The Sentimental Imperialists 1 15 August 2019.

There’s this interesting book by Alan Weisman, The World Without Us (2008).  Weisman asks how long would our massive physical creations—buildings, dams, roads, tunnels—survive if humans were not constantly maintaining them?  He answers Not long at all.  Flooding, erosion, deer, those weeds that sprout through cracks in the sidewalk, would need only decades to begin erasing the human scar on the Earth.  Things that seem unimaginably durable and solid can quickly disappear.

What if we apply the same approach to political institutions?  What if we stopped maintaining them?  It wouldn’t matter much with domestic political traditions and institutions.  Those tend to be the product of long periods of development and bargaining.  They survive both triumph and disaster.  Trying to graft foreign or theoretical arrangements onto a long-existing political tradition isn’t likely to work.[1]  So, “tribes” (local identities) would survive.

But what if you apply the same approach to the cob-web of links between countries in what political scientists like to call an “international system” or “cosmopolitanism”?  There the approach seems more valid, at least at first glance.  Take Asia as an example.

China has grown into the second largest economy in the world.  Its wealth has allowed a massive military build-up and an aggressive posture in the Western Pacific.  Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has challenged the West in Eastern Europe, in the Middle East, and in the conduct of democratic elections.  North Korea’s acquisition of advanced missile technology—from whatever source—poses a grave security threat to American forces and American allies in Asia.  Meanwhile a combination of refugee problems with a revolt against the “Eurocrats” of the European Union’s “administrative state” have disabled Europe as a force in international affairs.

That’s why the “Nervous Nigels” and “sissies in striped pants”[2] who populate the diplomatic corps of many nations and of international agencies have been bleating so hard.  Where will many millions of people be without the World Health Organization, the World Agriculture Organization, or the United Nations High Commission on Refugees?  Malaria, malnutrition, and massacres, that’s where.

Normally, many people would grudgingly look to the United States for leadership in crises.  The Trump Administration’s “America First” strategy challenges this reflex.  However, there are real limits on what the United States could accomplish under any administration.  Hong Kong has been a part of China since 1997.  China claims Taiwan.  If it buckles on Hong Kong, then its future with Taiwan may be in doubt.  The Uighurs are Chinese subjects.  Kashmir is a part of India.  North Korea already has been plastered with sanctions for decades without abandoning its pursuit of nuclear weapons.  The Philippines resents the United States and forced the closure of American bases decades ago.  Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton either opposed or backed away from the Obama administration’s “Trans-Pacific Partnership.”  Loathsome person though he may be, Donald Trump isn’t far off the mark in Asia.

[1] This was the position of early 19th Century Conservatives.  You couldn’t make Britain into Prussia and you couldn’t make the Austrian empire into the United States just by writing some documents.  However, the experience of the Third Reich and its adventures proved sufficient to make Germans open to new approaches.  Which proves my point.

[2] The Economist and Franklin D. Roosevelt respectively.

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