph that "Europe, China, Russia, Latin America and other regions" are pioneering some kind of global harmony. Actually, there are tensions within and between all of those regions, and the US is generally an important factor in the balance of power. Central Europeans looked to the US not only as their ultimate military security against Russia, but as a counter to Franco-German hegemony in the EU-- as do the British, despite everything. Japanese, Taiwanese, Koreans, and Indians rely on the US to offset the rising power of China. Israel counts on the US for its safety, but so do small, rich Persian Gulf states like Qatar and Kuwait.

Ironically, the US, having won the cold war, is adopting the strategy that led the Soviet Union to lose it: hoping that raw military power will be sufficient to intimidate other great powers alienated by its belligerence.

How dumb can you get? The US is relying, as it always has, on the power of ideas. Bush has confidence in the power of American ideals to shape the world, and events so far this year have mostly been vindicating him. Even when we applied "raw military power" a couple of years ago it was only after great diplomatic work, and it was along with an impressive "coalition of the willing" that included 45 nations.

To compound the irony, these other great powers are drafting the blueprints for new international institutions and alliances. That is what the US did during and after the second world war.

Apparently, Lind is comparing... something or other... to the creation of the United Nations after World War II. Do the various obscure initiatives he has mentioned really constitute anything like that? Actually, nothing he has mentioned in this essay is global in scope at all, let alone a second United Nations. Lind is not content to make a more moderate and plausible critique, that the work of international institution-building has been on hiatus during the Bush term. Instead, he chooses to pretend that it has been going on without us, and on a scale comparable to the post-WWII creation of the UN, no less. One drawback to making this claim is that Lind can't provide even a travesty of evidence for it.

But that was a different America, led by wise and constructive statesmen such as Dean Acheson, the secretary of state who wrote of being "present at the creation". The bullying approach of the Bush administration has ensured that the US will not be invited to take part in designing the international architecture of Europe and Asia in the 21st century. This time, the US is absent at the creation.

Virtually every sentence in Lind's article is mindnumbingly wrong. You can see his desperation. He's lashing out as his worldview creaks and groans under the weight of contradictions, and slowly breaks apart and crashes to the ground. Lind wrote this four months ago. It's unlikely that an essay like this would be published today. People are more guarded. But they're thinking it. That's why Lind's article is so valuable; because a whole lot of people still want to believe what Lind wrote. Lind's fantasy-world in which the US made itself the dispensable nation is mentally inhabited by much of the intelligentsia. On the surface, they've started to become aware that times are changing. Subconsciously, a story like Lind's is still driving them.

Meanwhile in the real world, "bullying" is good description of Bush-haters' preferred prose style, but not of the Bush administration, which has shifted towards a combination of lofty rhetoric with coaxing, cajoling, flattery, and soft power. His revolutionary call for universal freedom in the Second Inaugural was by no means backed up by a universal threat of force. What it was instead, aside from being the keystone in the official justification for the Iraq war, and a prelude to the Iraqi elections, was the bold expression of a serious and passionate dissent against a form of international law which legitimizes dictators. 2005 is not quite like 1989. This time America is not taken aback by the power of its ideals, but consciously deploys them. (And the revolutions so far are fewer, and a bit less "velvet.") Nor is 2005 like 1945, though now, as then, the ideas of political legitimacy that underlie the world order are undergoing a fundamental revolution; for 1945 inaugurated a world of (formally) equal, sovereign states, but this time around the notion of sovereignty is being called into question, and displaced by a liberal-democratic criterion, and the precedent of "Robin Hood imperialism" has been established and, resistance notwithstanding, legitimized.

That said, if America has not become the dispensable nation, Bush has gone some way towards making himself the dispensable president. With the Second Inaugural, Bush transcended his Republican roots. He is at odds with his party on immigration. On Social Security reform, too, he enjoys less than full support from the Republican camp. Libertarians and paleocons defected on the subject of Iraq, and I don't see how any conservative, qua conservative, could really take the vision expressed in the Second Inaugural as a justification for the war. By now the liberal case for George W. Bush, the big spender at home, the liberal interventionist abroad, the redistributionist Social Security reformer, is at least as strong as the conservative case. But he has not been embraced by the Democrats, who, like the crazed Clinton-haters of the 1990s, are desperate with rage that the other guy has appropriated their best causes. A president whose aspirations soar above those of his own party, and who is despised by the other party, is not likely to get much done. Maybe that's just as well. In a democracy, leaders are supposed to be dispensable.


  • Without the US, China would probably have overrun Taiwan before now, and, having gotten a taste of conquest, would be eyeing other vulnerable neighbors.

    While the former might well be true, this is a matter (in Chinese eyes) of retaking Chinese land. Far more like the United states reconquering a state that had managed to escape reunification after the Civil War than conquering a foreign nation.

    I don't think that China is necessarily interested in adding non-Chinese territory to China, although like the US, it might not be averse to installing friendly administrations by use of force in areas they consider their sphere, something all three superpowers consider their right (or have up to 20 years ago).

    By Anonymous Tom West, at 5:58 AM  

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