Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Night Terror Of A Multipolar World

I was recently listening to a podcast from a blogger who has a strong knowledge of foreign affairs.  A subscriber had asked him what he saw as the future of the United States over the next 20 or 30 years.  The response of this blogger was that there was no question that the power and grandeur of the United States will diminish during that time frame, like it or not.  He also said that, "...the United States is still big, is still powerful, and if it is a mentally challenged giant, it's still a big one. So the entire issue for...the planet is, how do you defuse that ? How do you get that power to transform itself ? Because the real task in historical terms is to make the United States a country. A normal country. This is the process that others had [to go through] before.  You know you go from Empire to normal country."  He gave examples of countries that had gone from proud centers of expansive empire to a smaller, humbler "normal," stripped of toxic imperial ambitions. 

As he named these countries, I noticed that almost all of them were European nations.  Some of the names surprised me, particularly Great Britain.  I had to ask myself whether Britain had ever been "normal."  It is true that over the last 100 years or so, Britain went from a globe-spanning empire to a political entity ostensibly and nominally centered on one island nation.  But there is plenty of evidence that the aristocrats and politicians of Britain bitterly resented every step of the journey from "empire" to "normal," and that they fought against it at every turn (and are still fighting).  It also seems obvious to me that Britain is living vicariously through the exploits of the United States, and that its status as one of the "Five Eyes" is the vehicle of its vicarious life, and that if Britain could once again make itself the center of an empire, it most certainly would.  I also thought of the resurgence of an almost fascist nationalism in many European countries, fueled and financed by American and British government agencies and NGO's (some of them religious) with deep pockets.  The result of that resurgence is the emergence of several nations who desperately want to believe that they are All That And A Bag Of Chips, and the creation of a climate in which, sooner or later, they'll get around to trying to smash each other's chips as they have throughout most of their history.  Indeed, some have already been hard at work at it.  (Talk about the outworkings of damnation!)

I thought of what a "normal" nation would look like, and the first word that came to mind was "humble."  I thought of the ingredients that seem to be required in most cases to bring a nation to humility.  One hugely necessary (but, unfortunately, not sufficient) ingredient seems to be suffering.  That made me think of Germany in the decades immediately after World War Two, and the periphery nations (Spain, Portugal, Greece, and, to an extent, Italy) who are being squeezed by the power center of the EU right now.   I also thought of the many nations on earth whose history is not grandiose, people who have accomplished very little more than "being quiet, and working with their own hands, and minding their own business."  (Maybe they knew something the more grandiose nations missed?)

And that led me back again to considering the Big Kahuna, the United States of America, as I asked myself, "Can the United States actually make the journey from empire to 'normal' without cracking up like a drug-crazed perp flailing around on the ground and needing to be physically restrained?"  I thought of another podcast I heard this past week in which Professor Ama Mazama, a Black homeschooler who is also a university dean described the harmful effects which an Anglo-centric school curriculum has, not only on minority students and students of color, but also on the students of the majority culture.  For such a curriculum wrongly inflates such students' views of themselves and their culture, and prevents such students from understanding the true place of themselves and their nation in the world, as it hinders them from preparing for the inevitable emergence of a multipolar world in which bullying and throwing one's weight around simply will not work.

That is the curriculum by which generations of Americans have been brainwashed, and, together with American mainstream media, it has created a kind of American "citizen" who is peculiarly unable to comprehend present realities.  This "citizen" therefore is still conditioned to look at the world in the same way that a cowboy of the late 1800's would have looked at an unconquered wilderness.  And this is the reason why the dominant culture in the United States can't seem to get along with anyone else in the world.  Nor can it adjust to the obvious signs that it is losing its empire.  One of those signs is that because of the current crash in commodity prices, it is no longer economically viable to station U.S. troops in resource-rich regions of the world.  An empire whose armies cost more to station in faraway places than the empire can "earn" from those faraway places will, sooner instead of later, lose its claim on those faraway places.  There are many other signs, but I don't have time this week to go into them.

Returning to the blogger whom I quoted at the beginning of this post, I was struck by a question he asked: "When is the last time the United States showed leadership in anything?  I don't mean bullied somebody to applaud or agree with the United States. I don't mean this. I mean actual LEADERSHIP.  Where you don't force people, you actually inspire them and you make it possible for them to do  something. To get something done."  If we're going to ask about leadership, let's ask where the world ought to be led.  The world that is emerging is a world in which the natural resources and raw materials needed for the kind of global industrial economy we have enjoyed are in short supply.  Rather than wrapping ourselves in ever more consumerist junk as a display of "status," the task will be to learn to live well on less.  That will be the material part of a higher task, namely, to learn what we were brought into the world for.  The outcome of that kind of wisdom is that we learn how to properly relate to one another as fellow human beings, and not as one group of people trying to turn other groups of people into property or into toilet bowls into which the first group of people can vomit their unresolved hostility.

The thing is, the United States has had repeated opportunities to demonstrate that kind of actual leadership, and has blown them all.  One recent chance for genuine leadership came with the publishing in 2009 of a "National Strategic Narrative," a policy document which advocated a shift of U.S. international policy along the following lines (sourced from Wikipedia):
  • From control in a closed system to credible influence in an open system
  • From containment to sustainment
  • From deterrence and defense to civilian engagement and competition
  • From zero sum to positive sum global politics/economics
  • From national security to national prosperity and security
Now, I must confess that I have not read the entire document, but from what I do know, it seems to advocate a shift from "leadership" by coercion and the threat of force toward leadership by example and positive engagement with the rest of the world that results in mutual benefit for all.  Leadership by example, in turn, depends on setting an example that is worth imitating, and this depends on wisdom, a willingness to learn, and hard work.  And the amazing thing is that this document was prepared by a team of Navy and Marine Corps officers!  You who are astute students of the history of the last 6 years, tell me whether our government or the wealthiest members of our society actually followed this advice.  But other nations have followed advice very much along these lines, and they are emerging as the new world leaders, whose leadership is very much by example. 

In the United States, however, instead of wisdom, we have a society containing many members who are in mortal terror of the world that is now emerging.  They are reacting to the terror by choosing for their leaders a cadre of extraordinarily creepy characters, with Gollum's half brother being a chief among them.  Thus they have become a terror to the rest of us.


Aimee said...

Another thought-provoking post. Thank you for being so consistently challenging, erudite, and such a concise and elegant writer. Your posts, regardless of the content, are uniformly wonderful to read.

I haven't much time to comment right now but a few quick thoughts - England is of course the example that springs to mind of an empire now "reduced" to an "ordinary" country. Of course you are right that the stakeholders fought that change tooth and nail, but if you look at the country as a whole rather than at those individual entities, I think it is clear that England has succeeded in making the transition without coming apart at the seams and while retaining most of the elements of a functioning communal society - maybe that's the best that can be hoped for?

Things have changed quite a bit since the aftermath of the second world war, when the British empire was breaking up. Specifically, it seems to me that the entities with the most to lose - no longer individuals and modestly-sized banks, but truly huge, international corporations - have grown greatly in power as compared to the power of the governments by whose grace they ostensibly exist. Reminds me of what I learned in middle school, when Napoleon was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, and he took the crown out of the pope's hands and placed it on his own head, thereby reversing a power structure that had existed since Charlemagne.

I fear that as the United States continues along the path of "de-emperializing" if you will, that it will shortly become clear that the power of those international organizations exceeds that of the humbled government by a country mile. What will happen then I don't know. Have you read the wonderful novels of Neal Stephenson? My favorites - "The Diamond Age" and "Snow Crash" are dated now, but they are well worth reading for a vision of a society in which personal identity relates to various entities other than nation-states. I think he is a futurist (and novelist) of rare talent.

Also - when you asked what was the last time the U.S, showed real leadership, the example that jumped into my head was "the moon mission." Of all the ways in which our country has declined since, oh, the Vietnam War, the one I lament the most is the loss of our leadership in the international scientific community. Its just a damn shame that faction and fundamentalism has been allowed to destroy our scientific leadership on the global stage.

TH in SoC said...

Hello Aimee,
Thank you for your very kind comment. You do bring up a good point concerning England, namely, that many ordinary rank-and-file members of a dysfunctional society are actually very decent people - which is why they are not in positions of power. I'll have to read the Neal Stephenson novels. (I think in six months, God willing, I will have much more time to do fun things.) Feliz Navidad!