The Latin American tropism

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.

The Paris in which I grew up (outside of the long summer vacations), was a gray, dank and dark place. It was an easy locale from which to fantasize about the sun-drenched tropics. Palm-trees were our favorite trees because we never saw any except at the movies. Of all the tropics, the Latin American tropics took pride of place. Perhaps that was because France had negligible colonial entanglement there and therefore, no colonial retirees to mug our fantasy with their recollections of reality. Or perhaps, it was because, well after the emergence of rock-and-roll in France, close dancing was still taking place to the sound of Latin music: Rumba, Samba, Tango. One sensuous experience easily becomes grafted onto another; the clinging softness of girls’ flesh became associated in our minds with that particular kind of music and thence, with a whole unknown continent. This cocktail of sensations biased me until now in favor of that continent.

At one of the stops where several foreign student buses met, I became smitten with a Bolivian girl and she with me. We were to each other the most exotic thing ever touched. She had luscious brown skin, thick, black, lustrous Indian hair, swinging hips, and a lovely round chest. Our buses met again several times and the passion was renewed each time. Although those encounters involved little more than many sloppy deep kisses and some furious mutual groping, indirectly, they were to shape an important part of my mental life, a favorable disposition toward the otherness of others, “xenophilia,” if you will.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. NATO sends a message to Russia
  2. Iraq doesn’t need to break up to be successful (so says a scholar at Brookings)
  3. Benedict Anderson (political science) reviews Clifford Geertz (anthropology)
  4. The Muddled Mystique of Karl Polanyi
  5. The prison house of gender
  6. Investigating Madison’s Political Religion (central planning is hard to do)

The Cruel, Conceited Follies of Trump’s Colonialist Foreign Policy

I typically prefer to abstain from writing too extensively on electoral politics. For one, it’s not my area of expertise and I simply don’t enjoy it that much, but also I think the type of issues that come up in electoral politics are a sensationalist distraction from the meaningful policy debates that actually go on in the back rooms of congress and think tanks, as well as the deeper and more important philosophical, economic, and cultural issues that plague our political situation. Thus, I prefer to write in more detail about public policy or more theoretical economic and philosophical issues rather than the day-to-day drudgery of superficial political news. However, the recent discussion on foreign policy on the campaign trail surprisingly has the potential to become at least mildly substantive, so it is in my mind worth analyzing in greater depth. It should be noted that I am far from an expert in foreign policy, so apologies in advance for any errors and if this article as a whole is a farce.

The purpose of this article is to lay out and critically assess Donald Trump’s foreign policy. It is my contention that Trump does have some fairly consistent underlying instincts, if not principles, on foreign policy that may be inferred from his public comments on the issue. This may be characterized by a concerning belief that the ultimate end of foreign policy should be to aggressively promote America’s interests abroad, akin to a radical, new type of Jacksonian colonialism. If I am right about Trump’s underlying views on foreign policy, a Trump presidency would result in disaster. It would mean massive violations of humanitarian rights and would fail to meet the goals even Trump himself is seeking to attain.

Clinton on Trump’s Foreign Policy

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton delivered a major speech ostensibly criticizing Trump’s foreign policy. Unfortunately, most of her speech was more of an attack on the narrative of Trump’s campaign and Trump himself than his actual foreign policy. This is largely because she thinks Trump doesn’t really actually have a foreign policy; his positions, Clinton thinks, are incoherent, ignorant, or just not even positions at all. This is probably the most quoted passage of the speech:

Donald Trump’s ideas aren’t just different — they are dangerously incoherent.
They’re not even really ideas: just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies. He’s not just unprepared, he’s temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability and immense responsibility. This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes — because it’s not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war just because somebody got under his very thin skin.

Clinton’s strongest case against Trump was that he is “temperamentally unfit to hold office.” She makes this case even more persuasively elsewhere in the speech:

Imagine Donald Trump sitting in the Situation Room, making life-or-death decisions on behalf of the United States. Imagine him deciding whether to send your children into battle. Imagine if he had not just his Twitter account at his disposal when he’s angry, but America’s entire arsenal.

Do we want him making those calls – someone thin-skinned and quick to anger, who lashes out at the smallest criticism?

…I’ll leave it to the psychiatrists to explain his affection for tyrants. I just wonder how anyone could be so wrong about who America’s real friends are. But it matters. Because if you don’t know exactly who you’re dealing with, men like Putin will eat your lunch.

I typically don’t find these types of arguments convincing. After all, it doesn’t matter so much the character of public officials as the institutional incentives they face. But in matters of foreign policy problems of temperament and character do matter because the social situation between foreign leaders in diplomacy can often make a huge difference. Bad manners can and have caused wars (eg., there’s an argument to be made that Jefferson’s bad manners towards British diplomat Anthony Merry helped lead to the War of 1812). These points are confirmed by the fact that world leaders are terrified by Trump and how the intelligence community is afraid he could spill security-sensitive confidential information. (Of course, Clinton also has a less-than-optimal track record on the matter of intelligence security).

What is Trump’s Foreign Policy?

However, Clinton is only partially correct in claiming that Trump’s ideas on foreign policy are “incoherent” or that he doesn’t really have a foreign policy at all. It is true that, as with every other issue save immigration and free trade, Trump switches his positions a lot. But underneath the prime facie incoherence is an overarching vision for a foreign policy that is both somewhat coherent and terrifying.

First, a common misconception needs to be clarified about Trump’s foreign policy views. The press commonly treats Trump as if he’s more of a dove on war and foreign intervention than Clinton, citing his recent criticisms of the Iraq War and Libya. This myth is particularly peddled in pro-Trump “libertarian” circles (with an emphasis on the scare quotes). It is widely accepted that Trump’s foreign policy are less interventionist than Clinton’s fairly hawkish views. However, this is decidedly not the case.

Zach Beauchamp has persuasively made the case that Trump is, in fact, more hawkish in some sense than Clinton. The most consistent point that Trump has made for years now is that America should be waging, in Beauchamp’s words, “colonial wars of conquest” for the purpose of taking resources from other countries. Beauchamp notes:

He first debuted this plan in an April 2011 television appearance, amid speculation that he might run for the GOP nomination. In the interview, Trump seemed to suggest the US should seize Iraqi oil fields and just operate them on its own.

“In the old days when you won a war, you won a war. You kept the country,” Trump said. “We go fight a war for 10 years, 12 years, lose thousands of people, spend $1.5 trillion, and then we hand the keys over to people that hate us on some council.” He has repeated this idea for years, saying during one 2013 Fox News appearance, “I’ve said it a thousand times.”

Trump sees this as just compensation for invading Iraq in the first place. “I say we should take it [Iraq’s oil] and pay ourselves back,” he said in one 2013 speech.

As Beauchamp says, “To be clear: Trump’s plan is to use American ground troops to forcibly seize the most valuable resource in two different sovereign countries. The word for that is colonialism.”

This type of colonialism is even more extreme than the colonialism of American imperialism of the early twentieth century, where colonial wars of conquest were typically justified in terms of America’s “manifest destiny” to spread democracy throughout the world that would eventually benefit the conquered, often coaxed in racial terms (as typified by Kipling’s famous poem), rather than explicitly justified by looting natural resources.

Many people alleging Trump’s dovishness point to his recent criticisms of US intervention in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. The idea that Trump is a dove on these issues, however, is largely a myth. The actual record shows that what Trump’s comments over the past decade or so on foreign policy are largely in line with what Beauchamp sees as his colonialism.

As Beauchamp points out, Trump actually supported intervention in Libya at the time and called for even more aggressive intervention than the Obama administration engaged in (which, as a reminder, included Hillary Clinton at that point):

In a March 2011 vlog post uncovered by BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski and Christopher Massie, Trump full-throatedly endorsed intervening in the country’s civil war — albeit on humanitarian grounds, not for its oil.

“Qaddafi in Libya is killing thousands of people, nobody knows how bad it is, and we’re sitting around,” Trump said. “We should go in, we should stop this guy, which would be very easy and very quick. We could do it surgically, stop him from doing it, and save these lives.” In a later interview, he went further, endorsing outright regime change: “if you don’t get rid of Gaddafi, it’s a major, major black eye for this country.”

Shortly after the US intervention in Libya began in March 2011, Trump criticized the Obama administration’s approach — for not being aggressive enough. Trump warned that the US was too concerned with supporting the rebels and not trying hard enough to — you guessed it — take the oil.

“I would take the oil — and stop this baby stuff,” Trump declared. “I’m only interested in Libya if we take the oil. If we don’t take the oil, I’m not interested.”

What to make, then, of Trump’s more recent comments where he says he “would have stayed out of Libya”? He’s either incoherent, as Clinton claims, or he’s lying. The first possibility has largely been explored and, though plausible, is uninteresting for present purpose. Therefore, I’ll focus here on the latter (and, in my mind, more likely) possibility. I would argue that Trump is engaging in what could be called, in Arthur Melzer’s understanding of Straussian terms, a sort of dishonest perversion of political esotericism. But unlike the political esotericism of early modern political philosophers who sought to make the world more tolerant, Trump seeks the exact opposite ends. He’s recently been hiding his colonialist views in anti-war rhetoric to attract votes from Americans fatigued with perpetual nation-building through the Bush and Obama administrations. In reality, one of the only sincere substantive positions he’s retained throughout the years is a colonialist desire to wage war for oil. He could not be much further from an anti-war candidate.

As for Iraq, Trump has repeated the claim that he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning many times. Just yesterday, in reaction to Clinton’s speech, he repeated this yet again. “Crooked Hillary said, ‘Oh, Donald Trump, his finger on the button,’,” he said. “I’m the one that didn’t want to go into Iraq, folks, and she’s the one that stupidly raised her hand to go into Iraq and destabilize the entire Middle East.”

In reality, Trump himself wanted to stupidly go into Iraq at the time. In a 2002 interview with Howard Stern he said he supported invading Iraq, adding “I wish the first time it was done correctly.” How did he think it should have been done? Though he wasn’t specific in that interview, his later comments suggest he thinks a “correct” invasion of Iraq would be more aggressive and, of course, focus on taking their oil. Despite being sharply critical of the war later in the Bush administration (though note how he critiques the way it was “handled,” not getting involved in the first place), he supported McCain’s position in favor of the Troop Surge when endorsing him in 2008, claiming, though he wanted to pull out as soon as possible, he wanted to pull out with a victory. Even his most recent comments “critical” of the war, when viewed in the context of his overall foreign policy motivations, aren’t really dovish at all. As he said in 2013, “When I heard that we were first going into Iraq, some very smart people told me, ‘Well, we’re actually going for the oil,’ and I said, ‘All right, I get that.’ [But] we didn’t take the oil!”

Recent comments by Trump against the Iraq War, I think, are well explained by his aforementioned dishonest political esotericism. The record shows Trump disagreed with Bush’s Iraq policy because the motivations were too humanitarian and weren’t aggressive enough prior to the surge. Indeed, Trump’s dishonest claim to dovishness on Iraq has been widely proven false in the press (and yes, each different word links to a different source saying the same thing).

Beauchamp points out that Trump’s views on Syria can’t be described as doveish, as he is largely in agreement with Hillary Clinton:

But the two of them support more or less the same military escalation in Syria. Both Clinton and Trump have proposed carving out “safe zones” in the country, which means clearing out a chunk of its territory and protecting it from aggressors.

Trump sees this as the answer to the Syrian refugee crisis — if you can keep the Syrians there, they won’t have to come over here (or to Europe). “What I like is build a safe zone, it’s here, build a big, beautiful safe zone and you have whatever it is so people can live, and they’ll be happier,” he said in a campaign appearance. “I mean, they’re gonna learn German, they’re gonna learn all these different languages. It’s ridiculous.”

Similarly, both candidates have emphasized the need to bomb ISIS in Iraq and Syria — with Trump famously summarizing his policy as “bomb the shit out of” ISIS. But the way in which Trump plans to wage war on ISIS is far more aggressive — and illegal — than anything Clinton proposed.

He goes on to show that Trump endorses killing the families of suspected terrorists and supports torture for detainees, both of which are illegal war crimes. The killing of suspected terrorists’ families, in particular, is far more extreme than anything Clinton’s proposed and a violation of international law.

Trump essentially views other countries in one of two ways, the way he seems to view people: either as enemies to be defeated economically (eg. China and Mexico) and militarily (eg. Lybia and Syria) or assets to be exploited for American interests via colonial conquest (eg. Iraq). Indeed, he combines the worse elements of neoconservative interventionism with the worst elements of isolationism that my fellow Notewriter Brandon Christensen points out. Like isolationists, he opposes international organizations like NATO and the UN, is generally skeptical of alliances, and fiercely opposes trade agreements; but he also supports costly, unnecessary, and unjust foreign wars and efforts to intervene in other countries’ affairs like neoconservatives. He manages to be both an isolationist, thinking the American government should only protect its own interests at the expense of the citizens of other people, and an interventionist, thinking the government should wage unjust wars to that end, at the same time.

Beauchamp notes how Trump’s foreign policy positions can best be described as Jacksonian:

But historically, there are lots of other forms of American hawkishness. Trump fits well with one of those — one that Bard College scholar Walter Russell Mead calls the “Jacksonian tradition,” after President Andrew Jackson.

Jacksonians, according to Mead, are basically focused on the interests and reputation of the United States. They are skeptical of humanitarian interventions and wars to topple dictators, because those are idealistic quests removed from the interests of everyday Americans. But when American interests are in question, or failing to fight will make America look weak, Jacksonians are more aggressive than anyone.

… Unlike neoconservatives or liberal interventionists, who have well-fleshed-out foreign policy doctrines, many Jacksonians think about war and peace more instinctively. “With them it is an instinct rather than an ideology — a culturally shaped set of beliefs and emotions rather than a set of ideas,” Mead writes. Sound familiar?

Of course, Trump is Jacksonian in more ways than just his foreign policy. His general populism and affection for strong-man leadership are very Jacksonian through and through. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson’s criticisms of Andrew Jackson himself could just as easily be leveled against Trump today (and echo Clinton’s words):

I feel much alarmed at the prospect of seeing General Jackson President.  He is one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place.  He has had very little respect for laws and constitutions, and is, in fact, an able military chief.  His passions are terrible.  When I was President of the Senate, he was Senator; and he could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings.  I have seen him attempt it repeatedly, and as often choke with rage.  His passions are, no doubt, cooler now; he has been much tried since I knew him, but he is a dangerous man.

A Critique of Trump’s Foreign Policy

Besides the obvious criticism made very persuasively by Clinton that Trump is temperamentally unfit to engage in diplomacy, what is wrong with foreign policy? In a word: everything. But for the purposes of this post, I’ll confine my criticism to three points.

First, Trump’s style of Jacksonian foreign policy is largely responsible for most of the humanitarian atrocities committed by the American government. Second, Trump’s economic foreign policy is antithetical to the entire spirit of the liberal tradition; it undermines the dignity and freedom of the individual and instead treats the highest good as for the all-powerful nation-state (meaning mostly the politicians and their special interests) as the end of foreign policy, rather than peace and liberty. Finally, Trump’s foreign policy fails for the same reasons that socialism fails. If the goals of foreign policy are to represent “national interest,” then the policymaker must know what that “national interest” even is and we have little reason to think that is the case, akin to the knowledge problem in economic coordination.

On the first note, Beauchamp quotes Dr. Mead on how the Jacksonian tradition in America has resulted in some of the most atrocious abuses of human rights in American history:

In the last five months of World War II, American bombing raids claimed the lives of more than 900,000 Japanese civilians—not counting the casualties from the atomic strikes against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is more than twice the total number of combat deaths that the United States has suffered in all its foreign wars combined…

Since the Second World War, the United States has continued to employ devastating force against both civilian and military targets. Out of a pre-war population of 9.49 million, an estimated 1 million North Korean civilians are believed to have died as a result of U.S. actions during the 1950-53 conflict. During the same war, 33,870 American soldiers died in combat, meaning that U.S. forces killed approximately thirty North Korean civilians for every American soldier who died in action. The United States dropped almost three times as much explosive tonnage in the Vietnam War as was used in the Second World War, and something on the order of 365,000 Vietnamese civilians are believed to have been killed during the period of American involvement.

This is because the Jacksonian view dictates that we should use full force in war to advance our interests and the reasons for waging war are for selfish rather than humanitarian purposes. We have good reason to think human rights under Trump will be abused to an alarming degree, as his comments that we should “bomb the hell out of” Syria, kill the noncombatant families of suspected terrorists, and torture detainees indicate. Trump is literally calling for the US to commit inhumane war crimes in the campaign, it is daunting to think just how dark his foreign policy could get in practice.

As mentioned earlier, many “libertarians” such as Walter Block seem to be under the delusion that Trump’s foreign policy is somehow compatible with the liberal tradition’s aspirations of individual liberty and peace. As he wrote when he endorsed Trump and created the oxymoronically named group “Libertarians for Trump:”

When put in this way, it is clear that The Donald is the most congruent with our perspective. This is true, mainly because of foreign policy.

…We readily concede Mr. Donald Trump is no Ron Paul on foreign policy or anything else for that matter. However, compared to his Republican alternatives, the Donald stands head and shoulders above them. He has said, time and time again, things like “Look at what we did in Iraq. It’s a mess. Look at what we did in Libya. It’s a mess there too. And we’re going to repeat our mistakes in Syria? Not on my watch.” …Yes, future President Trump wants a strong military, but with only a few exceptions, fewer than the other Republican candidates, only to defend our country.

Ignoring the glaring factual inaccuracy that Trump’s criticisms of Iraq and Libya were that we weren’t fierce enough and the main reason why he wants war is not to defend our country but to loot oil, nothing could be further from the truth that Trump’s foreign policy views are anywhere near to congruent with libertarianism.

To reiterate: Trump’s foreign policy views are just a particularly nasty version of imperialism and colonialism. Mises dedicated two entire sections of his chapter on foreign policy in Liberalism: The Classical Tradition to critiquing colonialism and revealing just how contrary these views are to liberalism’s commitment to peace and liberty. In direct opposition to Trump’s assertions that we should go to war to gain another country’s wealth and resources and that we should expand military spending greatly, Mises argues:

Wealth cannot be won by the annexation of new provinces since the “revenue” deprived from a territory must be used to defray the necessary costs of its administration. For a liberal state, which entertains no aggressive plans, a strengthening of its military power is unimportant.

Mises’ comments on the colonial policy in his time are extremely pertinent considering Trump’s calls to wage ruthlessly violent wars and commit humanitarian crises. “No chapter of history is steeped further in blood than the history of colonialism,” Mises argued. “Blood was shed uselessly and senselessly. Flourishing lands were laid waste; whole peoples destroyed and exterminated. All this can in no way be extenuated or justified.”

Trump says the ends of foreign policy are to aggressively promote “our” national interests, Mises says “[t]he goal of the domestic policy of liberalism is the same as that of its foreign policy: peace.” Trump views the world as nations competing in a zero-sum game and there must be one winner that can only be brought about through military conquest and economic protectionism, Mises says liberalism “aims at the peaceful cooperation between nations as within each nation” and specifically attacks “chauvinistic nationalists” who “maintain that irreconcilable conflicts of interest exist among the various nations[.]” Trump is rabidly opposed to free trade and is horrifically xenophobic on immigration, the cornerstone of Mises’ foreign policy is free movement of capital and labor over borders. There is no “congruence” between Trump and any classically liberal view on foreign policy matters in any sense; to argue otherwise is to argue from a position of ignorance, delusion, or to abandon the very spirit of classical liberalism in the first place.

Mises wasn’t the only classical liberal critical of Trump-style colonialist foreign policy. The classical liberal editor of The Nation Edward Lawrence Godkin was also sharply critical of the imperial foreign policy of the progressives and populists in his time. In a 1900 article entitled “The Eclipse of Liberalism,” in which he lamented the decline of the liberal emphasis on limited government, Godkin wrote:

Nationalism in the sense of national greed has supplanted Liberalism. It is an old foe under a new name. By making the aggrandizement of a particular nation a higher end than the welfare of mankind, it has sophisticated the moral sense of Christendom. Aristotle justified slavery, because Barbarians were “naturally” inferior to Greeks, and we have gone back to his philosophy. We hear no more of natural rights, but of inferior races, whose part it is to submit to the government of those whom God has made their superiors. The old fallacy of divine right has once more asserted its ruinous power, and before it is again repudiated there must be international struggles on a terrific scale. At home all criticism on the foreign policy of our rulers is denounced as unpatriotic. They must not be changed, for the national policy must be continuous. Abroad, the rulers of every country must hasten to every scene of international plunder, that they may secure their share. To succeed in these predatory expeditions the restraints on parliamentary, even of party, government must be cast aside. [Emphasis mine]

Though Godkin’s broader arguments against the “inferior races” argument for imperialism may not apply to Trump himself per se, it certainly does apply to some of Trump’s dangerously backward white nationalist supporters (at least one of whom Trump has publicly appointed) who are helping to drive his rise.

It wasn’t just Godkin in the United States, an entire organization was formed to oppose these policies: The American Anti-Imperialist League, which formed specifically in opposition to the Spanish-American War and the annexation of the Philippians and Cuba. Though it was certainly a diverse collection of anti-imperialists with a wide variety of motives, many of them were classical liberals. Their platform emphasized the incompatibility of small government and imperial conquest:

We hold that the policy known as imperialism is hostile to liberty and tends toward militarism, an evil from which it has been our glory to be free. We regret that it has become necessary in the land of Washington and Lincoln to reaffirm that all men, of whatever race or color, are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We maintain that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. We insist that the subjugation of any people is “criminal aggression” and open disloyalty to the distinctive principles of our Government.

Trump’s incompatibility with classically liberal goals is not of unique interest to libertarians. In many ways, both neoconservatives and liberal interventionists aim for a similar end of peace among nations in foreign policy for which classical liberals aim (or at least, I hope they share such an aim). The three viewpoints just disagree on the best policy means to reach those ends. Trump decidedly does not take peace as the end of foreign policy. He takes the ruthless promotion of America’s economic interests to be the goal, often at the expense of peace and at the expense of the lives of innocent people.

Additionally, even if we take Trump’s nationalist ends as given, the policy means Trump prefers of violent military intervention likely will not be successful for similar reasons to why socialism fails. Christopher Coyne has argued convincingly that many foreign interventions in general fail for very similar reasons to why attempts at economic intervention fail, complications pertaining to the Hayekian knowledge problem. How can a government ill-equipped to solve the economic problems of domestic policy design and control the political institutions and culture of nations abroad?  Coyne mainly has the interventionism of neoconservatives and liberals in mind, but many of his insights apply just as well to Trump’s Jacksonian vision for foreign policy.

The knowledge problem also applies on another level to Trump’s brand of interventionism. Trump assumes that he, in all his wisdom as president, can know what the “national interest” of the American people actually is, just like socialist central planners assume they know the underlying value scales or utility functions of consumers in society. We have little reason to assume this is the case.

Let’s take a more concrete example: Trump seems to think one example of intervention in the name of national interest is to take the resource of another country that our country needs, most commonly oil. However, how is he supposed to know which resources need to be pillaged for the national interest? There’s a fundamental calculation problem here. A government acting without a profit signal cannot know the answer to such a problem and lacks the incentive to properly answer it in the first place as the consequences failure falls upon the taxpayers, not the policy makers. Even if Trump and his advisors could figure out that the US needs a resource, like oil, and successfully loots it from another country, like Libya, there is always the possibility that this artificial influx of resources, this crony capitalist welfare for one resource at the expense of others, is crowding out potentially more efficient substitutes.

For an example, if the government through foreign policy expands the supply of oil, this may stifle entrepreneurial innovations for potentially more efficient resources in certain applications, such as natural gas, solar, wind, or nuclear in energy, for the same reasons artificially subsidizing these industries domestically stifle innovation. They artificially reduce the relative scarcity of the favored resource, reducing the incentive for entrepreneurs to find innovative means of using other resources or more efficient production methods. At the very least, Trump and his advisors would have little clue how to judge the opportunity cost of pillaging various resources and so would not know how much oil to steal from Libya. Even ignoring all those problems, it’s very probable that it would be cheaper and morally superior to simply peaceably trade with another country for oil (or any other resource) rather than waging a costly, violent, inhumane war in the first place.

Of course, I’m probably giving Trump way too much credit in that critique. Chances are, given Trump’s (nonexistent) economic literacy, he is just under the delusion that more resources always mean a better economy no matter what–opportunity costs, resource allocation, and entrepreneurial innovation be damned–and that government policy can be run just like a business.

Not only is it difficult for policy makers to know what the national interest is, as Christensen has argued it is unclear what “national interest” even means to begin with. He defines national interest as “an excuse for a policy or set of policies that should be taken in order to strengthen a state and its citizens (but not necessarily strengthen a state relative to other states…).” He further claims, “There’s no such thing as a national interest.” I’d take it even one step further: the rhetoric of “national interest,” it seems to me, is just an ideology (in the critical theory sense) for the foreign policy elite and their lobbyists to justify using coercive force to advance their arbitrary private interests rather than the (largely indeterminate) interests of the public or the country at large. Even if the “national interest” does have any meaning other than as a rhetorical ideology for the military industrial complex, the only way such a concept could become known is via the spontaneous process of the voluntary interchange of individuals, often time between citizens and non-citizens, and will likely never be known by a single individual mind. At the very least, there’s a public choice problem here: how is Trump realistically to differentiate his personal interests and those of his cronies from those of the general public? Given the fact that Trump likely has narcissistic personality disorder, I don’t have faith that he will.

The only positive potential to foreign policy under a Trump administration is the possibility that he will wisely not intervene in foreign affairs when no argument can be made that such an intervention would be in the national interest or give us oil. But given Trump’s record on the matter, and the arbitrary and elusive nature of the concept of “national interest,” I doubt that this will be a major factor in the way Trump actually implements foreign policy.

Trump vs. Clinton on Foreign Policy: Who is Preferable?

It is clear that underneath the prima facie inconsistencies in Trump’s comments on foreign policy, there is an underlying consistency that he thinks the goal of foreign policy is to quite aggressively promote US interests. This goal is impossible to reach as it represents a naïve understanding of the knowledge public leaders can possess, and generally represents a selfish, reckless, nationalist disregard for human dignity. The means he wants to undertake for this end are unnecessarily cruel and would likely constitute massive human rights violations. They contradict the high (and in my mind correct) aspirations of classical liberals of peace and individual liberty, and they’ll likely fail to accomplish their stated goals.

However, none of this necessarily means that Clinton’s foreign policy will be all that much better. Sure, Clinton’s motives are likely purer, but her record shows that the means she undertakes are uncannily similar to Trump and fail for similar reasons. She’s shown a similar lack of judiciousness in her handling of classified materials, just what the intelligence community fears of Trump. Her record shows her diplomatic skills yield mixed results at best, and she’s widely a progressive interventionist on foreign policy matters whose policies will subvert the liberal goals of peace and individual liberty. It is somewhat ironic that the Democrats have such great opportunity to go after Trump on foreign policy, but have chosen the absolute worst person in their party to make that case as their nominee (akin to Republicans and Romney on ObamaCare in 2012).

Comparing the two candidates point-by-point, therefore, is very difficult. Though there are many underlying consistencies to Trump’s comments on foreign policy and Clinton is still largely right that his stated positions have been somewhat incoherent. Unlike Trump, we have a record of Clinton actually implementing foreign policy and our only knowledge of the Donald’s policies only comes from occasionally off-the-cuff and contradictory remarks about others’ policies. Thus there is a degree of uncertainty as to what Trump’s foreign policies will actually look like and, though I think his comments reveal there is a high probability they will be atrocious, there is a small chance that they could be marginally better than Clinton’s (whose record shows she will implement almost certainly failed foreign policies). Trump’s very concerning comments on foreign policy alone do not make a slam-dunk case that Clinton is preferable on these matters.

Having said that, I’d still argue Clinton’s foreign policy is at least marginally preferable to Trump’s. With Trump we risk not only a fairly high probability of atrocious policies—quite possibly worse than Clinton’s—based off of his comments, we also risk the added problem of regime uncertainty in foreign policy. Also, some of the concrete policies Trump has called for—like torture and the murdering of families—are a cause for serious concern. Further, Clinton is likely to be far more diplomatic and will be less likely to offend other leaders and alienate the US from the world. Her point that Trump is “temperamentally unfit to lead” is very well taken, and was only confirmed by Trump’s response to her speech which in which he largely stuck to the non-substantive screaming of insults in his typical childish fashion. None of this at all means anybody should vote for either candidate as there is a lot more to voting than the issues of foreign policy. For what it’s worth (which is very little), I for one will most likely not be voting in the next election. If I were forced to, it would be for the Johnson/Weld ticket.

Narratives, Impacts and the Actors: Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War

That’s the subject of my newest paper, which was just published by India Quarterly. Here is the abstract:

Both the Bangladesh state and society are yet to settle the questions over and narratives related to the Liberation War of 1971. Broadly, there are two groups with contradictory and conflicting interpretations of the events related to that war. This has also led to the mushrooming of militant groups in the country. The beginning of trial of perpetrators of Liberation War crimes since 2010 and the execution of a few of the leaders has further polarised the society and politics of Bangladesh. The existing debates over the Bangladesh Liberation War cannot be studied without looking into the roles of India and Pakistan. The two countries have their own interpretations and political fallout of the 1971 liberation war.

Here is the full paper (pdf).

Mohammad Iqbal’s writings on Islam and on the partition of India

That is the topic of a paper of mine that has just been published in the Journal of Punjab Studies. Here is the abstract:

Iqbal was a poet, religious philosopher, political activists, and supporter of autonomy to Muslim majority provinces in British India, but cannot be regarded as the ‘main’ architect of Pakistan. His basic concern was over the falling status of Muslims of India during British rule and ways to arrest the situation. His speech in 1930 at Allahabad session of the All India Muslim League is being always cited as his support to Pakistan, but later on he never made his position very clear over the issue of partition of British India. Yet his contribution to the formation of Pakistan cannot be entirely ruled out because he was speaking out the minds of the Muslim minorities who, by 1920s, not not only raised the demand, but started whispering about having a separate socio-political space. He was a towering figure of Islamic modernism, a great poet and also a religious philosopher, whose thinking still has considerable significance. His writings are still being read and researched in India and Pakistan.

The link to the whole paper can be found here [pdf].

Colonialism and Identity in Wasolon (and everywhere else, too)

The notion of the person is constantly renegotiated and is at stake between groups situated within the same political entity as well as between neighboring political entities. With advent of [France’s colonial] district register and the resulting written registration of identity, the notion of a person acquired a greater fixity. It became much more difficult to change identity or even to modify the spelling of one’s first or last name. Since it could no longer affect the components of the person, the negotiation of identity shifted, as in the case of the West, onto other sectors of social and individual life. (135)

This is from the French anthropologist (and high school friend of our own Jacques Delacroix) Jean-Loup Amselle, in his book Mestizo Logics: Anthropology of Identity in Africa and Elsewhere. The book is hard to read. The English translation (the one I’m reading) was published by Stanford University Press in 1998, but the original French language version came out in 1990. Between the translation and the fact that the book was written for specialists in the field of political anthropology and the region of French Sudan, strenuous effort was required on my part to stay focused and motivated to finish the book. The preface alone is worth the price of admission, though, especially if you’ve been following my blogging with any great interest over the years.

My intent is not to write a review, but rather to build off Amselle’s work and present some of my efforts in blog form here at NOL. But first, a map of the region, Wasolon, that Amselle specializes in:

Wasolon is that big red marking that I've drawn on the map. You can see that it's about as big as Sierra Leone.

Wasolon is that big red marking that I’ve drawn on the map. You can see that it’s about as big as Sierra Leone. Just for clarity’s sake, here is a second map with a closer view of Wasolon:

blog wasolon 2
Notice the rivers? source: wikipedia

Amselle’s argument for why his approach to identity is superior to others’ is convincing. He performed all of his fieldwork (15 years’ worth as of 1990) in Wasolon, or briefly in neighboring areas, reasoning that “research within numerous regions of a well-circumscribed area […] has allowed me to observe systems of transformation [in] societies that have been in contact for centuries. This has protected me from being forced into large analytical leaps and from engaging in [the current anthropological trends of] abstract comparativism and the identification of structures (xii-xiii).” This defense of his methodology, coupled with his insights on French colonial administration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, gives me reason to believe that Amselle’s work is an excellent blueprint for better understanding the complete and utter failure of post-colonial states and the violence these collective failures have produced.

I want to take a specific route using the introductory quote, even though I could take a number of different routes using that passage. I could, for example, focus on the invention of the individual and muse about its consequences in regards to the rise of the West. I could go on and on about how other societies had writing – but not the individual- and therefore did not have the institutions necessary for “capitalism” that the West did around the 16th century. Et cetera, et cetera. Instead, I’m going to take a geopolitical route (the West is still practicing colonialism) that has a decidedly philosophical direction to it (nationalism and ethno-nationalism are both bullhooey).

First, the geopolitical context. Wasolon was basically a war zone in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was an important producer of cotton, a minor producer of rubber and ivory, and a net exporter of slaves. Wasolon was unfortunate enough to be caught between Saharan empires backed by Arabic culture, money, and technology, and coastal empires recently enriched through cultural, economic, and technological exchange with rapidly-expanding European populations. Caught between these two geographic poles, polities in Wasolon oscillated between being decentralized chiefdoms, small independent states, empire builders themselves, and vassals of empires. In such an uncertain setting, the identity of people themselves necessarily oscillated as often as their political systems did.

When the French arrived militarily on the scene (there was already a long history of economic, political, and cultural exchange between the “French” and Wasolonians; I put French in quotation marks because, of course, many Europeans found it to be much easier to use “French” as an identity in French Sudan rather than their own), Wasolon was home to many decentralized chiefdoms, and they were all in the midst of a protracted and brutal war with the Samori Empire, a Saharan polity that rose quickly and ruthlessly to prominence in the late 19th century.

The Samori Empire – which the French military was in contact with due to its centralized political structure (it had a bureaucracy and an organized military, for example) – claimed Wasolon as a vassal state and the French, out of ignorance or expediency (to attribute it to malice gives French central planners too much credit), simply took Samori at its word (a policy that continues to play out to this day in international affairs, but more on this below).

The French military commanders and, later, colonial administrators eventually figured out that Wasolon was not a loyal vassal. From the French perspective, the resisting chiefdoms in Wasolon had formed an alliance against the Samori Empire, and this alliance was based on an ethnic solidarity shared by all Fulani. Amselle labors to make the point that this alliance  was based on a “mythical charter” long prominent in Fula oral traditions (and has some basis in the historical accounts of Arab and European travelers). This “mythical charter” served as the basis for the French colonial understanding of the Fula and eventually for the notion of a Fulani ethnic identity. The problem here is that the “mythical charter” was just that: a myth.

I’ll start by extracting an insight from the footnotes:

As we saw in Chap. 5, colonial ethnology merely reproduces this local political theory by taking it literally, thereby assimilating these “mythical charters” to a real historical process. Such a reproduction is what makes this ethnology truly colonial. (179)

In the Chapter 5 that Amselle alludes to in his footnotes, Mestizo Logics explains how the Fula people of Wasolon adopted fluid political identities over the centuries, depending on who was in power and who was about to be in power. This fluidity played, and continues to play, a much more important role in how people identified themselves politically (“local political theory”) than either culture or language.

Amselle illustrates this point best by pointing out that a number of chiefdoms in Wasolon claimed to be Fula at the time of the French conquests in the late 19th century, but that the populations spoke a different language than the Fula and were culturally distinct from the Fula (these Wasolon chiefdoms claiming Fulaniship were Banmana and Maninka in language and culture rather than Fula). Amselle then points out that Fula chiefdoms existed outside of Wasolon that don’t claim to be Fula – even though they are culturally and linguistically Fula – and instead identified as something more politically expedient (he doesn’t elaborate on what those non-Fula Fulani identify as, only that they did, and still do).

The French state’s act of writing down and categorizing this “mythical charter” as a distinct feature of Wasolon’s Fulani thus created the Fula ethnic group and, through imperial governance, ensconced this new group into its empire’s hierarchy based on traits that ethnographers, colonial administrators, historians, and managers of state-run corporations had recorded (accounts written by merchants not connected to the state in some way could not be trusted, of course).

Basically, when the French showed up to build their empire in west Africa they bought the narrative espoused by a couple of the factions in the region and based their empire (which was only feasible with the advent of peace in Europe after the Napoleonic Wars) on that narrative. The results of this policy are eye-opening. Aside from the fact that the present-day states of Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, and Guinea are failures, the old rules of fluid identity used by Wasolonians for political and economic reasons were erased and new rules, based on bureaucratic logic (“ethnicity”), were wrested into place by the French imperial apparatus. These new ethnic identities soon took on characteristics, ascribed to them by others, that quickly became stereotypes. The ethnic groups with good stereotypes (like being hard-working) ended up – you guessed it – in positions of power, first in France’s imperial apparatus and then for a short time after independence.

Sound familiar?

If it doesn’t, think about international governing institutions (IGOs) like the United Nations or the World Bank for a moment. Why don’t these institutions recognize the likes of Kurdistan, Baluchistan, or South Ossetia? Is it because these IGOs are evil and oppressive, or simply because these bureaucracies cannot adapt quickly enough to a world where identity and the necessities of political economies are always in flux?

This phenomenon is not limited to post-colonial Africa, either. Think about African-Americans here in the United States and the stereotypes attributed to them. Those stereotypes – good and bad – are a direct result of bureaucracy.

Individualism, to me, is the best way to tackle the long-standing problem created by colonial logic abroad, and racism at home. Government programs that seek to help groups by taking from one and giving to another are just an extension of the bureaucratic logic revealed by Amselle’s work in French West Africa. But what is a good way to go about implementing a more individualized world? Open borders? Federation?

An overview of India-China boundary disputes

I have a new paper that has just been published in Asian Affairs. Here is an excerpt:

Questions over the India-China border are not a new phenomenon. They are asked whenever there is a Sino-Indian state visit. Despite having close to $100 billion of trade between them, China and India have failed to bring their frontier disputes to an end. In the 1980s and 1990s it was thought that the increasing economic cooperation between the two countries would act as a prompt to resolve their political disputes, but it has not. Military stand-offs and confrontations between border guards from India and China occur at regular intervals. To address their boundary disputes, they have engaged in frequent dialogues (17 rounds of focused dialogues can be counted between 1988 and 2015), but nothing substantive has yet been yielded through such engagements.

The boundary disputes between India and China have their ultimate origin in the ‘Great Game’ played during the British Empire. At present, the two main areas of dispute along the Himalayan frontier are the western sector (Aksai Chin around 37,250 sq km/14,380 square miles) and the eastern sector (Arunachal Pradesh, around 83,740 sq km/32,330 sq mile). This article traces the roots of the boundary disputes between India and China and attempts to discuss sources of tensions and probable solutions.

The link to the whole paper can be found here [pdf].