Asking the Wrong Question

How do the United States and others achieve victory against Islamic State without empowering sectarian actors who will seek to poison the reconciliation that Iraq needs to hang together?

That’s the question posed by Craig Whiteside, an associate Professor of Theater Security Decision Making for the Naval War College at the Naval Postgraduate School, over at War on the Rocks. Dr Whiteside’s recommendations (“avoid all cooperation with sectarian militias, continue to target Islamic State with minimal collateral damage, patiently train and equip the security forces, ensure it’s done by Iraqis with subtle, behind the scenes help”) are just what you’d expect from a military strategist with a PhD, but his question highlights well what’s wrong with current thinking on non-state actors in Washington and also explains why central planning fails in areas other than managing an economy.

Whiteside’s line of thought is pretty standard, and it goes something like this: Islamic State is bad and Iraq is good. Islamic State is bad not because it lawlessly slaughters more people than Iraq (obviously not true, especially when you account for the Hussein regime), but because it is a non-state actor with political, economic, cultural, and military capabilities that threaten the existence of state actors. Hence his worry over how to defeat Islamic State while still keeping Iraq in one piece.

This is a terrible way to think about international relations and strategy, and it governs the logic of the republic’s finest thinkers.

Why not think about the situation in the Levant in the following way instead:

There is a “world order” of sorts that is composed of states. The states themselves have been patched together over the course of centuries. The world order itself has been patched together over the course of centuries.

Iraq is a state that was patched together by the UK and France, in accordance with the logic of the world order at the time. Thus, Iraq was able to become a legitimate member of organizations like the UN, FIFA, OPEC, etc. However, because Iraq was patched together by the world order rather than by the people of Iraq (acting through contentious factions), it can only, ever “hang together” under a regime governed by a strong man.

The appearance of Islamic State in what is now Iraq is just an attempt by Iraqis to govern themselves. Islamic State is an attempt, made possible by the power vacuum left by the invasion and occupation of the US and its allies, to join the world order (hence the “state” in Islamic State). It’s a horrible attempt, which is just what you’d expect from a people who have likely never had a chance to experiment in self-governance. Nevertheless, people in what is now Iraq are trying to patch together their own states.

The world order should recognize these attempts instead of trying to maintain the status quo. Change can be a good thing. As an example, just compare the brutality of the Hussein regime, a legitimate state actor, with that of Islamic State. It’s not even a contest, especially in terms of people murdered.

Wouldn’t recognizing Whitehead’s “sectarian actors,” instead of seeking to isolate or destroy them, be a much better avenue to peace and prosperity in the region? Recognition by the world order, haphazardly and pragmatically patched together itself, would bestow responsibility onto non-state actors. It would signal a trust in the ability of Iraqis to govern themselves. It would help to rationalize diplomacy and trade in the region. And it would put an end to the vicious cycle of strong men in the Middle East.

Instead of asking what the US and its allies can do to eliminate violent non-state actors from the region, isn’t it time to start asking what the West can do, as equal partners, to facilitate more self-governance in the Levant?

That central planning suffers from a knowledge problem is a given in many elite economics circles today (even economists at the Federal Reserve recognize it), but I don’t think this argument has extended into other fields of thought or other bureaucracies yet. A fatal conceit indeed.

Is government decentralization the right answer to differences across regions?

That’s the main question being asked by Federico Boffa, Amedeo Piolatto, and Giacomo A. M. Ponzetto, all economists. I cruised through the whole paper (pdf) and have some superficial thoughts. One snippet:

Western California is more liberal, even among Republican voters and politicians; Eastern California considerably more conservative […] At a first glance, such a political divide might suggest that a break up of coastal and inland California would be optimal on preference-matching grounds […]

[H]owever [this is a] superficial assessment. [Eastern California] contain[s] a large Hispanic population that overwhelmingly prefers the Democratic party. This group is much less educated, less politically knowledgeable, and less likely to vote than Republican supporters in the region, who are on average older, whiter, and wealthier. At the same time, the left-wing Hispanic working class in the Valley shares the political leanings of highly educated liberals on the coast. This ideological alignment goes beyond mere partisanship and includes shared preferences over policies.

As a consequence, our model suggests that the political integration of California is welfare maximizing. For relatively uneducated inland minorities to have a government corresponding to their preferences, it is essential that they share a state with ideologically aligned liberal elites in the Bay area. Right-wing Californians, instead, are sufficiently educated and influential to have a voice in state-wide politics, despite being in the minority: California had a Republican governor for twenty-one of the past thirty years.

[This lesson] applies more broadly. Disadvantaged ethnic minorities— which are less educated and often politically underrepresented— should belong whenever possible to the same polity as better educated and higher-status voters having similar political preferences. Only then are politicians effectively held accountable to both groups. (29-30)

California is “welfare maximizing”? Somebody help me out here. Isn’t it also possible that poor Hispanics and rich liberals form a voting bloc in California as it is because of how the GOP is patched together? If California split into an East/West, current coalitions would be shattered and it doesn’t follow that rich liberals and poor Hispanics would share the same voting preferences in the new arrangement. It doesn’t follow that rich conservatives and poor Hispanics in a hypothetical East would be at odds, either.

The biggest weakness in the paper, if you can call it that, is that the authors are focused on the fiscal aspects of federalism rather than the diplomatic, cultural, and political aspects. Federalism binds people together and forces them to at least try to come to an agreement about some issues. That’s a big deal, though it’s obviously not sexy.

The paper is focused on the EU and the US. There are lots of interesting insights into the European Union but the US angle is kinda boring (I’m sure is vice-versa for readers living and working in Europe). (h/t Mark Koyama)

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation XVI, Britain’s Significant Others: France and Germany (2)

Continuing from here.

The French, or at least the dominant part of its elites, together with a more ambiguous but largely assenting public opinion, sees the chance to maintain a large European role and an accompanying global role through the EU, using the EU to maintain the importance of French as an administrative language and the influence of France on European affairs without war, and ideally without aggressive winner-takes-all attitudes to diplomacy. It is a matter of reasonable debate whether this has worked well, it is not reasonable to think that France has given up on being France.

There is a strong steak of grandiose French ambition and memories of the more universal moments of the French state, under Bourbon monarchs who tried to dominate Europe, the French Revolution, and the Bonapartist Empire. Despite what some sovereigntist-Euroseptics claim, France is not obviously less global than Britain in its history or current attitudes. France had the second biggest overseas empire after Britain, there are many French speakers outside France, even though some parts of what was the empire have lost the Francophone legacy. France is just as much of a country of immigration as Britain.

The residual overseas territories from the empire are more integrated into the French state then the British equivalents are integrated into the British state. Of course Britain had the bigger empire, English is the more global language, and a global financial role lacking for France, but none of this makes France less of a country to some degree tied to its non-European legacies, or that France is less integrated and less nationally-oriented than Britain. In fact France looks a lot less likely to break up between component parts than Britain. The devolution of power to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland is not matched in even the most distinct French regions and there seems little chance of any part of France matching Scotland in the success of a separatist party and near success of a separatist referendum.

The same applies to Germany. Germany has a briefer history as an important country of self-image construction for Britain than France, but the sense that Britain is more liberal than the Prussian-German state tradition and more patriotic than current federal Germany is a major factor in Britain. The sense that Germany has a less strong sense of national identity combines for British Eurosceptics, or alternates, with the sense that it is trying to dominate Europe.

There is no doubt that Germany has a more traumatic relation with its recent history than Britain, and that it is the leading country in the EU. Nevertheless, there is no sign at all of bits of Germany seceding, while there is every sign that German state rebirth through democracy and European identity has been a great success. The relations of Germany with the rest of the EU is a rather large question, but it is worth remarking here that most of the supposed German dominance and domineering attitudes in the EU is a mask for the hopes of other EU countries, on the French model, to improve themselves through:

  • institutional influence on Germany;
  • importing German fiscal discipline and associated economic successes through a common currency;
  • a willingness to put the burden of blame on Germany for tough policies resulting from the imbalances that emerged as a result of excessively low interest rates in the less robust Eurozone economies;
  • a preference for related ‘externally imposed’ German influenced reforms over exit from the EU and a reassertion of strong national sovereignty.

At the heart of these choices is the belief that Germany is too big to ignore and that where states have had difficulty in economic reform, institutional constraints designed in the hope of importing German economic success, within a system of pooled sovereignty, offer more hope of economic success than supposedly pure national sovereignty. This may or may not work for the best in the long term, but it is not an example of German aggression; and given that no one state has genuinely pure and absolute sovereignty, no one state can exist unrestrained by the attitudes of other nations and the international consequences of its own policies, so pooling of sovereignty with Germany should not be seen as unpatriotic countries surrendering an unvalued national existence.

Anyway, the sovereigntist-Eurosceptics who put forward, or rely on, the dangerous German domination claim, are themselves generally oriented towards an Anglosphere conception of an alliance between the UK, the USA, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. This can draw on the enhanced levels of intelligence and security co-operation between these countries, along with the ‘Special Relationship’ between the UK and the USA that developed during the Second World War. The obvious issue here from a sovereigntist point of view is that the USA is very dominant in this relationship, whether that of the Anglosphere or of the ‘special relationship’. The language of the ‘special relationship’ has declined anyway in the UK, particularly since the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The reality has always been in any case that the USA has pursued close relationships with countries outside the Anglosphere with little if any common decision making in the ‘Anglosphere’. The Anglsophere idea also refers to ideas about law, which will be discussed in the next post.

The Tyranny of Majoritarianism

Where did the concept of “majority rule” come from? Why should any majority rule over any minority?

Of course the idea of protecting minority rights also exists. It is accepted in the civilized world that minority religions, ethnicities, and cultures should be respected. So evidently the global belief in majoritarianism is not absolute. But overall, the prevailing global political culture in democratic societies is majoritarian. The party which has some majority in an election gets its leaders in the government, and it is able to impose its policies on everybody.

In a voluntary club, it seems natural that the leader be elected by the majority. Everyone in the club agrees about the mission of the club. Suppose it is a hiking club. It does not matter too much who the leader is, so a majority vote seems like the best option. Also, in deciding which location to hike in, majority rules seems sensible. Majority rule provides greater utility than minority rule, and there is general agreement that making more people happy is better than if fewer are happy.

But when it comes to government, majority rule is problematic. First of all, majority rule is based on the persons who may vote, not the whole population. Young children do not vote, and foreign residents do not vote. The adult citizens own the country, so they vote.

People believe in majority rule because they think of the alternative as either dictatorship or a rule by an elite minority. Why should one man or an aristocracy rule over the others? The global political culture now rejects monarchial rule as violating equality. What is not understood is that imposed majority rule also violates equality.

If we accept human equality, that all human beings have an equal moral worth, then the logical conclusion is equal self-governance. No person has a natural right to impose his will on another, because is it morally evil to coercively harm another person. Harm means an invasion into the domain of others, including the harm of restricting the other’s peaceful and honest actions.

When a person becomes employed, or enrolls in an institution such as a university, one does not usually expect democratic governance. The company is a non-democratic hierarchy, in which there is a top boss, lower bosses, and the ordinary workers who are directed. The workers has to comply with rules he may not favor, but the arrangement is voluntary because the worker chose to enter into employment or enrollment, and he may quit.

The equality of the employment situation is the ability of the worker to enter and exit, and the ability of the employer to equally contract with the employee and to terminate the employment. Free association is the basis of equal liberty.

The governance of territory is in accord with human equality when there is freedom of association among the members. Whether a territory is ruled by one man or by a majority does not matter so long as the individuals consent to be governed, so long as they can exit at will. After all, a traveler does not expect a voice in the rules of the places he visits. Whether the location is run by one person or the local majority does not matter to the traveler, so long as he may come and go, and so long as any unusual rules are presented in advance.

We need governing structures, but these can be contractual agreements among equals. We have today voluntary contractual communities such as homeowner associations, road associations, condominiums, cooperatives, and proprietary communities. All neighborhoods could be governed this way, and then the local organizations can form greater associations for public goods with a broader scope. An occasional hermit would not disturb the governing continuum.

Just as local communities would be able to associate, they would have the freedom to disassociate. The problem with imposed majoritarianism is that individuals and communities may not secede, and so they are forced to be dominated by the majority. Minorities are subjected to the law enforcement, schooling, drug laws, civic services, and taxes favored by the majority.

The reform that would establish deep equality would be a constitutional rule that would prohibit only coercive harm to others. Government would not impose costs and restrictions on peaceful and honest action. Contractual communities would be free to have restrictive rules among their own members. Contractual governance is best implemented bottom up, with secession where feasible.

The avoidance of imposed costs implies the absence of taxes on transactions and produced goods. There would be charges for trespass and invasions, such as pollution. In the absence of taxes on labor, capital, and trade, those who hold title to land would have to pay for civic services from the yield of their land, the rent. Ideally, people would understand the logic of equal benefits from the rent generated by nature and community. The deepest equality would consist of both equal self-governance and, as Henry George put it, standing “on equal terms with reference to the bounty of nature.”

What is a nation?

This is a reply to Brandon’s latest post. I offer similar thoughts to the below post in my post about ethnicity.

I agree with Brandon that in discussing things we should not limit ourselves to thinking in terms of states. We must consider, as Brandon puts it, both supra and sub states. We must also recall that states are much more fluid than we usually consider them.

When discussing international relations I attempt to get my conversation partners to agree that:

(1) National borders are not stable and,

(2) National identity is more fiction than reality.

The first is easily confirmed by looking at historical maps. Here is a map of the Levant/Greater Middle East in 14th century BC, in 830 BC, in 634 AD, in 1135 AD, and in 1900 AD.

Egypt and Persia are the only two entities that are present in some form or another throughout this time span, and even then their respective borders have fluctuated with only a few core regions being stable. I have yet to find someone who disagrees with the first point.

The second point is harder to get people to concede. We often think of ourselves as a given national identity and find it difficult to imagine that our nation did not exist since the beginning, or at least as far back as imaginable. Most nations have a foundation epic that makes little sense when seriously scrutinized.

Take for example American national identity. Three hundred million plus souls imagine themselves as ‘American’, but what exactly does that mean?

American identity cannot be equated with a specific phenotype; i.e. Americans are not all blue eyed blond people of English descent. In colonial days blacks outnumbered whites in several regions. Today whites in the Mid-Atlantic states are bronze skinned due to the dominance of Mediterranean descent there. The southwest is filled with “Hispanics” who overwhelming self-identify as white but are not considered really white, hence the curious demographic term “non-Hispanic white.” Even in the cradle of the American revolution, Massachusetts, the largest ancestry group is the Irish not English. The only state that is predominantly of English descent is Utah.

Among whites there is constant tension over who was really white and who is a “white negro.” Germans, who are today the largest ancestry group in the US, were the first ‘white’ subgroup to have to fight to prove that they were really white. The Irish, Italians, and others of European descent all had to fight for inclusion into the ‘white’ group. Today Hispanics and Asians are both vying for inclusion.

The revolutionary war serves as the US’ de facto national epic and the leaders of the rebellion are treated (and on occasion sculpted) as demi-gods. Yet the popular image of the revolution is more fiction than reality. Americans paid very little in tax relative to residents of the British isles. George Washington was a horrible military strategist. The founding fathers were not fighting to ensure liberty for the common man – they were fighting to shift control of government from elites in London to elites in Philadelphia. To be sure there were a few true revolutionaries, such as Thomas Paine, who were involved in the hope of genuinely reforming government. For every Paine, though, there were a dozen Hamiltons who wanted to preserve the British Empire, just without the British.

‘American’, in so far as it is an ethnic label, is non-stationary and continually evolving. I would not be amazed if the American label went extinct and was replaced with other labels in the future. Perhaps the Pacific Northwest will become inhabited by Cascadians in the future?

None of this is unique to the American moniker. It is easy to pick on the United States since it is a young nation, but most nations are just as fluid and nonsensical.

What does it mean to be British? Turkish? Austrian? Spanish?

Were the inhabitants of the British isles prior to the Norman invasion British?

The Byzantine Empire was only recently destroyed and many of its inhabitants inter married with Turkic migrants. The Ottomans gave themselves the title of Roman Emperor, “Kayser-i Rum.” A friend of mine jokingly calls Turks “Anatolian Greeks.”

‘Austrian’ as a national identity is arguably younger than the American moniker. Prior to the disestablishment of the Hapsburg Empire in WW1 there was no independent Austrian geopolitical entity. Austria was a constituent member of the Holy Roman Empire, the Hapsburg crown lands, the Austrian Empire, and Austria-Hungary before finally becoming simply Austria following WW1. Austrians are as culturally distinct from other Germans as Bavarians or Swabians are. Why then are Austrians a national group, but the latter two aren’t?

The Iberian peninsula has been under Muslim control (700s~1600s) longer than it has been under a united Spain. Spaniards continue to have significant traces of Arab/Berber genetic material. Despite the actions of Franco, Spanish (or “Castilian”) is not the sole language used in the country. Several million in the country’s northeast wish to cease being Spanish altogether in order to form an independent Catalan.

What is a nation? I argue that it is a group label that is invented and sustained in so far as it serves to further the goals of elites. Within an individual’s lifetime they appear unchanging, but from a historical perspective they are fluid and are frequently created, killed, or reborn as needed. When conversing about geopolitics we cannot ignore national identity, but we must keep in mind that in the long run nationality can be, and is, molded to suit political goals.

Has Senator Rand Paul been reading NOL?

Oooo lawdy!

“Part of the problem is the Kurds aren’t getting enough arms,” Paul said. “The Kurds are the best fighters. The arms are going through Baghdad to get to the Kurds and they’re being siphoned off and they’re not getting what they need. I think any arms coming from us or coming from any European countries ought to go directly to the Kurds. They seem to be the most effective and most determined fighters.”

In addition, Paul called for giving the Kurds their own country for them to defend against radical Islamists.

“But I would go one step further: I would draw new lines for Kurdistan and I would promise them a country,” Paul said.

Cue the notes here at NOL on adhering to a more internationalist foreign policy: decentralization, secession, devolution, and federation. Notice that Paul is not calling for the US to draw up boundaries between imperial powers. He’s simply calling for the international community that the US largely built to recognize the sovereignty claims of peoples in the post-colonial world, peoples who were ignored when the imperial powers did their carving up over a century ago.

Which option sounds better to you: 1) ignoring the whole situation in the Middle East, 2) pretending that states in the Middle East are legitimate and continuing with the status quo (random bombing campaigns, giving money to dictators to squelch Islamists and socialists), or 3) recognizing that the US could contribute to a more internationalist world by welcoming aspirant regions into statehood, and destroying the legacies of colonialism and Third World nationalism?

From the Comments: Russia Resurgent and a Libertarian Strategy

I am working on a speculative piece about the recent assassination of liberal (i.e. libertarian, a.k.a. internationalist) politician Boris Nemtsov in front of the Kremlin. In the mean time, here is an old comment of mine on Russia’s new grand strategy:

Thanks Dr A,

I still think this is all a part of Russia’s symbolic strategy against the West. As you mention, the referendum is not legally binding and nobody aside from Moscow has recognized it.

What I think the best option available to the West would be to go ahead and recognize the independence of regions within Russia’s “official” borders (the territories you mentioned, for example).

To back this up, simply make a mockery of the whole process going on in Crimea. Have a couple of silly press conferences. Then, to add teeth to the recognitions, publicly announce some weapons deals with Georgia and Ukraine. Publicly announce that all Western arms-related bans in the Caucasus are to be repealed.

Then point out, in a rueful manner, that Canada and Mexico are under threat from domestic fascists and must be invaded in order to protect the American citizens and lovers of American citizens in those two countries.

Mocking Russia’s current moves in Crimea will have a much greater impact on policy decisions and public opinion than economic sanctions (which will only make things much, much worse).

Sanctions are a prelude to war.

There is also the issue of secession and political oppression to think about. As it stands, the Crimeans should be able to vote their way out of a political union with Kiev. So, too, should Dagestanis, Chechens, Karelians, etc., be able to vote their way out of a political union with Moscow. The fact that only guns have so far been able to secure a vote in favor of public opinion (Crimean secession from Ukraine) suggests that liberalism has yet to reach enough minds and institutions to have the positive impact that I think it could have on the world.

I also don’t buy the argument, made by some, about the fact that at least one of these oppressed post-socialist, post-Soviet regions was able to secede from a political center it deemed oppressive and should therefore be viewed in a positive light, even if it was Moscow’s guns which brought about the change. To me this line of reasoning is akin to arguing that the US invasion of Iraq was a cautious positive for the world, even though half a million people died due to the invasion, because there is now one less dictator in the world.

Secession needs to be viewed as a legitimate political option for peoples and this recognition needs to be incorporated into the legal systems of liberal societies if we want to avoid more conflicts like the one between Russia and Ukraine. The world is devolving politically, which means secessionist tendencies will increase, and if there is no political or legal mechanism (much less intellectual recognition) for dealing with these aspirations then be prepared for more problems in the post-colonial world (see this and this), but not so much in the West (see this and this). Liberals, of course, have been at the forefront of the secession debate since John Locke first brought it up in his 1689 classic Second Treatise of Government.