Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Obama: still stuck in the fantasy of Perpetual Peace

The other day, President Obama gifted the United Nations with a speech that demonstrated his oratory skills and penchant for flowery rhetoric. Given partly in celebration of the seventieth anniversary of the establishment of the United Nations (it became a reality on October 24, 1945), this speech glorifies the accomplishments of the UN, while also addressing a number of current real-world events. But more importantly, it justifies the idea of the UN and the overarching goal of that body: lasting world peace and prosperity for all.

A noble goal, to be sure, one that has long captivated the minds of world leaders and prominent thinkers. And in this regard, there is an oft-noted (or assumed) dichotomy of approaches: mutual respect and cooperation versus the threat and use of force. Those who promote the first—like the President—tend to ascribe the second to any and all who disagree with them. From Obama's speech:
It is this international order [created by the United Nations] that has underwritten unparalleled advances in human liberty and prosperity. It is this collective endeavor that’s brought about diplomatic cooperation between the world’s major powers, and buttressed a global economy that has lifted more than a billion people from poverty. It is these international principles that helped constrain bigger countries from imposing our will on smaller ones, and advanced the emergence of democracy and development and individual liberty on every continent.

This progress is real. It can be documented in lives saved, and agreements forged, and diseases conquered, and in mouths fed.
That's the first approach, the one championed by Obama and other proponents of similar visions. And it is contrasted as a matter of course in their opinions by this (again, from the same speech):
There are those who argue that the ideals enshrined in the U.N. charter are unachievable or out of date -- a legacy of a postwar era not suited to our own. Effectively, they argue for a return to the rules that applied for most of human history and that pre-date this institution: the belief that power is a zero-sum game; that might makes right; that strong states must impose their will on weaker ones; that the rights of individuals don’t matter; and that in a time of rapid change, order must be imposed by force.
And specific to the United States:
The United States is not immune from this. Even as our economy is growing and our troops have largely returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, we see in our debates about America’s role in the world a notion of strength that is defined by opposition to old enemies, perceived adversaries, a rising China, or a resurgent Russia; a revolutionary Iran, or an Islam that is incompatible with peace. We see an argument made that the only strength that matters for the United States is bellicose words and shows of military force; that cooperation and diplomacy will not work.
Let's be clear here. There is the "vision of the anointed" (to borrow from Thomas Sowell), the one put forth by Obama and others, and there is only the above "might makes right" vision to oppose it. It's one or the other, according to Obama. That the choice. And given that choice, who in their right mind would opt for the second, would choose war and the loss of liberty over prosperity and increased liberty? The problem here, of course, is that it's a false dichotomy. It's not one or the other; it's not now, and it never has been. There is all kinds of room between these two extremes. But before going there, let's first examine Obama's vision a little more closely, because frankly it's kind of vague and bereft of specifics.

The fundamental idea is simple: the United Nations and the international rules/laws it creates can maintain peace in the world and promote prosperity. Indeed, Obama and many others claim that is exactly what has transpired over the last seventy years: the world is a better place and has been a more peaceful place because the UN works. Of course, there is a an assumption here, the notorious "correlation equals causation" one, ever so common among thinkers great and small. And that assumption cannot withstand scrutiny because the last seventy years has also been the period of the Pax Americana, a characterization I have addressed previously:
Most recently, there is the Pax Americana, a term used by different people to signify various periods both before and after World War II to be sure, but one which I think should be applied to the years from about 1950 to about now (hopefully longer). Used by many pejoratively--including JFK in 1963--and objected to by others because of the existence of the Soviets, hindsight now affords us the ability to see the period more clearly, wherein it very much follows the pattern of the previous two periods discussed.

True enough, the world has not been free from violence at all in this period. And the threat of nuclear destruction has hung over all of it. Yet, American power checked the dreams of Soviet leaders and enforced the boundaries of states--many of theme arbitrary--throughout the world. There were protracted wars in Korea and Vietnam to be sure, but the ultimate consequences for being on the "other side," no matter who supposedly "won" became clear. And the supposed other superpower--the Soviet Union--was really no such thing, as the wealth and power of the United States increased exponentially, while the Soviets struggled to maintain a facade of success until it all came crashing down around them with the fall of the Wall.
So, to be blunt, why is it that the UN gets the credit? Because there is a very clear alternative to the storyline Obama is providing. And indeed, this alternative also explains why Korea and Vietnam did not lead to larger conflicts, something that Obama's storyline does not. More importantly, it offers a far more Real Politick explanation for the collapse of the Soviet Union. That said, both versions also allow for the role of commerce and capitalism in all of this, though a careful reading of Obama's speech suggests that in his storyline, it's economic cooperation that is key.

This idea of cooperation undergirds Obama's vision, the vision of the annointed (those who believe they know what is best for everyone else by virtue of their superior intellect), the utopian dreamers (including both hard core communists and anarchists), the vision of all those who suppose there is a future available wherein there is perpetual peace and unlimited prosperity. The essential supposition is simple: people will come together as a whole and put aside selfish desires in order to benefit the whole.

By the why, I should also mention that I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I'm looking to sell...

Of course, it's easy to mock. And it is perhaps a little unfair, insofar as I know Obama and other like-minded folks recognize there are limitations to the idea, realize there will be problematic "children" who refuse to share and/or play nice. That's what the all-powerful UN is for:
And that’s why we should celebrate the fact that later today the United States will join with more than 50 countries to enlist new capabilities -- infantry, intelligence, helicopters, hospitals, and tens of thousands of troops -- to strengthen United Nations peacekeeping. These new capabilities can prevent mass killing, and ensure that peace agreements are more than words on paper. But we have to do it together. Together, we must strengthen our collective capacity to establish security where order has broken down, and to support those who seek a just and lasting peace.
But getting back to this notion of cooperation, there is a necessity of sorts in this regard that Obama addresses towards the end of his speech:
Let me start from a simple premise: Catastrophes, like what we are seeing in Syria, do not take place in countries where there is genuine democracy and respect for the universal values this institution is supposed to defend.
He goes on to explain how superior democracy and democratic institutions are to authoritarian ones, both with regard to bettering society and to maintaining governments across time. He notes how democracy can take different forms, base on the where of it, the culture of those who establish it. And Obama concludes thusly:
That's why our strongest leaders -- from George Washington to Nelson Mandela -- have elevated the importance of building strong, democratic institutions over a thirst for perpetual power.
Now, Obama is somewhat correct here: democratic institutions do limit humanitarian-style catastrophes, do lead to more stability across time. There's no getting around this, as it's been true since the time of the ancient Greeks. But a note of caution: Obama's word choice is wrong when he speaks of "democracies." Democratic institutions yes, but actual democracies no. Because the governments of the United States and of the European nations that Obama describes as "mature democracies" are not actually democracies. They are republics, or in classical terminology mixed governments. They have democratic elements, to be sure, but also aristocratic/oligarchic ones and, in most cases, monarchical/tyrannical ones.

But I don't mean to turn this into a lecture on forms of government. The key here is the need for republican governments to establish a continued world peace. That idea has been offered before. Indeed, there is a clue in the last two words of the above quote that suggests a source. Obama indicates "perpetual power" as the antithesis of his vision and one cannot help but think of Immanuel Kant's 1795 essay "Perpetual Peace."
Immanuel Kant

In this brief treatise, Kant lays out what he sees as the necessary conditions for establishing and maintaining perpetual peace among all the states of the world, the necessary conditions for eliminating war once and for all. The piece has two sections. The first is a list of six rules that should immediately be put into place, according to Kant. The second is a list of three definitive requirements that must be met in order to guarantee the future. Setting aside the first section, lets look at Kant's three "Definitive Articles for Perpetual Peace among States":
1) "The Civil Constitution of Every State Should Be Republican"

2) "The Law of Nations Shall be Founded on a Federation of Free States"

3) "The Law of World Citizenship Shall Be Limited to Conditions of Universal Hospitality"
Do those look familiar? Remember, Kant is writing in 1795. There are, in fact, only a limited number of true republics, there is no United Nations or even a League of Nations yet, and the idea of world citizenship was simply unheard of. Yet Kant has pinned down exactly what many imagine are the critical features for a world without war: democracy, an international body politic, and open borders for peaceful purposes.

Now, someone who is predisposed to accept the vision of Obama might read Kant's articles and say "yes, of course! Kant pinpointed these things centuries ago and was absolutely right." And to be fair, Kant—consistent and deep thinker that he is—has probably defended this vision better than anyone since, despite the relative brevity of the essay. But the first article is problematic (which, I think, Kant knew full well). If a state is not an established republic—Kant rightly defines republicanism as "the political principle of the separation of the executive power (the administration) from the legislative"—what then? And as history has clearly shown, establishing a republic is no easy task, whether it is done from without or from within (contrary to Obama's remarks in the speech), especially when there are neighboring states that can impact such a process.

This is the fundamental fallacy of the vision: there is no means through which all states can be brought into the fold, so to speak. And because of this, the international body politic, the UN, is necessarily used by those non-republican states for their own ends, not the ends of the world at large. Thus, the idea that selfish desires can be eliminated when it comes to the actions of states is dead on arrival.

But allowing—just for the moment—that this was possible, that all states could be induced into becoming true republics, there is the secondary issue of prosperity, an issue that people like Obama seem to believe would naturally occur if the above conditions were met. Such people would do well to read the first section of Kant's essay more carefully. For in it is the following "rule":
4. "National Debts Shall Not Be Contracted with a View to the External Friction of States"
I like Kant; I think he is both an original and careful thinker, by and large. But here, on this point, he falls flat on his face. The idea is simple: Kant would have states limit themselves from going into debt over any purpose that is not explicitly domestic. And those who seem to share his vision—like Obama—gloss over or ignore this particular issue as a matter of course. The issue is, quite simply, that of resources. All states are not created equal in this respect. They never have been and they never will be. And states with greater resources are not going to degrade their own standards of living for the benefit of those states with fewer resources. That's a clear limitation of republicanism, for the people of a state necessarily remain sovereign and can be expected to look after their interests as a group above and beyond the interests of the world-at-large.

The idea of a rule that limits economic expansion--because it limits national debt--is a non-starter. Resources in the moment are always limited. And ultimately, conflict between states is about resources, period. It may be couched in other terms—religious, cultural, or even humanitarian—but ultimately it is resources or access to resources.

This creates a very obvious paradox: universal peace and universal prosperity are incompatible, but the latter still requires the former. The truth of it: Kant's outline is only about perpetual peace. He is not addressing inequality in the least and his proposed international league would not be about addressing it, either. No doubt, he hopes that less war means more prosperity and less inequality, but he knows what man is about, fundamentally. From his essay:
The state of peace among men living side by side is not the natural state (status naturalis); the natural state is one of war.
The current utopian vision that infests the minds of people like Obama and UN dignitaries ignores this reality and wrongly equates peace and prosperity. Again, these are two very different propositions. And it is pure fantasy to suppose both goals are attainable. Peace is a fine thing, but it is not maintained by handshakes and flowery rhetoric alone, much less by unattainable promises for future goods. Because the reality of potential conflicts is ever-present. And man is and always will be a selfish animal. States rise and fall; those at the pinnacle may help secure a general peace and may even increase prosperity for those in other states, but there is no "perpetual peace" to be had, above and beyond such periods of dominance.

1 comment:

  1. "mutual respect and cooperation?" Obama's foreign policy? How many countries have seen US troops since his election? Obama's simply neocon lite, and a lot of people have a thirst for the full-flavored brew.