Friday, January 02, 2004

Appeasement vs coalition of the willing,

In pre-modern times, the practice of tribute was commonplace. In it, a subjugated or servile nation would offer money, slaves, and/or soldiers for the use of the greater hegemonic power that counted them as servants to its ascendency. Tribute can be distinguished from taxes in that it represents a transfer from one national polity to another distinct organization, rather than representing expenditures that mainly improve the services or infrastructure of the tax base itself. The interesting thing is that it's come back in style.

Daniel Drezner on Andrew Sullivan's web-blog has been hammering on a theme in which he says that the Bush Administration has been more multilateral than conventional wisdom remembers. This is nothing more than wishful thinking. The Bush Administration as shown in its gesture of removing restrictions of direct aid to Iran in the wake of the Bam earthquake is not incapable of politic manuevers. The key test of rational dialogue however is not when parties agree but when they disagree, and also particularly the parity of the relationships within the framework of cooperation. One-sided relationships are rarely healthy in any setting much less the affairs of nations. The Bush Administration was perfectly willing to go to the UN in order to argue the need for a resolution authorizing collective agreement on the need to take military action in Iraq. When things didn't go their way, they simply ignored the nicities and proceeded anyway.

This pattern of only superficially being interested in diplomacy is no more on putting a nice face on trying to get their way irregardless of the objections of others. It is true that multiple governments in Europe from Poland, Spain, Italy, etc. supported the US invasion of Iraq. It is also true that almost uniformly the populations of these so-called democracies opposed the invasions by substantial majorities. In other words, the support derived from the so-called coalition of the willing is mainly the elites of various governments deciding that their bread is better buttered by sucking up to the only super-power in the world rather than any philosophical agreeement or deep feeling of friendship on behalf of these nations.

This has been emphasized in a recent opinion article by Richard Reeves on the loss of the two Thai soldiers in Iraq. With about 60% of the population not favoring intervention in Iraq, the PM of Thailand has nonetheless committed his nation first to humanitarian reconstruction and then using the death of the soldiers as a pretext has escalated his involvement by dispatching ground troops for the purposes of "force protection". Clearly this manifestly unpopular policy is not being conducted because the Thai government's great respect and friendship for the people of the United States, or the compelling moral cause of the reconstruction of Iraq. These reasons were not sufficient to motivate afterall India or Pakistan to involve themselves. What India and Pakistan have independently however is a strong relationship on political, military, and economic levels with the United States of America. They decided after deliberation that they didn't need to involve themselves in an adventure so domestically unpopular in order to secure the good graces of the USA.

Thailand however was without such a sinecure, and having only superficial diplomatic relations with either the USA or the rising hegemon of the region, China, it needed to politically ally itself in a firm military fashion in order to ensure its security. Hence the dispatch and escalation of Thai involvement. To call this an act of multilateral cooperation is to mock the term. In this fashion, robbers may be also said to cooperate with banks when tellers cooperate by handing over money in order to avoid violence. The good will or ill will of a USA that has made clear that "either you are for us or against us" and openly ties the Iraq matter to cooperation in other spheres is a powerful incentive in order to "put up to get along" even when a nation might otherwise disagree in their hearts of hearts on a course of action.

Even those nations that have sent tribute to the powerful liege of the USA have seen little domestic benefits. Apparently, Uncle Sam is a cheap date and has little appreciation for the concessions that partners to US foriegn policy must make in agreeing to policies domestically unpopular. Part of the jeers directed at Azner in Spain and Blair in Britain have included the rejoiner that there have been few considerations for even those nations most willing to support and excuse US excesses in the face of losses and setbacks to credibility, blood, and treasure.

In this manner we can see that present US policy has little intention of gathering together a coalition of the truly willing. Instead it seeks to gather together a group of nations whose gratitious favor-currying and fear of US retribution drive them to offer tribute to the hyper-power of the USA without any sort of reciprocal concessions in return. This anxious hand-wringing group of elites who have moved their nations far forward of any popular mandate for such actions are the face of the international "support" that the USA currently enjoys. From having allies and friends, we have gone to having obsequious ass-kissers and nervous bet-hedgers as the principal tenor of those who concur with US policy.

The USA is in little danger of any single force either economic or military deposing its primacy over the affairs of nations. However mismanagement and over-extension could easily render the USA vulnerable to being displaced as the single greatest national power in the recorded history of mankind. Even now, China with its vast industrial capacity, massive population, and rapidly improving technological base is rising on the horizon. While having more friendly relations with the USA and less cause for future territorial conflicts, India is not far behind in potentially displacing the USA as the foremost of nations in economic terms. A generation or two, and the tables may be turned.

At the very moment it is doing so, the USA is finding itself hard-pressed in order to finance all its needs whether from economic modernization, social services, military budget expenditures, to domestic security concerns. The power of the United States depends on its economic prosperity and the technological advantage afforded by a well-educated and hard-working populace. Part of the historical exemption from the extended family that has made possible the great mobility and flexibility of the US workforce has relied upon the ability in the latter half of the 20th century to free people from the heavy burdens of childcare and eldercare through a public education system and a comprehensive retirement financing system. It is extremely short-sighted in order to try to privatize or cut back social services if it comes at the cost of diminishing the economic and technological advantages gained by freeing the workforce from familial obligations that would otherwise hamper their careers.

And if the USA having fallen or stumbled and diminished, as has been the course of every great empire or hegemon in the past has done in the due course of time, how will others treat us then when we are no longer the great power that must be appeased at all costs? Will we have left a legacy of a cooperative frame-work of nations in which might does not make right, or will we have left a bitter after-taste even in those nations that have appeased us for fear of retaliation when we weilded our historical power not to advance the future of mankind but to indulge our petty ambitions of the day? Even the greatest power must always be cautious of arousing embittered resentment. The history of nations is rife with feuds and conflicts that have proceeded generation upon generation, and cautionary tales of how the pasts of nations can cast a long shadow over their own future generations by poisoning the minds of other peoples against them. September 11 however unjustifiable in human terms was in the minds of its perpetrators an act of defiance against the stereotype of callous American supremacy that humiliated and subverted all others to its blind ambitions of cultural, economic, and military domination. We do not do ourselves any great service by giving any sort of credence to this cariacture of American character, and the past wrongs committed by American blunders cannot be washed away by belligerant forcefulness in the present.

Nobody likes a bully, even those who suck up to them.


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