Unilateralism is not isolationism

One of the most frequent characterizations of US foreign policy in the 18th and 19th centuries is that it was isolationist. In 1796, when he decided not to run for a third presidential term, George Washington wrote (possibly with the help of Alexander Hamilton) a farewell address to public life. In one of the most quoted parts of this speech, Washington said that “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” Quite similarly, in 1821 John Quincy Adams warned that the United States should not “[go] abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” We can also cite Thomas Jefferson, who in 1799 declared that “Commerce with all nations, alliance with none, should be our motto.” Finally, in 1823 James Monroe declared (with great help from the aforementioned John Quincy Adams) that “The political system of the allied powers [of Europe] is essentially different (…) from that of America.”

In short, it is by all the above (and other) quotations that historians often classify American foreign policy in the 18th and 19th centuries as isolationist. This trend, it follows, was altered in World War I by Woodrow Wilson, who broke away from traditional isolationism to lead the United States to fight in Europe. More than that: at the end of the war, in his 14 Points, Wilson proposed the creation of the League of Nations, a permanent multilateral international organization, with the objective of promoting the collective security of the member countries. The Wilsonian tendency was reversed by Republicans in the 1920s and 1930s, mainly because they refused to join the League of Nations, opting for isolationism. However, Woodrow Wilson’s proposal was retaken by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in World War II. The United States defeated the enemy forces in Europe and the Pacific and in the end war was one of the main founders of the United Nations, an international organization created to replace the League of Nations. Since then the United States has predominantly adopted Woodrow Wilson’s perspective and avoided the isolationism of the Founding Fathers and of the Republican presidents of the interwar period. Only ultra-conservatives believe and advocate that the US should retake the foreign policy of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, and James Monroe. However, all this evaluation already starts flawed when it characterizes American foreign policy in the 18th and 19th centuries as an isolationist. To explain why, we can differentiate two terms: isolationism and unilaterialism.

Predominantly, US foreign policy in the 18th and 19th centuries followed George Washington’s advice “to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” However, it should be noted at the same time that this foreign policy followed Thomas Jefferson’s advice to establish “commerce with all nations.” In other words, despite the lack of permanent alliances with other countries (particularly European ones), what the United States did not lack in that period was a growing trade with other parts of the world, in addition to regular diplomatic contact (although not characterized by permanent alliances). To call this isolation is to force language too much. There are many historical examples of countries that have actually isolated themselves from the rest of the world: Japan between the 17th and 19th centuries, China between the 15th and 19th centuries, Paraguay from 1811 to 1844, and more recently North Korea are just a few. US foreign policy in the 18th and 19th centuries would be better characterized as unilateralist or non-interventionist. This means simply that the US didn’t subject its international relations to foreign authority.

There was no US isolation before the 20th century. What happened was a policy of avoiding permanent alliances. Meanwhile, the country had no problem with expanding its diplomatic contacts and its international trade (although some economic protectionism was practiced, but I leave this subject to another time). The same can be said about the attitude taken by the presidents in the interwar period: not participating in the League of Nations did not mean isolation from the rest of the world, quite the opposite: the US actively participated in the economy and international politics at that time. It just did not do this through the international organization proposed by Woodrow Wilson. It is perfectly possible to participate actively in international relations unilaterally, i.e. without the formation of permanent or binding alliances with multilateral international organizations.

Confusing the terms isolation and unilateralism may just be an oversight or an evaluation error. But it can also be a purposeful strategy. Confusing the terms may hide an undeclared requirement (or assumption): the only accepted international participation is that made through multilateral international organizations such as the League of Nations or the United Nations. No other is good enough. In this way, those who characterize US foreign policy before Woodrow Wilson as isolationist are severely limiting the possibilities for US international participation.

Cave Paintings and Elementary Science

This is a travel story of sorts, of travel through time, to an extent. Be patient.

Directly to the west of Marseille, the second largest city in France are a series of beautiful, narrow coves, like fjords, situated in a sort of desert. They are called “calanques” in French. They are accessible only by sea or through a long walk on hot rocky ground. Although they constitute a separate world, the calanques are close to Marseille, as the crow flies. They used to be a major fishing resource for the city. You can be sure they were never forgotten during the 2600 years of the city’s existence. Also, the city was founded by Greeks and thus, it always had a literate population, one that kept records.

Marseille and its environs are where SCUBA was invented, the first practical solution to the problem of men breathing underwater. Accordingly, the calanques were always and thoroughly explored after 1950. In 1985, one of the co-inventors of SCUBA discovered a deep cave in one of the calanques. He couldn’t resist temptation and swam into it until he reached a large emerging room. I mean a cave where he could stand and breathe regular air. His name was Cosquer.

Cosquer visited there several times without saying a word about his discovery. Soon, he observed dozens of beautiful paintings belonging to two distinct periods on the upper walls of his cave. The art of the first period was mostly hand imprints or stencils. The art of the second, distinct period, comprised 170-plus beautiful animals including many horses, ibex and others mammals, also fish, seals and other sea creatures. Archaeologists think the painting of the first period were done about in about 25 000 BC, those of the latter period date back to about 18 000 BC, they believe.

Today, the entrance to the cave is about 125 feet below sea level. We know that paleolithic men did not have SCUBA. They simply walked into the cave for their own reasons, with their own purposes in mind. Thus, the sea level was at least 125 feet lower then than it is today. The people of Marseille never saw the cave. They would have written about it. There would be records. They would not have forgotten it. They simply did not know of its existence during the past 2600 years.

Sometimes in the past 20 000 years, the sea rose 125 feet or more. That’s an amplitude several times greater than any of the direst predictions of the official United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for the next century. The IPCC squarely blames a future ocean rise (one that has not been observed at all, yet) on abnormal emission of several gases, especially CO2 . These abnormal emissions in turn, the IPCC affirms are traceable to human activities such as driving cars and producing many useful things by burning fossil fuels.

It seems to me that basic good science requires that causal analysis begin with a baseline. In this case, it would mean something like this: In the absence of any burning of fossil fuels, the ocean rose 125 feet sometimes during the past 20,000 years. Let’s see if we can find evidence of the ocean rising above and beyond this order of magnitude since humanity began burning fossil fuels in large quantities, about 150 years ago.

The conclusion will likely be that nothing out of the ordinary happened. Hence, fossil fuel emissions are probably irrelevant to this particular issue. (This leaves open the possibility that such emissions are odious for some other reason. I mean that CO2 is plant food. Too much CO2 may promote weed growth in our fields and gardens. )

The ocean is not currently rising and if it is, the existence of the Cosquer cave suggests that it’s rising to a tiny degree. Let’s keep things in perspective. Let’s discard openly and loudly every part of the building of a complex hypothesis that does not work. Those who don’t take these obvious cleansing measures simply have a lot of explaining to do. They should not be allowed to wrap themselves in the mantle of science while violating Science 101 principles.

One of the conceits of the Warmist movement is that you don’t have a right to an opinion unless you possess a doctorate in Atmospheric science. By this dictate, anybody who has to keep a job, raise children, or pay a mortgage is out of the discussion. This is the typical posturing of intellectual totalitarianism. Note what’s missing in the story above: It says nothing about what did cause the ocean to rise between 18 000 B. C. and today. It’s enough to know that whatever it was, it was not the massive burning of fossil fuels. The story is complete as is. Don’t quit your job and apply to graduate school!

From the Footnotes: Race, Nationality, and Empire

We have more to say than space allows about ‘race’ and ‘community’ as an imperial organizing category, especially in the British Empire, and about complex transformations and incongruities in decolonization as plural, hierarchical fields of multiply ‘races’ and ‘communities’ were constituted into new nation-states. A return to the dictionaries shows that while definitions of ‘nation’ before World War II sometimes connected nations to states, they invariably defined nations as ‘races’ and made the connection to race, not state, primary. Challenges to this linkage of nation and race were available at the time, notably Renan’s 1882 lecture rejecting race, language, and territory as bases for nationality. This argument eventually became famous. But the dictionaries changed only after that crescendo of failure of nations seeing themselves as races destined to dominate empires, the global catastrophes following the German effort to found an Aryan Third Reich and the Japanese effort to build a Co-Prosperity Sphere with the Yamato race as nucleus. Benedict Anderson deserves credit for insisting upon annihilation of the shared descent definitions of nation, for insistence that the nation is first of all imagined, ideal, and realized in co-dependence with a state. Yet in this, we think, he is the theorist observing at dusk, theorizing the world-order of quiescent nation-states built decades before by the architects of a United Nations in the rubble of the Second World War – and theorizing them not as 20th-century contingencies but as a modern necessity. To Anderson, the disconnection of nation from race or descent group and its connection to the state was, ironically, not an historical development but something intrinsic to the nation. The fact of the Nazis notwithstanding, he found scholarship seeing any connection between nationalism and racism simply ‘basically mistaken’.

This from “Nation and Decolonization: Toward A New Anthropology of Nationalism” by John D Kelly and Martha Kaplan in Anthropological Theory (gated, unfortunately).

Dumbing Down the World

Public education has been a slowly degenerating disaster throughout the West, and now it seems we’re exporting it to the rest.

At a United Nations meeting 15 years ago, the world’s governments agreed on the goal of enrolling every child on the planet in primary schooling by this year.

Indeed, they have nearly succeeded, with 2014’s reports indicating that 90 percent of children in developing regions now attend primary school. Presumably, the numbers for developed countries are above 95 percent.

But strangely, this lofty plan did not say anything about the quality of the schooling into which we have now driven more than 9 out of every 10 human children; the whole idea is to get children into government-approved classrooms, apparently regardless of what happens there.

The reports of UN agencies like Education for All (EFA) are full of ideas on how to get kids to go to school in developing countries: making education entirely taxpayer funded (commonly by taxpayers from richer countries), providing free medication or food to students who show up, or even just paying cash to the parents in return for kids’ attendance.

But are the pupils who spend more time at these schools actually learning more as a result? Has the goal of putting more kids into classrooms actually led to more kids getting a proper education? MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel reports, “Several programs which have raised participation, from providing worm medicine to free meals, show no evidence that children are learning more as a result.”

And EFA’s Fast Track Initiative admits, “In nearly all developing countries the levels of learning achievement are shockingly low.… In many low-income countries students learn virtually nothing and end up functionally illiterate.”

In fact, the situation is so bad that Jameel says one area to be improved is “more regular attendance of teachers.”

A crucial fallacy

The international education agencies seem to have been duped by what Austro-libertarian Murray Rothbard calls “a crucial fallacy … confusion between formal schooling and education in general.”

Promising to educate every child in every culture through primary schooling is a bit like promising to clothe every child in every climate by giving them a parka.

In fact, until recently, nearly all children learned the important skills of life largely outside of schools, through observing and joining in with the activities of adults. Rothbard writes with respect to American education, “Education is a lifelong process of learning, and learning takes place not only in school, but in all areas of life. When the child plays, or listens to parents or friends, or reads a newspaper, or works at a job, he or she is becoming educated.”

All the medicine handouts and free school lunches EFA proposes are attempts to offset the direct economic opportunity cost of the child spending a day at school instead of working on the farm or in a factory. While these handouts do take into account the child’s economic contribution to the family’s labor, what about that labor’s educational contribution to the child? What about the educational opportunity cost?

If students in many schools are learning very little and graduating “functionally illiterate,” if attendance doesn’t actually produce real education, and if teachers sometimes don’t even bother to show up, perhaps the parents and children feel that they would learn more outside the schools than in.

The presence of this educational opportunity cost may help explain why, despite all the subsidies and bonuses meant to drive kids into classrooms, the 2014 report on this goal laments, “high dropout rates [of children] remain an impediment to universal primary education.”

The kids are going into school, they and their families are seeing the results, and they and their families are deciding they are better off elsewhere.

But sadly, this important educational opportunity cost doesn’t seem to be on the global pedagogical philanthropists’ radar. Jameel says only that “there is no consensus on why so many poor children don’t attend school, or the best way to increase participation. If children’s labor is crucial to their family’s welfare … it may prove very difficult to attract more children to school.”

There is no mention of any learning that might happen while the child is outside the classroom.

For the moment, let us grant this assumption: Only schooling is education. No learning happens outside of schools.

Under this assumption, not only do children’s minds profit nothing from a day spent at home or in the bush, but most of the parents of children in the developing world are themselves totally un-“educated” — benighted savages whose heads are filled with cobwebs.

Thus, for our benevolent pedagogical overlords, it could make sense to get those kids away from their parents and into schools as soon as possible, even if, as EFA acknowledges, “in some countries nearly every aspect of the schooling system is seriously deficient — infrastructure, teaching materials, teacher availability and qualifications, lack of student assessments and lack of incentives for improving learning outcomes.”

Furthermore, in many poorer countries, the office jobs (the only ones for which schooling is actually required) are nearly all government and international NGO jobs. That’s because these countries have not (or at least not yet) developed a strong market demand for literate and numerate workers. So those kids who do succeed in school end up moving to the capital and writing reports on the importance of international funding for schools.

The kids who do not do well in school go back home to the farms or the factories, having spent years of their lives learning, in some cases, “virtually nothing.” But since the bureaucrats seem to believe that the traditional cultures the children might have spent those years immersed in held no knowledge anyway, this result might not be seen as much of a loss.

Setting young minds free

No doubt, some kids who would profit from schooling are being kept out of it by very bad things: wars, forced prostitution, and outright poverty. EFA’s programs to make schooling more accessible could have a huge positive impact on these children’s lives.

But instead of focusing on gimmicks to get kids into the classes governments want to teach, educators should focus on materials that kids want to learn — or that their parents are willing to invest in.

James Tooley has reported on the existence of an entire underground economy of black- and gray-market private schools in the slums of India and Kenya. Since these schools either hide themselves from the local authorities (to avoid being shut down) or are hidden by the local authorities from the national and international authorities (to avoid embarrassing the public schools), it’s difficult to know how prevalent they are.

What is clear is that these dirt-cheap private schools are operating with a profit motive under serious competition. Students’ parents often have to choose whether to pay for a loaf of bread or a day in school. How good would your kid’s school have to be for you to pay for it under those circumstances?

Meanwhile, these schools’ profits are being siphoned off in bribes to the local inspectors.

We could unleash these not-quite-legal schools from their government shackles by breaking the chain between government and education. Ending the drive for compulsory, state-run, subsidized schooling would, in Rothbard’s words, “give children their head” and let them seek out “a genuine and truly free education, both in and out of formal schools.”


This article was originally published in the Freeman online, and is based on an older article written for Mises Daily. Many thanks to Max Borders and BK Marcus for the opportunity to publish in the Freeman, and to Dan Sanchez for the opportunity to publish in the Mises Daily during his tenure.

Imperialisms, Old and New: Sykes-Picot and the United Nations

Foreign policy expert (and Reason contributor) Michael Young had an op-ed out last week on nationalism and imperialism in the Middle East. Writing in The National, Young argues that Western imperialism should not be blamed for the problems of the Middle East today. Young argues that the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire guaranteed that violence would play a prominent role in the region, regardless of where the lines of borders had been drawn, or who had drawn them.

Violence would play an important role, Young argues, because aspirant hegemons and various types of nationalisms (Arab, Iraqi, Lebanese, etc.) would be eager to expand their influence and power throughout the Middle East. This is an interesting hypothesis, but it strikes me as disingenuous largely because there is no way to prove such an assertion wrong. The fact that violence could have happened in the absence of European imperialism does not excuse the cartographic crimes of European states. The carving up of the post-Ottoman Arab world happened (interesting counterfactuals notwithstanding).

Young’s argument fails on another account as well. He writes, for example, that:

None of the protagonists in Syria’s conflict has cast doubt on its borders, or has called for a Sunni or Alawite state. Their rhetoric has almost entirely been couched in nationalistic terms, with their aim being the control over all of Syria. Even Mr Al Assad has never expressed interest in falling back on an Alawite mini-state, and if he does so that would only be because he can no longer hold Damascus.

There are two arguments worth scrutinizing here. One, there have been calls for a Sunni state. Two, the nationalist rhetoric is itself a product of Western imperialism. For example, these power struggles for the center occur because secessionist or federalist options are not available to factions in the region. The lack of options stems from the inherent inability of these post-imperial states to govern without a strong man. Strong men are required in the post-imperial Middle East because the states that were drawn up by European diplomats were arbitrary and ahistorical, and therefore lack legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

Post-imperial states are not considered legitimate by their citizens because they never had a say in how to go about structuring such a state (not even through the traditional channel of war). They had no say in where the borders should be, or who they could trade with, or how to best accommodate foreigners. Because post-colonial states are not legitimate, violent centripetal forces are constant. This pattern continues unabated because those who eventually end up controlling the center receive legitimacy from the international legal order, as exemplified by the United Nations and financial lending institutions such as the IMF.

By recognizing the legitimacy of Sykes-Picot’s arbitrary states and the sanctity of its borders, the UN and other Western institutions contribute directly to the bloodshed and impoverishment of the region. Because these states have been legitimized by the UN, violent factions can simply seize control of the center and they will automatically gain legitimacy from the very international order that has sustained this chaos. Why bother trying to gain the legitimacy of an impoverished populace when you can simply capture the rent associated with running a post-imperial state?

The West would do well to start working on a foreign policy that looks at recognizing devolutionist tendencies in the post-imperial world as a legitimate option. Recognizing the mistakes of Western imperialism would be a good start. Western recognition would also give these breakaway movements a sense of legitimacy when it comes to working with international organizations such as the IMF or WTO. Official recognition could open up diplomatic options that are currently unavailable to stateless societies in the post-imperial world.

By continuing to not view devolution as a legitimate option for Middle Eastern (and other) societies, the West is doubling down on its moral failure of a hundred years ago. Recognizing centrifugal forces as a legitimate political process would also bring the post-imperial world and the West to a more level standing with each other, as the West would welcome new states into their international orders rather than picking winners and losers through cartographic exercises. In an era where inequalities are shaping up to play prominent roles in policy debates, this last tweak in diplomacy could very well contribute (politically at least) to a more equitable world.

Imperialism: The Illogical Nature of “Humanitarian” Wars

Dr Delacroix is simply unable to grasp my argument. There are two possible reasons for this:

  1. He simply does not want to grasp it
  2. He simply cannot grasp it

Most of the time I believe that Reason #1 is responsible for one’s inability to grasp a concept, at least when we are dealing with high intelligence individuals like Dr Delacroix.

But I think this is a case where Dr Delacroix and other like-minded imperialists simply cannot grasp the logic behind my argument. Allow me to hearken readers back to my recent post on “Libertarian IQ” where I quote an academic computer programmer on the inability of some students to grasp the concepts he is trying to teach:

Let me tell a story that is typical of those I heard from the TAs who worked for me at the computing center. A student comes up to the TA and says that his program isn’t working. The numbers it prints out are all wrong. The first number is twice what it should be, the second is four times what it should be, and the others are even more screwed up. The student says, “Maybe I should divide this first number by 2 and the second by 4. That would help, right?” No, it wouldn’t, the TA explains. The problem is not in the printing routine. The problem is with the calculating routine. Modifying the printing routine will produce a program with TWO problems rather than one […]

The student in my hypothetical story displays the classic mistake of treating symptoms rather than solving problems. The student knows the program doesn’t work, so he tries to find a way to make it appear to work a little better. As in my example, without a proper model of computation, such fixes are likely to make the program worse rather than better. How can the student fix his program if he can’t reason in his head about what it is supposed to do versus what it is actually doing? He can’t.

Dr Delacroix is in a position similar to that of the student.

When I point out that the post-colonial states of the Middle East are, by their very structure, incapable of anything other than autocracy, he responds by pointing out that the West has often taken sides in the various conflicts that erupt in these states. The logic behind this reasoning follows accordingly:

Brandon: This hot dog is undercooked, so eating it will make me sick.

Dr Delacroix: Yes, but it has chili on it.

B: No dude, eating it will make me sick.

DD: Yes, but it also has brown mustard on it.

B: I’m sorry dude, but I’m not eating the hot dog.

DD: Now you’re just being senseless (and rude!).

You see how that works?

Dr Delacroix and other “humanitarian” imperialists seem to believe that when the West picks a side in a conflict that has nothing to do with national security, imperialism suddenly becomes a perfectly acceptable way of fixing the problems of the world. Yet just like the programming student in the example above, Dr Delacroix’s attempts to fix a superficial problem (with bombs no less) actually end up exacerbating the real, underlying problem, which is that the states currently in place in most of the world are not seen as legitimate by its “citizens.”

Post-colonial states are not considered legitimate by their subjects because they never had a say in how to go about structuring such a state. They had no say in where the borders should be, or who they could trade with, or how to best accommodate foreigners.

Because they are not legitimate, power struggles (even in long-lived dictatorships) for the center are constant since those who eventually end up controlling the center receive legitimacy from the UN and other imperial institutions (but not their own people). Why bother trying to gain the legitimacy of an impoverished populace when you can simply capture the rent associated with running a post-colonial state?

Syria and the Failure of Imperialisms (Old and New)

Dr Delacroix has recently left a question in the form of a comment that I think deserves to be answered. He asks:

If you were 100% convinced that Assad of Syria had used chemical weapons on civilians, would it affect your judgment about the desirability of American intervention in Syria?

Andrew shares his thoughts here. Rick Weber chimes in here (why isn’t he blogging with us, by the way?). I have written about Syria and military intervention here before, so I thought I’d just try to add a bit more clarity to the topic. First though, I think it is important to take  a closer look at Dr Delacroix’s question.

In it, he seems to be assuming that I don’t think the American government should do anything in this case. Now, he is of course referring to military action in Syria – which I absolutely oppose – but it would be nice if Dr Delacroix employed less trickery in his questioning.

Instead of taking the usual tactic of trying to explain what I think the US could do (see Rick’s piece on this), or why I think another war in the Middle East would be a disaster, I’m going to take a different path altogether and offer a defense of both the Hussein regime and the Assad regime, thus rendering the US wars, or potential wars, in the region immoral and unjustified.

To put it bluntly: both regimes were perfectly justified in undertaking the actions that they did, and there was (is) no justification whatsoever for American military involvement.

Imperialists like to pretend that the Middle East is a simple place with simple people performing simple tasks and largely worshiping a simple religion (Islam). The results of applying imagination to the real world can be found first in the mandate system devised by British and French imperialists at the end of World War I. These two states really screwed up the region. They drew arbitrary borders that did not conform to any pattern whatsoever among the indigenous population (Dr Delacroix is fond of using Kurdish autonomy in Iraq as a justification for imperialism, but it was imperialism in the first place that left the Kurds without sovereignty).

Out of these arbitrary borders came the nation-states of the Middle East that we all know and love today. Prior to the entrenchment of these borders (borders which were later to be blessed by the United Nations) a number of political proposals put forth by the indigenous population itself were heard. One historian from UCLA has documented just how trusted the United States was in the region at one point in time:

[…] the elected parliament of Syria that met after the war, the Syrian General Congress, declared that it wanted Syria to be independent  and unified. By unity, the representatives meant that Syria should include territories of present-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, and Jordan. If Syria had to have a mandatory power overseeing it, a majority of the representatives declared, it should be the United States. (87)

It goes without saying that the democratically-elected Syrian General Congress – the one crushed by French imperialism – included representatives from Lebanon, Israel/Palestine and Jordan. The question of why the US has fallen so far from grace in the eyes of many Arabs (and other peoples around the world) is far beyond the scope of this post, but it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out that the United States of America decided it wanted to step into the imperialist boots worn by France and Great Britain during the 19th century rather than pursue a policy of peace, commerce and friendship.

After the French crushed democracy in Syria (Britain did the same in Iraq), it began to carve up their mandates into smaller territories. The goal behind this policy was not to improve efficiency in government, but to create a system of government where religious minorities – specifically Christian minorities – would be able to control the levers of power.

After the French were kicked out of Syria (and the British in Iraq), sectarian violence began. The international legal order, as exemplified by the United Nations, played a lead role in deepening the crisis: by recognizing the legitimacy of these arbitrary states and the sanctity of their borders, the UN contributed directly to the bloodshed that occurred as rival factions sought power over the center of these states (think Washington DC). Because these states were legitimized by the UN, the rival factions could simply seize control of the center and automatically gain legitimacy from the very international order that had created this clusterfuck in the first place. In essence, the United Nations has simply served to further the imperial ends of the British and French in the Middle East (and elsewhere).

The stakes for contesting the center were very high. In Iraq, Arabs who were also Sunni Muslims or Christians, as well as other small religious and ethnic minorities, banded together to counter the violence directed at them by Sunni Kurds and Shia Arabs.

In Syria, Arabs who were also Shia Muslims or Christians, as well as other small religious and ethnic minorities (such as the Kurds or the Alawites), banded together to counter the violence directed at them by Sunni Arabs.

When the dictators of Iraq and Syria murdered thousands of people within the borders created and sanctified by the international system, they did not do so because they viewed some of their fellow citizens – Syrians and Iraqis – as refusing to obey orders. Hussein and the Assads murdered droves of people because they viewed these people as enemies and threats to their own survival (as well as to the survival of their kin and allies) rather than as fellow citizens.

I am not justifying the violence perpetrated by the minority regimes of Iraq and Syria, I am only putting their tactics into context. Without the repressive measures that these regimes had at their disposal, the ethnic and religious minorities that these regimes protected would have been slaughtered just as callously as those who were actually slaughtered.

Here is where the immorality of American foreign policy comes into play. Here also is where the immorality of imperialism comes into play. But I repeat myself.

Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq for 24 years. Bearing in mind the situation that Iraqis were presented with as a result of British imperialism (outlined above), it is estimated that his regime killed 250,000 Iraqis. That’s pretty bad.

It took the unprovoked invasion and occupation of Iraq by the US military about a third of the time (nine years) to reach just under half the total body count of the Hussein regime (roughly 110,000 dead Iraqis).

If the US military had stayed as long as Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, and trends continued to remain steady (and there are no signs to suggest that they wouldn’t have), then the US military would have been responsible for more Iraqi deaths than the Hussein regime. The great, disgusting irony of it all is that the Hussein regime was at least defending a significant minority of the population. The US has left the minorities of Iraq in the hands of the dominant Shia majority (Dr Delacroix’s precious democracy).

The same situation is currently in place in Syria. The Assad regime is basically fighting against al-Qaeda and Hizbollah. The Assad regime is also the only thing stands between significant minority populations and the large Arab Sunni majority of Syria, a majority that has been violently kept out of the center since Assad’s father seized power over Syria’s center in 1970. If the US were to intervene on behalf of al-Qaeda and Hizbollah, what do you think the outcome would be?

Less bloodshed? Less cronyism?

These are fantasies. The states created and sanctified by imperial decree (British, French and UN) are by their very nature destined to be cradles of autocracy.

The best policy that the United States could pursue in regards to the Syrian question, and in regards to most post-colonial states, is to simply stop recognizing these polities as legitimate. The rest of the West would follow suite. This would relieve the pressure associated with seizing the center of these states and force the people of the Middle East to compromise. The United States should not recognize any government in the Middle East until a delegation of representatives – like the one in the interwar years – is sent to Washington, by the people of the Middle East, to argue their case for sovereignty and induction into the liberal international order.

In a world of second bests, it would be wise to eliminate all sanctions on the Syrian state, including weapons sanctions. This would have the effect of leveling the playing field (states often enjoy an advantage in weaponry once sanctions are imposed upon a warring area because a state’s resources are likely to crowd out smaller competitors [i.e. “the rebels”] in the black market). The usual diplomatic caveats apply as well.

Assuming, as Dr Delacroix does, that military intervention would do the Syrian people any good is as preposterous as it is condescending.

I would need some hard data to challenge my intuition (outlined above) on this matter.

Is It Time to Reject African States?

That is essentially what a political scientist is arguing in a short piece in the New York Times:

Yet because these countries were recognized by the international community before they even really existed, because the gift of sovereignty was granted from outside rather than earned from within, it came without the benefit of popular accountability, or even a social contract between rulers and citizens.

Imperialists like Dr Delacroix and Nancy Pelosi don’t seem to care about the legitimacy of post-colonial states (largely, I suspect, because they thought they did a great job of creating the borders that they did). You never hear them make arguments like this. Instead, the imperial line is all about helping all of those poor people suffering under despotic rule by bombing their countries, just as you would expect a condescending paternalist to do.

Since tactical strikes and peacekeeping missions have utterly failed since the end of WW2, why not try a new tactic? Our political scientist elaborates:

The first and most urgent task is that the donor countries that keep these nations afloat should cease sheltering African elites from accountability. To do so, the international community must move swiftly to derecognize the worst-performing African states, forcing their rulers — for the very first time in their checkered histories — to search for support and legitimacy at home […]

African states that begin to provide their citizens with basic rights and services, that curb violence and that once again commit resources to development projects, would be rewarded with re-recognition by the international community.

Englebert (the political scientist) goes on use examples of democratization in Taiwan as an example of how delegitimizing states can lead to democratization.

Another interesting angle that Englebert brings in is that of Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia that has not been recognized by the international community and, perhaps as result of this brittle reception by the international community, it is flourishing economically and politically. You won’t hear imperialists point to Somaliland either. Instead, you’ll get some predictable snark about ‘anarchism‘ or African savagery from these paternalists.

Yet, it is obvious that Somaliland is neither anarchist nor savage, as there is a government in place that is actively trying to work with both Mogadishu and international actors on the one hand, and rational calculations made by all sorts of actors on the other hand. What we have in the Horn of Africa, and – I would argue – by extension elsewhere in the post-colonial world, is a crisis of legitimacy wrought by the brutal, oppressive hand of government.

Read the whole article.

The UN vote on Palestinian Question: Some Comments

Recently the UN voted to make the Palestinian territories as a “non-member observer state,” rather than a “non-member observer entity.” The vote was 73% to 5% with 22% abstaining.

As I’ve previously noted, I think the UN is a now-worthless organization, and CNN gives a good interpretation of the facts on the ground here if you’re interested.

My own take on this vote is scrambled, so bear with me as I lay it out here.

The Israelis have objected to this vote because they argue that the Palestinians are trying to forego direct negotiations with the Israelis. This is a fair objection.

However, the Israelis often argue that their state was legitimized when the UN voted in favor of a 1947 partition plan (the vote was 72% to 13% with 15% abstaining). That is to say, there were no direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians when the partition of Palestine was being drafted by the UN.

Much of the property owned by Jews in Israel today was acquired legally.

I think that the UN move by the Palestinians is a good one for two reasons:

  1. It gave the Israelis a taste of their own medicine by applying their own legal logic against them.
  2. It follows an ingenious tactic that the Israelis recently unveiled with the inclusion of expelled Jews from Arab states during the wars in the middle of last century.

To conclude, I favor a one state solution. I don’t like the idea of defining states in terms of religious or ethnic denominations, but I think the two-state solution is a good one to pursue for the time being. Both sides are guilty of practicing diplomacy in bad faith, but I have to hand it to the Palestinians on this one. It’s a stroke of genius.

The UN Sucks

I didn’t catch President Obama’s speech to the UN last night. I had other things to do (like stare at a brick wall).

I think the UN actually deserves credit for helping to avert nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States. The UN also did a good job of containing any French, British, or Chinese jealousies that could have erupted during the Cold War by keeping them included in the decision-making process. The diplomatic institutions it put in place were voluntary and had three clear-cut goals in mind: 1) avert nuclear war between the two rising superpowers, 2) avert rivalries between the two fading European powers not defeated by the United States, and 3) ensure that tensions in the Far East remained manageable.

The UN did all of these fairly well.

Today, though, I think the UN is a sham. The few good programs it has, such as the ones focusing on health and clean water, can be better run by various agencies in a decentralized manner. The goals of the post-Cold War UN are vague and paternalistic, which is why I suspect it attracts the curiosity, awe and respect of so many young Leftists. Continue reading

The UN, Our Beacon of Humanity

I keep wondering why any serious people right or left take seriously the United Nations General Assembly’s pretense of being a quasi-world parliament and the UN Security Council’s pretense of being a responsible world executive. Neither claim makes sense on its face.

Yesterday or today, the French centrist and generally responsible newspaper Le Figaro reported that the Syrian security forces had killed about 250 Syrians in the preceding night, almost all civilians. That’s what Le Figaro asserts. How do I judge whether it’s true or not? The Syrian Minister of Information declared that the anti-government insurgents themselves has mortared civilians in Homs to give the Assad regime a bad name! Do I need more evidence?

Human Rights Watch, which I generally trust with figures, has not had time to say anything about this number. Yet, the organization endorses the general figure of 5400 Syria dead for the year 2011 announced by the UN General Commissioner before he stopped counting. As I have said before, that figure is pretty much like 40,000 victims would be in the US.

Now, when any part of the UN insults Israel, no one is surprised because holding that country of fewer than 7 million responsible for all the ills of the Arab World has been one of the UN’s areas of consistency. That’s together with incompetent and impotent “peace keeping.” This time, the UN slapped the Arab League, no less, in the face. Normally, the UN General Assembly does anything the Arab Leagues wants, no matter how absurd, grotesque, or dishonest. Nowadays however the Arab League often finds itself on the side of common sense and of humanity. So, all bets are off. Continue reading