14 February, 2010

This Weekend I Will Be Busy...

...copying all the notes I have taken over the last few months in a dinky little green spiral notebook and placing them into an electronic format. Consequently, I ask the readership not to expect too much from me over the next few days.

I imagine patience here might have its rewards - these notes have the potential to serve as the spark for many an insightful discussion here at the Stage. Keep posted for more.

10 February, 2010

Corruption's Blurry Edges

Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with a Haitian acquaintance of mine. The topic of our conversation had turned towards the corruption endemic to many underdeveloped countries, upon which point he said:
 "When I came to America, I did not know what the word 'bribe' meant. We don't have these things in Haiti. In Haiti, if you pay a government employee to get something done, you are giving him a tip. Most government employees do not get paid enough to support themselves. It is with these tips  they feed their families. It is just like a restaurant. You tip those people who are doing a good job."

He went on to criticize the various charities operating in his country* who did not understand this dynamic. He specifically targeted LDS Philanthropies, but made clear that the problem was common to many religious groups and NGOs working out of Port-au-Prince. As he described it, LDS Philanthropies is as an excellent organization truly dedicated to helping Haiti, but is fatally handicapped by the charity's refusal to engage in anything that could be construed as bribery. This refusal to pay the civil service fee stops the great majority of NGOs from accomplishing anything useful in the country.

Transparency International recently ranked Haiti as one of the twenty most corrupt societies in the world.  I am curious how much of that corruption is simply the expected "civil service fee".

*Pre-Earthquake.  He has not been home since the earthquake hit.

08 February, 2010

Are the United States and China Headed For Cold War?

The majority of Chinese seem to think so.

Or perhaps more accurately, a statistically questionable majority of the Chinese who happened to be polled by the Sunday Times think so.

Not that this is anything new. The world has been worrying about a new Cold War between China and the United States for quite a while now. It is a story that surfaces once a year or so, usually when the news stations are at a lull and somebody in Beijing or Washington says something stupid. The recent diplomatic chill between Washington and Beijing is a fair example of this process; there is little reason to believe that this diplomatic spate is much different than the dozens of such spates America has with various actors on the international scene every year. This one has no claim to distinguish it from the rest.

Many of the news reports published over the last week would have you think otherwise. Part of this can be attributed to the sensationalism inherent in today's political discourse, but I think there is more to it than that. Though the news reports carrying the title "Cold War!" rarely have anything of interest to say about Sino-U.S. relations, they do say something very interesting about the women and men who write them.

What these papers betray is the acute sense of nostalgia felt by the upper ranks of America's foreign policy establishment. This seems counter intuitive at first; living on the edge of Armageddon was not a pleasant experience. But there were benefits to the Cold War. It gave America a sense of purpose. The strategy needed to fulfill this purpose was clear to those holding the reigns of power -- how simple were the days when the United States could utilize the same grand strategy for the span of two generations! The latter generation barely had to exert itself. The general form of things had been decided in times past; they just needed to hammer down the deadly specifics.

It is for such simplicity the modern analyst yearns. The world would be so much easier to handle if China were the new Red Evil. We have already built up the conceptual framework to take on any belligerent aspiring to the title of Superpower, it would simply be a matter of applying this framework to the local environment. We would do it in no time, I am sure. The minute China began to intimidate and anger her neighbors, America would be there, a great balancing alliance in toe. It would be just like old times.

Old times, however, never last.

Much of what is found inside Fareed Zakaria's The Post American World is wrong, a bit less is right, and a few choice sections are downright brilliant. Zakaria ended his chapter on China with one of these brilliant moments:
"But what if China adheres to its asymmetrical strategy? What if it gradually expands its economic ties, acts calmly and moderately, and slowly enlarges its sphere of influence in the world? What if it slowly pushes Washington onto the sidelines in Asia, in an effort to wear out America 's patience and endurance? What if it quietly positions itself as the alternative to a hectoring and arrogant America ? How will America cope with such a scenario-- a kin of Cold War, but this time with a vibrant market economy, with the world's largest population, a nation that is not showcasing a hopeless model of state socialism or squandering its power in pointless military interventions?"

(Fareed Zakaria, The Post American World, 2nd ed. pp. 127-128)

Well mates, this - not a new cold war - is America's challenge. Any budding grand strategists ready to tackle it?

ADDENDUM: There is an interesting discussion going on concerning China's future over at Sublime Oblivion. I suggest those interested in the subject go and take a look at it.

06 February, 2010

Musings - How We Ought To Think About History

I often find myself frustrated with the lack of historical perspective present in contemporary political discourse. History is something pundits have little use for– why bother when one can blame society's problems on the politicians one wishes driven out of office? This proclivity to see evil only in the machinations of one's political opponents is not without consequences. It shortens our strategic vision, undermines our ability to plan on the long scale, and horribly distorts our perceptions of humanity's workings.

It is common to say that Rome was not built in a day. This saying, uttered oft without thought, contains more wisdom than most will allow it. Rome was not built in one day. Nor in a year, or even a decade. It was through centuries of tribulation and toil Rome found its glory.

Rome was not an anomaly. History has yet to provide a kingdom whose rise was bounded by a single night and day; the annals of the past record no empires who fell twixt sun's rise and set. It is an opposite pattern that has ruled since the days of antiquity. Those few events that fundamentally and irrevocably change the course of human affairs span generations and define eras. The important dates we were told to memorize in grade school - battles, ascensions, speeches, and sackings - are simply guide posts used to mark the way.

This distinction is missed by most with whom I discuss matters of society and state. The problems and concerns of today are just that – concerns of today. For most, the days of Reagan are as far back into the past as the eyes should gaze. Anything beyond that is history, and history is a world apart.

This is not to say that history is seen as completely useless. To the contrary, history is pulled into political discussions all the time. But this is done is search of lessons, patterns, and laws. History becomes a textbook – a list of isolated patterns and examples the modern man is supposed to consult before he embarks on his journeys.

Things could be worse. We could be paying history no attention at all. I am gladdened to see that history is offered a place in our debates. I truly am. Yet as glad as I am to see my countrymen concern themselves with history, I worry about the unintended consequences of the way many approach it. Those who approach history looking for lessons are sure to find them. Remarkably less sure are the veracity of these lessons. It is all too easy to project patterns onto a past that containing only chaos. Easier still is to find moral axioms in records written in shades of gray. More oft than not, history of the lesson book is history of the dogmatist.

Intelligent men and women can work around this, of course. It is quite easy once one realizes that reality is messy, difficult to separate into variables dependent and independent, and populated by only a few with a claim to the title of devil or saint. Harder to work around is the assumption implicit in any attempt to search the ancient then for lessons applicable to the present now: the very division of existence into a "then" and a "now".

This division makes little sense. It is a barrier that atomizes us from our past, arbitrarily separating our lives from the forces that formed them. That is the thing about history: it is an ongoing process. The trends and transformations that fashioned our grandparents still work upon us today. History cannot be relegated to the past,  for history is happening now. I find that the benefits of studying history are rarely present in the case examples such study may find, but in history's unparalleled ability to explain how things are and will be. History provides a unique tool to humanity: the opportunity to see reality through the Long View.

The other day (via Fabius Maximus) I came across an exemplary example of what happens when you put this type of thinking put to work:

It is an easy thing to say America's financial system is broken; it is another thing altogether to show how it became so. In this latter task the author brilliantly succeeds. Key to the essay's success is the author's conscious choice to view events through the perspective of the Long View. Eschewing easy partisan shots on Washington's current administration (or the last), the author searches deep for the roots of our current crisis... and finds them stretching back to 1913. What follows is a history, leading to the present day, of the events that have pushed America down the road of state corporatism.

It is my suggestion that you read the whole thing. Read it, and remember that the events of today are best seen with a Long View.