20 February 2011

The Death of Nations

WikiLeaks. Ah, the joys of self-righteous indignation. Right now it may be the one chief sentiment shared by both exposers and the exposed. For my part I'm not sure of anything else our makers and our critics of foreign policy share. I mean, other than the belief that the right conduct of foreign affairs is a Jeffersonianly self-evident truth - the whistleblowers in this case being both Divinely and naturally certain how foreign policy ought to be conducted, the whistleblown perhaps equally sure how it must be conducted. As usual, what we end up with is two columns of rigid, military-formation dogmatists shouting past each other. What both critics and criticized seem to have forgotten is the whole point of any foreign policy: namely, the safety of human beings - and not just of the ingenious, brilliant, awesome, but ultimately unpredictable things human beings invent or create. And that can sometimes mean the safety of what we call labor no less than that of capital.

These are hard times, I'll admit, for those who value also the dignity of the human creature, and not just the power of human systems and other inventions. Nowadays we tend to love best those entities that claim the sole power and the exclusive right to create jobs, regardless of whether the actual jobs are forthcoming or not. And this love has some interesting consequences for our nations' foreign policies. Unless I completely misread its spirit, our Age is one in which what passes for "foreign affairs" means largely catering to the wants, or appeasing the wrath, of superhuman global monstrosities: corporations, charities, international crisis groups, world-environment purifiers, divine-wrath-and-vengeance inflictors, "antiterror" private armies and contractors, etc. The list is practically endless, the only requirement to get on it apparently being that you become the sort of agency that has no long-term human* investment in, or commitment to, the good of the geographic place in which your highly mobile staff find themselves working.

* As distinct from short-term operations of specialists: medical, peace-keeping, famine or disaster relief, infrastructural, etc.

Small wonder that, in busy times like ours, we find ourselves forgetting a point which may have been easier to remember in other, more humanly-paced and -proportioned eras. The point, namely, that any sensible - i.e., humane - foreign policy has but one chief aim: to secure the well-being of real people, in real physical spaces - localities, regions, countries, even continents. Good diplomacy, in other words, must strive humbly to understand the good of specific peoples, in a specific place or contiguity of places, who often have a long history of living or neighboring together. Like, for instance, Mexico and the United States. Or Pakistan and India. A history that may often seem obscure and perplexing to outsiders interested primarily in corporate investment, or in hit-and-run kinds of humanitarian intervention. Obviously, then, the people "on the ground" who share this long history may have needs very different from those of foreign investors, or natural-resource extractors, or even humanitarian relief workers. These "on the ground" folks, unlike their more mobile benefactors, are in constant need of finding ways to get along peaceably with each other, not just in the hit-and-run, but in the long run. And especially right after the well-intentioned mobile benefactors have all gone home. That holds true, I might add, regardless of how much the "on-the-grounders" may secretly despise even their oldest or closest neighbors' beliefs, ambitions, agendas, or other idiosyncrasies. As the saying goes, No, you can't choose your neighbors. But you'd be wise in choosing not to antagonize them unnecessarily.

Now as you can imagine, this "getting-along" can be a very complex, painstaking, time-needing, trial-and-error kind of thing. It's not the sort of political wisdom one can apprehend in an instant, like a mathematical or economic axiom; nor is it the kind of truth that glows self-evidently from the pages of some constitutional document however sacred. It may also require a good deal of what some of our more ideologically-charged souls today would denounce as compromise. Or, worse, hypocrisy. In other words, it's not the sort of truth likely to go down well with some of our more angry or ideologically consistent US politicians today. And here I mean the likes of a Ron Paul, or a Dennis Kucinich, no less than the likes of a Sarah Palin.

One or two further points may need to be clarified before we go on. When I speak of a sensible, humane foreign policy as one which seeks the good of real physical spaces, I mean mostly those entities we know as countries - territorial states with more or less defined and recognizable political borders. Notice, on the other hand, how little I said about certain other things, which seem to have acquired a great deal of prestige in today's globally enlightened world. I said very little - and that little mostly negative - about global organizations, and religions, and ideologies, and civilizations (ORIC). My reason is that these are profoundly different entities from any mere place, or the inhabiting of any mere place. What I collectively term ORIC are things that can overlap and intermingle, and whose aims and agendas often overlap and intermingle - and yes, even clash - within a single or contiguous geographic space. And as we all re-learned, for example, from the Balkans in the 1990s, clashes between religious or other ideological fanatics within the same country can get very ugly. The worst scenario is when the partisans and adherents of any one of these religions, civilizations, etc, become angrily and militantly over-aligned with each other across a wide region, or even across the globe, at the expense of any sense of kinship with physical neighbors whose allegiances are different. When that happens, even the smallest or most peaceably composed territories can be pulled apart - even, sometimes, to the extent of engulfing whole continents in the most savagely intimate wars imaginable. The moral lesson here, I believe, is that at one level or another all war is civil war. And especially at the level of those less freely mobile elements, in any population, who tend to suffer from war's losses far more than they profit from its "gains."

Not, of course, that we should expect this sort of thing to unduly alarm our modern ORIC. After all, they can move about pretty much anywhere they choose round the globe. Just look at that essentially global, politically and corporately organized civilization we call China. For some reason I find it hard to imagine official Chinese hearts bleeding for Africa in quite the same copious measure as Chinese investments currently flow towards Africa. In any case, it really is asking quite a lot, don't you think?, to expect such lofty creatures as our modern ORIC to care all that much about what happens to some slovenly backwater of a people whom, up until now, nobody important has ever even heard of. And least of all a people who happen to be mired, through nobody's fault but their own, in some remote, corporately irrelevant hole-in-the-globe.

(But please note: I'm not trying to suggest that organizations, etc, are bad things as such. In themselves they are good, necessary, and at all events inescapable parts of any fabric of human existence. It is only when we take them too seriously - too politically - that serious problems arise. It is only when we treat and reverence them as overarching, sovereign political entities in their own right - and as having the further right to dispose of the affairs and resources of territorial states and populations as they see fit - that they become the bloated, monstrous, ultimately subhuman things we know and loathe* today.)

* At least in our inmost souls?

Now as I've said, our modern ORIC may be able to view with a considerable degree of calm the outbreak of civil war in many or most of the world's poorer countries. But the same is not true of our makers and critics of foreign policy. These latter must make at least some pretense of concern for what happens to real places and the people in them. My point is that more and more these days I wonder if that concern is anything other than a pretense. In other words, the more our experts and critics feign concern for the people on the ground, the more I fear they may be actually bringing into play a certain other factor. For this is where I believe something commonly called nationalism really comes in handy.

Nationalism is one of those strange human passions that looks and behaves very differently when it is manipulated rationally than when it is believed in passionately. On the one hand, when your constituents believe in it passionately, it can be a very persuasive means of convincing them that you really care what happens to them, and to the place where they live. It works especially well with that vulnerable category of citizens (end of par. 3) who can't relocate all that smoothly when there's a crisis, and who, at least in poorer countries, tend to be more victimized than victorious in the event of war. On the other hand, nationalism can also be used rationally as a bogey or bugbear - as I believe many of our makers and critics of US foreign policy have gotten used to using it. In that case it can be most useful in weakening territiorial loyalties, by making ordinary citizens ashamed to avow even the most basic and sensible devotion to the good of the territorial place in which they reside. Once that happens, then nationalism - both the "rude" passion itself and the "progressive" fear and horror of it - can become a marvelous device for converting the globe into the feeding- and stomping-grounds of ORIC. And the way nationalism does that is by making a certain distant relative, most commonly known as patriotism, look utterly ridiculous.

Nationalism can make ordinary patriotism look very stupid, by alleging that love of one's country will inevitably spill over into the desire to invade other countries - as a certain Hitler-appeasing but otherwise extremely globally-minded Lord Lothian argued in 1930s Britain. It can also make ordinary patriotism look very spineless, by alleging that a simple love of country is mean-spirited and ineffectual unless it issue in the desire to invade other countries - as Hitler himself better-than-argued in 1930s Europe. And meanwhile, right now, nationalism may be the best pretext ever devised, by those who worship spatial mobility and long to punish or otherwise marginalize the spatially immobile, for shaming and discrediting all patriotism as pure trash. And rude, ignorant trash at that. And it is precisely this suspicion I have - that at bottom both WikiLeakers and Leaked share our modern ORIC's rather snobbish disdain for patriotism - that makes me wonder if all this gasping, sputtering outrage isn't just a lot of finespun hooey.

But before I close, it occurs to me that some definition of what I mean by patriotism and nationalism might be in order.

Patriotism is when you love your country - or even a particular region or locale within it - enough to want it to be itself, and nothing but itself. The inescapable corollary of which is that other countries, both near and far, must also be free to be themselves. Free, I mean, without their having to worry about others invading or occupying or otherwise remolding them in the image of some other, allegedly superior country. Like, say, Germany with respect to Poland or Russia. Or even Iraq with respect to, say, Kurdistan or Kuwait.

Nationalism is when you're so swollen with pride in your locality or region that you want it to become the whole country. Or so swollen with pride in your country that you want it to become the whole continent, or even the whole earth. And remember, no country has ever tried to do either of those things without bursting its seams. Just ask France or Germany. Or Russia. China may also be in a very good position to answer that question not too may decades from now.

By the way, has anyone seen any of America's seams lately?

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