Friday, October 22, 2004

Childhood's End

The Hoover Digest recently published an essay by Niall Ferguson entitled A World without Power. Mr. Ferguson illustrates how there have been few eras in human history where a power vacuum existed for long before it was filled by rivals. History is mainly about power rivalries. He posits that the wish by some for an apolar world is a fantasy; its realization would be a disaster, heralding in a new Dark Age. Alas, the United States, on the threshold of a new century, must now prepare for the rise of new rivals across the world. Meanwhile, there is internal gravitatation towards post-hegemonic transnational power sharing, presumably with an apolar goal. Many on the extreme left and right do not hold that the United States should practice hegemony; each has their own vision for a world where American power is blocked, controlled, channeled or diffused. Here's a few snippets from Mr. Ferguson's essay:
If the United States retreats from its hegemonic role, who would supplant it? Not Europe, not China, not the Muslim world---and certainly not the United Nations. Unfortunately, the alternative to a single superpower is not a multilateral utopia but the anarchic nightmare of a new Dark Age.

The “unipolarity” identified by some commentators following the Soviet collapse cannot last much longer, for the simple reason that history hates a hyperpower. Sooner or later, challengers will emerge, and back we must go to a multipolar, multipower world... Apolarity could turn out to mean an anarchic new Dark Age---an era of waning empires and religious fanaticism; of endemic plunder and pillage in the world’s forgotten regions; of economic stagnation and civilization’s retreat into a few fortified enclaves.
Interestingly, Mr. Ferguson identifies three global power centers: The United States, the European Union and the People's Republic of China. He does not remotely consider supranational organizations like the United Nations, the Arab League, NATO or any of a host of NGOs anywhere near in the offing for contending world hegemony. The US, EU and PRC each have the potential for real power---large populations, large world-affecting economies and sizeable military investitures---hegemonic prerequisites that preclude other aspirants from global domination.

Mr. Ferguson goes on to say that each of the Big Three hegemonic contenders hold the seeds of their own demise. If these seeds of self-destruction were to be realized, a global power vacuum would ensue.

The United States suffers from triple structural deficits of clay feet: Growing dependence on foreign capital; overwrought troop levels to maintain global military dominance; and an attention deficit brought about by the republic's political traditions that disallows consensus for long-term efforts like nation-building.

An aging demographic proscribes Old Europe to influential decline, hastened by the rise of Islam within its borders. It's neosocialist incarnation is obsessed with the financial security of its aging class, borne on the backs of its languishing, disenfranchised youth. The EU is hardly in the position of projecting its power militarily; so it resorts to soft power, which is aptly named---like soft ground, it is difficult to build anything substantial upon it. Europa is descendent.

China faces a perfect storm in the form of an economic crisis due to the incompatibility between its free market economy and the communist monopoly that promotes corruption and opaque fiscal, monetary and regulatory institutions. Throw in a over a billion people and it's a party. And any twitching of the Chinese economic colossus would send tsunamis of ruin to Europe and America, who are deeply invested and dependent upon a rising, healthy China. Go to Walmart, subtract everything made in China, and our dependency is clear. And that's not the half of it.

Other regions of the world are not viable contenders for hegemony. The Arab world, rich in the finite resource of oil, is too bitterly divided---between Shi'a and Sunni; Secular and theocracy; old and young; nationalist and Arabist---to have more than a chaotic contribution to any kind of multipolar world order. Ferguson points our that Yemen's population will exceed Russia's by 2050, at current fertility rates. That's a crisis in a land with precious few resources outside of diminishing oil deposits. Africa is under the heel of vast poverty, internecine strife and an AIDS pandemic that is robbing the continent of a future. Latin America is better off than Africa, but it too is robbed of global cogency by vast poverty and the familiar power struggles of the left and right, complicated by oil wealth in Venezuela, and regional economies dependent on illegal drugs, dominated by drug lords.

Mr. Ferguson paints a bleak picture of the world if a power vacuum leads to a new Dark Age:
One feature of the [last Dark Age] was that, in the absence of strong secular polities, religious questions often produced serious convulsions. Indeed, religious institutions often set the political agenda. This ascendancy of the clergy helps explain why the period ended with the extraordinary holy wars known as the Crusades.
We can see a breakdown of secular polities already within our own system. Religious institutions vie for power---from the extreme on the right as Christian fundamentalists, to the extreme on the left, which this blogger terms as the 'One World' religion. What used to be a singular belief---that potentially anyone could be an American, if he or she worked hard and innovated---has eroded to identities affixed to various faiths and ethnicities. The red and white stripes of the American flag compete with the multicolored stripes of the Rainbow Coalition.

Mr. Ferguson continues (edited):
The defining characteristic of our age is not a shift of power upward, to supranational institutions, but downward. With the end of states’ monopoly on the means of violence and the collapse of their control over channels of communication, humanity has entered an era characterized as much by disintegration as by integration.

If free flows of information and of means of production empower multinational corporations and nongovernmental organizations (as well as evangelistic religious cults of all denominations), the free flow of destructive technology empowers both criminal organizations and terrorist cells. These groups can operate, it seems, wherever they choose, from Hamburg to Gaza.

By contrast, the writ of the international community is not global at all. It is, in fact, increasingly confined to a few strategic cities such as Kabul and Pristina. In short, it is the nonstate actors who truly wield global power---including both the monks and the Vikings of our time.

The reversal of globalization---which a new Dark Age would produce---would certainly lead to economic stagnation and even depression.
A question worth asking in all of this ferment: What systemic approach is the best suited for preserving world peace and the enhancing the human condition? Mr. Ferguson's essay, to be frank, is a downer. On the one hand, a power vacuum promises utter chaos---social and economic. On the other hand, American unipolar hegemony is unsustainable and impractical; 'One World' UN hegemony is impossible and highly undesirable.

It appears as though history's model of stasis is at an end. Sustaining balances of power is increasingly difficult in a world rife with the pressures of population, competing faiths, dubious economic models and technological wizardry that fluctuates between being the fly and the ointment. The historical forces of our time are the models of the past, loudly converging. It appears as though all the ideas that are on the table have been tried, taking us to this place. We are expected to make a false choice between them. Destiny drives a hard bargain.

Is Karellen's ship approaching? The heart yearns for fiction, and little else.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The No Vote

I've been making the rounds among my liberal and conservative friends, asking about their man for the election.

I point out to my conservative friends that President Bush is not strictly conservative, not in the traditional sense. Nation building, military expansion of democratic ideals and unbridled Federal spending are not the policies of most Republicans that I can remember. "Yeah but, Kerry's got to be defeated," my conservative friends say. "Bush has credibility, in spite of his mistakes. Kerry's a closet communist, he wants the UN to run the world."

Yeah, but.

I turn to my liberal friends and ask about Kerry's oddly conservative positions. JFK is no JFK, it appears. The late JFK was an idealist who understood the stakes of the Cold War, and fought hard to export democracy abroad. He never blenched before communism, or suffered for lack of democratic ideals. The JFK who currently runs on the Democratic ticket eschews idealism, perhaps unknowingly, promoting what amounts to an isolationist international policy that defers policymaking to 'the world.' He wants to focus on passivity abroad and tighter spending at home, if you can believe that. Kerry's voting record and grandiose speeches reveal little boldness, a dampened spirit and few new ideas---just a rebirth of the old ones. "Yeah but, Bush has got to go," my liberal friends say. "Kerry isn't who I would've wished for, admittedly, but given the fact we're under the heel of Bushitler, where's the choice?"

"Yeah, but."

Let's face it. A lot of people don't want either of these guys for president. It's fine to harp on Kerry's unfortunate political record, but all things considered, Bush was no policy dazzler before his presidency either. As far as I am concerned, 9/11 made 2001 the Year Zero. Whatever voting records politicians had at Year Zero needed to be seriously retooled, if not discarded in order to bat the molten balls of 9/11. Bush's lackluster isolationism prior to the Year Zero could be used against him, if he hadn't changed his views since 9/11. Nation-building skills do not come naturally to an essentially conservative man---thus the flubs in Iraq. I give President Bush my vote because he has satisfied my one requirement: On some level, he understands that previous policy positions are untenable in the age of mega-terror. My real anger is that I believe a Democratic president---if he believed in the expansion of democracy like Kennedy---would be far more qualified to build a new nation in the sands of Iraq. But Howard Dean's legacy, channeled from irresistible, self-hating leftists became a plank in Kerry's platform.

So we have President Bush, who really doesn't believe in exporting democracy but is in the position of doing so. For him, that's way outside of his political box. And we have candidate Kerry, who has the political DNA to do the job in Iraq, but he owes allegiance to a party that has no edge; just the deadweight of bloated, out-of-date politics.

Who wants to get out of Iraq faster, the President or Senator Kerry? I ran across this today---Bush's response to a reporter who asked what he would think if a mullocracy was democratically elected in Iraq:
...If free and open Iraqi elections lead to the seating of a fundamentalist Islamic government, "I will be disappointed. But democracy is democracy," Bush said. "If that's what the people choose, that's what the people choose."
Dispiriting. And Kerry will offer little better. I've lost sight of who is offering a winning strategy over there. It's pathetic.

What we have are two very dull candidates with patrician backgrounds running for president in one of the most divisive, critical and historical elections in a very long time. I have a hard time listening to either one of them, to be honest. Kerry drones, Bush chirps. Am I upset? Hell yes. So this is Boomer leadership? These two pillars of confliction are what the Me Generation proffers? It's hard, very hard, to vote on principle in this election of Frat Boy vs. Frat Boy. This is one of history's jokes, isn't it? And yet it's history that beckons me to the polls, in spite of the ridiculous choice we are given. All this intellectualizing about the issues in this election, and in the end my gut makes the vote.

This is indeed a negative election, but not because of the stinging ads and verbal attacks promulgated by each side. It is negative because most people are not voting for their candidate---they're voting against the other candidate. All this has left me with a queasy feeling that many Americans have lost faith in their system of government. The act of voting has become an exercise in cynicism, not hope. Such cynicism, while always somewhat a part of electioneering, has become overwhelmingly popular. My shallow polling sample shows that most voters are really not for either Bush or Kerry; they're simply scared of the way things are and are exercising the 'no vote'.

It does make me wonder how this will turn out---not the election so much, but the political aftermath regardless of who wins. Because no matter who becomes the president, the divide within America will deepen. Bridges will fall. Turmoil will increase. And our enemies will take full advantage of it.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Expectation's Estate

Listening to people and reading the news leads one to conclude that the modern, secular world has traded rights for entitlements. Rights, by this blogger's definition, have divine provenance, and must be continuously earned. Entitlements are granted and bestowed by humankind to humankind, having become a modern presumption. We speak of entitlements---society's supposedly equitable apportionments to its members---as though they are granted from God.

We have lost the balance between taking and giving. Governments now exist to provide like a parent to self-centered societies that feel they are owed. The expectation of entitlement applies to individuals, churches, corporations, and groups. The obsession with fairness is the symptom of self-indulgence---wages are owed that have not necessarily been earned, but are expected nonetheless. We expect entitlements to fill a hole that can never be truly filled. Overall, we are evolving into a narcissistic society that caters to need, irregardless of the law and in spite of the public good.

Our world is brimming with entitlements. Some believe we have an entitlement to healthcare; others to a soft landing in our golden years, or to a minimum wage. We're apparently entitled to drive SUVs without political responsibility to the oily cesspool we call the Middle East. Artists are entitled to grants from the government regardless of the content of their work. Union workers are entitled to high wages and benefits regardless of their industry's viability, and their dispensability within it. Industry is entitled to tap cheap offshore labor to satisfy record profits at the expense of their own nation's workers. Foreigners without citizenship are entitled to the rights of full citizens with healthcare and drivers' licenses.

Palestinians are entitled to a country without the responsibility of self-government. The UN is entitled to be the world's democratic arbiter without the responsibility of hard power or members who hail from democracies. The EU proposes a whole, vast network of entitlements. Europeans are busily placing their hands in each others' pockets, pulling on fraying purse strings while declaring nationality dead. The EU is a gigantic transnational welfare system, not a nation. Do not look to it to seriously take on moral imperatives outside of its borders, which are lined with mirrors, pointed inwards. Navel-gazing and fattening accounts are its cause: With egality and Club Med for all.

Some believe we have entitlements to oil, wherever on Earth it is to be found. They believe they are entitled to a world that rewards expanding business irregardless of environmental or social impact. Companies are entitled to escape taxation by maintaining phony offices in the Caribbean. We are entitled to consume without fear of consequence. We are entitled to a clean environment without making fundamental, vast changes to our personal living habits. We are entitled to burn inefficient lights and run power-hogging appliances as long as we can pay the bills. Some believe they are entitled to endlessly appreciating real estate investments, with the deck stacked in their favor thanks in part to the Fed's watchful hand on the interest rate knob---never mind the shrinking middle class. Others believe they are entitled to rents that never rise, irrespective of the housing markets that surround them. Many of us believe we are entitled to $15 garments and cheap produce while overlooking the sea of illegal immigrants and sweathouse slave-wagers that make such prices possible. We are entitled to Walmart megamarts that are stocked with countless variations of cheap Chinese plastic and pot metal consumables, created without need of American or European know-how, but eagerly consumed by them. We think we're entitled to tell the Chinese how to govern 1.3 billion people humanely, while at the same time we're prostrate to their freighters laden with booty earmarked for our giant malls.

We are entitled to smoke noxious leaves and sue the manufacturers when cancer sets in. We are entitled to eat potatoes boiled in animal fat and sue restaurants for our own resulting obesity. We are entitled to participate in extreme sports, getting into inevitable extreme accidents and expect extreme healthcare---the same level of healthcare that a hapless heart attack patient would receive. We are entitled to fly around the world at our whims on jets while whining about ticket prices and security-clogged airports.

People with religious beliefs are entitled to dominate courthouses, such as Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore erecting his stone Ten Commandments at his courthouse, regardless of popular opposition and the US Constitution. We are entitled to sex without consequence, with abortion on demand. We are entitled to marriage without responsibility, with easy divorce. We are entitled to food stamps, to the dole, to methadone, medical marijuana and medication. We are entitled to pirated software and entertainment without compensation. Farmers are entitled to grow nothing and stay in business. People grouped into classes of color, gender and ethnicity are entitled to go to college with deficient SAT scores, since group identity is a greater asset than actual ability.

We raise children that are entitled to hundreds of toys, electronic games, cell phones and computers. 24/7 entertainment is focused on enriching vast industrial empires geared to keep them permanently distracted with endless more entitlements.

In reality, we are entitled to absolutely nothing. Our wonderland of compensation has been granted unto us by ourselves. We are undeserving if we do not earn what we have. And for too long, we haven't.

Rights must be fought for, again and again; they must be held up high on the steep precipitous grade of the real world. Rights require sacrifice, handed from one generation to the next. Fighting for our rights is the same as raising a child: a parent must continually fight for their child's survival and comeuppance in this world. Do nothing, and you will raise a resentful, egotistical, narcissistic miscreant with little to give. If you succeed, your child will grow up well prepared to take on civilization's burden when he or she has children.

Perhaps the most essential right we have is for survival. There can be no entitlement for existence. The right to exist must be fought for by all of us, unreservedly, without doubt or disimpassioned eye-rolling. People who do not expect entitlements are the most likely to understand why the present war must be fought; they might disagree on method, timing and strategy, but not its purpose or essential cause. The entitled will dwell on the sweat and blood since sacrifice has long abandoned their lexicon. Fighting for rights is essential---for our continuation and the hope of mankind. Entitlements are fought for in the courts, through litigation and bureaucratic bargaining, not in the sands of Iraq.

We are worthy of survival only if our ideals and courage are passed to our children, if we bother have them. If all we pass on to the next generation is an estate of expectation, they will be privileged but undeserving. And civilization will perish under their deadweight.