Archive for category Third World

Henry Kissinger in the 21st Century


Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has spoken out about the challenges facing today’s world order.   It’s worth reading.   He notes that globalization and technology change are driving a break up of the old world order.  Kissinger contends that that the global environment is fundamentally different than it was in his heyday, and that efforts to get back the old order are doomed to fail.  New political structures and ideas are required.  I’ll blog more about his ideas soon, today I want to write about Kissinger’s general world view.

Kissinger earned his Ph.D. studying Austrian Foreign Minister Klemens von Metternich, who was in that role from 1809-48, also serving as Chancellor from 1821-48.   Kissinger’s academic work was rooted in studying the world between 1814 – 1914, when there seemed to be order and stability in Europe – and he took those principles to ones that should work anywhere, taking into account local idiosyncratic conditions.

Metternich presided over the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, creating the European system realists like Kissinger admire

Metternich presided over the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, creating the European system realists like Kissinger admire

In any system there will be competition for power.  That’s because resources are scarce, humans seem driven to compete, and humans are greedy.  In the international system, with no real rule of law or enforcement, is an anarchy.  In anarchy, brute force is the main principle, it’s survival of the fittest, domination by the strongest.

Luckily states can create stability despite anarchy through diplomacy, maintaining a balance of power, having leaders that recognize war ultimately is not in the best interest of any state, and stopping any “revolutionary” power hoping to alter the status quo.  If states can agree to respect each other’s right to exist, agree that war should be a last option, and share some common goals, diplomacy should be able to solve any problem.

It won’t – Kissinger and realists argue that it takes “statesmanship” or the ability of leaders to understand that maintaining the status quo is ultimately in the best interests of everyone, and who can negotiate effectively, and then be willing to strike early and strong against those who would upend the system (like a Hitler).  Realists admire how this seemed to work for 100 years, with only a few minor skirmishes intervening.

But there are flaws in Kissinger’s world view.  Perhaps the reason there was no major European war for so long is because the Europeans were conquering the planet, imposing their standards across the globe, destroying indigenous cultures and taking whatever resources they could get their grubby hands on.  Once the world was almost completely colonized the Europeans quickly turned on each other.

Ending the Vietnam war meant pressuring Hanoi by bombing supply lines in Cambodia.  It worked - but it radicalized the country side and led to the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge

Ending the Vietnam war meant pressuring Hanoi by bombing supply lines in Cambodia. It worked – but it radicalized the country side and led to the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge

Moreover, such a system relied on common shared cultural values.  The diplomats and leaders all spoke French had more in common with each other than the average citizens in their home states.   In an era of globalization, that’s not likely to be replicated.

Finally the focus on power and order inherently means ignoring those without power.  Kissinger’s most brilliant and successful policy was detente (a French word meaning a relaxation in tension), a policy that probably made a peaceful end of the Cold War possible.  But in that policy we can see the strengths and weaknesses of his approach.

Kissinger, a brilliant academic was snatched up by Nixon when he became President in 1969.  He started out as Nixon’s National Security Advisor and quickly became more powerful than the Secretary of State, William Rogers.  He gained Nixon’s trust and crafted policy – and when Rogers left in 1973, Kissinger took on the role of Secretary of State.

He was relatively young, very charming, spoke with a distinct German accent, Jewish, and something of a playboy.  He was known to cavort with a number of attractive women – I still remember a Mad Magazine set of song parodies that included “I wonder whose Kissinger now?”

He had a problem:  The US was bogged down in a pointless war in Vietnam.  The Soviets had achieved nuclear parity and  communism was at its peak – the disease and decay that were already slowly destroying its sustainability were hid behind the iron curtain and streams of propaganda.

They said only Nixon could go to China - but that was set up by a secret trip by Kissinger

They said only Nixon could go to China – but that was set up by a secret trip by Kissinger

Kissinger decided the US had to change the Soviet Union to a status quo power the US could deal with.  This include high level summits allowing Kissinger, Nixon and Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev to meet and “practice statesmanship.”  It included triangulation – opening to China.  China and the USSR hated each other, so the US getting friendly with one pressured the other.  It worked.  It led Moscow to pressure Hanoi to end the Vietnam war so the US could extricate itself (“Peace with Honor” was Nixon’s slogan).   And suddenly the Cold War didn’t seem quite as scary.

In exchange for recognizing the reality of Communist rule in East Europe, the Soviets allowed more trade, visits, and connections to the West.  The agreed that systemic order was more important than the US-Soviet rivalry, and thus could be dealt with.    Kissinger left office in January 1977.

But while detente was based on the notion the Soviets could be a status quo power, Kissinger knew there would be rivalries and conflicts.  So he also worked out a mostly unwritten agreement that proxy wars in the Third World were allowable, and that neither side would allow a third world conflict to lead to nuclear war.  Kissinger would say that yes, those wars could be bad, and sending arms and weapons to African or Asian proxies did mean there would be death and destruction.  But given the nature of world affairs, it’s the lesser of two evils.  It helps make sure the US and Soviets don’t blow each other up.

Nixon and Kissinger would change the world - and arguably set up the peaceful end of the Cold War

Nixon and Kissinger would change the world – and arguably set up the peaceful end of the Cold War

Detente’s success – the exchanges brought western ideas more quickly into the East bloc, the Soviets felt smug in their status as a recognized legitimate world power, and as the inevitable economic collapse began, there were enough links with the West to give Gorbachev time to make radical changes that could not be undone.  Some people credit Reagan and Gorbachev with the peaceful end of the Cold War, but Nixon and Kissinger set the stage.

The failure?  Proxy wars and disregard for the third world.   Looking only at power politics rather than the broad array of global problems allowed many former colonies to decay into corrupt, brutal regimes.   African states were very young in the sixties – a supportive US might have allowed a transition to viable political and economic systems.  Instead the super powers simply used those states as powerless puppets in a geopolitical struggle.

In maintaining proxies, the US supported brutal dictators in world hot spots like the Mideast.  This helped assure that dictators would be able to hold power, not allowing real opportunity to their people, and setting up the anger and frustration young Arabs experience today.

The problems today ranging from Ebola to ISIS to terrorism have their roots in that neglect of the third world.  Kissinger’s policies were brilliant in dealing with short term geopolitical crises, but failed by creating conditions which would lead to problems that threaten the very nature of world order.



Nelson Mandela – the Radical Hero

mandela prison

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) emerged as one of the true heroes of the late 20th Century.    He’s inspired young people, helped his country avoid a blood bath which many thought was inevitable, and demonstrated the power of forgiveness and truth over vengeance and anger.

The path Mandela took to this position was interesting.  He started out inspired by Gandhi, who had initially been active in South Africa, committed to non-violent resistance.    His activism against the South African apartheid regime began in earnest after apartheid was put in place as an official policy in 1948 by the openly racist National Party.   But Mandela’s commitment to non-violence changed on March 21, 1960, the day of the Sharpeville massacre.   69 protesters were killed by police, and it became clear that the government would use all means to support apartheid.

The March 1960 Sharpeville Massacre would radicalize Mandela

The March 1960 Sharpeville Massacre would radicalize Mandela

Mandela then gave up non-violence and helped form the violent “Spear of the Nation” or MK.  Drawing inspiration from Castro, Che Guevara, and Nasser, Mandela took a more radical stance.  He never openly advocated communism, but there were clearly connections between the MK and communist radicals.   Moreover, he went to Ethiopia to study guerrilla warfare, as the ANC saw the only option against the National Party to be violence.

On August 5, 1962 he was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Even in prison he refused to renounce violence; he said the ANC should renounce violence only when the government would renounce violence against the ANC.   He would remain in prison until 1990, becoming a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement.   Yet Cold War politics muddied the waters.

While most people were sympathetic to the ANC’s willingness to use violence against the racist South African regime, it also provided cover for those willing to forgive racist oppression due to the National Party’s embrace of anti-Communism.   With the Cold War intense, the US wanted a strong ally in Africa, and South Africa was a perfect choice.   They had gold, minerals, wealth and a strategic location.   When people complained about the racism of apartheid, the US and UK could either say they refuse to infringe on South African sovereignty, or argue that they also opposed apartheid, but Mandela and the ANC were not the answer.   Moving from apartheid to communism would be to go from one form of oppression to another.   With such rationalizations, support for the apartheid regime remained consistent until near the end.

Up until his release, Mandela was considered a pro-Communist terrorist to many in the West.

Up until his release, Mandela was considered a pro-Communist terrorist to many in the West.

For many on the right, it was far better to support institutionalized racism that dehumanized millions than risk the possibility that a majority black government in South Africa might be friendly to communism.  Indeed, the coziness the West showed to the racist government did nothing but push the ANC towards anti-American regimes.

In the eighties the tide started to turn.   While the Reagan Administration gamely tried to pretend that it was not supportive of apartheid, embracing the “Sullivan Principles” regarding rules for investment in South Africa (principles designed to benefit blacks and put conditions on investment), the apartheid regime was becoming untenable.   Congress overrode Reagan vetos of sanctions against South Africa.  Not only was global pressure mounting, making South Africa a pariah state, but young people in South Africa were increasingly opposed to the racist philosophy that defined apartheid and the National Party.

The young Mandela was a fighter

The young Mandela was a fighter

Ironically both Communism and apartheid were undone by the same force – globalization.   The inability of South Africa to compete in a globalized world economy along with the isolation of dysfunctional communist economies led both systems to collapse almost simultaneously.   That also meant that the apartheid regime had lost its last defense – if there was no Cold War, there was absolutely no reason for the West to support the National Party in South Africa.

Still, the conventional wisdom in the West was that the 1990s would see a South African bloodbath.  The Nationalists would hold on to power, the ANC would grow violent and aggressive, as the blacks would rise up in a mass revolt.  In this context the last Nationalist President, F.W. DeKlerk, who took power in September 1989, advocated to end apartheid and official racism.  To symbolize the significance of this move, he ordered the release of Nelson Mandela.

Mandela chose forgiveness and reconciliation - something some on the right still do not accept

Mandela chose forgiveness and reconciliation – something some on the right still do not accept

Nelson Mandela had been in prison for nearly 28 years.   He could have been bitter, angry and seeking revenge.   Many of the whites in South Africa opposed the ending of apartheid, it could have all gone badly.   However, Mandela embraced reconciliation — truth commissions instead of revenge seeking.  An embrace of a South Africa where the majority would now rule, but without reverse racism or a desire to avenge the past.

The result has not been a perfect shift towards a new society.   South Africa managed to make the transition smoothly, but still faces a myriad of problems.   Mandela helped avoid a blood bath and put South Africa on the right path; that was all he could do – the future will have to be made by South Africans together.

President Obama and Michelle visit Mandela's former prison

President Obama and Michelle visit Mandela’s former prison

Yet it’s sad to see that the far right still harbors hatred for Mandela due to abstract accusations.  When Texas Senator Ted Cruz posted something kind about Mandela on his website, he was inundated with negative comments.   True, Cruz’s constituents are farther right than most, but that kind if vitriol in ignorance of what Mandela accomplished is simply sad.

Mandela danced with radicals and extremists because he was fighting a cause and they were willing to be his allies.   Though he fought evil with violence — he was not a Gandhi nor a Martin Luther King Jr. — the American revolution was also violent.   British rule was arguably much less evil than the apartheid regime.

What matters is that when Mandela’s side won, he did it with grace, forgiveness and a sense of dignity that most of his opponents lacked.  Mandela is remembered as one of the historical giants – a hero, an inspiration and a great man.   The haters will never take that away from him.    He was radical when it was necessary, but moderated when the evil he was fighting ceased to be.   That is part of his greatness.




Lives in the Balance


The descriptions are heart wrenching.   Young boys and girls taken from their homes, forced to become killers and/or sex slaves.   Boys having their skin scrapped so cocaine can be rubbed right into their blood stream before a battle, told that if they have faith they’ll be invincible.    Even when rescued, they often find themselves unable to fit into normal life. How can you kill, maim, and brutalize at age 13, feeling powerful and in control, and then suddenly blend into village life?

How can you go from having people cower in fear at the sight of you to begging for food or doing a menial job for people who you know you could terrorize and kill?

I admit, I had tears in my eyes much of Friday as I read about the heinous school shooting in Connecticut.   Having two children (ages 9 and 6) I imagined myself in the shoes of their parents.  I visualized what it would be like to have my six year old screaming as someone pointed a gun to his head and blew it away.   I let myself imagine those images in order to not let my mind abstract the suffering that this act brought about.

Children being led to safety Friday after the shooting

Children being led to safety Friday after the shooting

Yet, as debate turns to gun control, school security and other such “solutions,” I think about other children.   Dr. Mellisa Clawson and I co-teach a course on Children and War.   It includes child soldiers, families in war zones, the children of deployed American troops, and children growing up in gang ridden ghettos.

Back when my oldest son was three I got a book called Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dallaire.  Dallaire was the Commander of UNAMIR, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda, from 1993 to 1994.   Pleading for support and more soldiers he watched the Rwandan genocide unfold as the Hutu majority tried to exterminate the Tutsi minority.   Instead of stopping the killing, the UN pulled thousands out of his mission leaving him with just 250 soldiers to protect groups of Tutsis who happened to get to a UN zone.

Not an easy read, but one of the important books of our time

Not an easy read, but one of the important books of our time

Dallaire’s ordeal itself is worth learning about – he went from suffering PTSD and attempting suicide to now being a true humanitarian fighting against the use of child soldiers.    But I still remember the day I got his book.    I had just brought the kids home from day care and the three year old wanted to play in the driveway.   His younger brother was still an infant asleep in the car seat.  So I took a chair and started reading while my son was playing.

In the introduction Dallaire describes a time when his convoy was stopped and he saw a three year old boy nibbling on a UN biscuit.  The boy looked lost.  Dallaire had warned his troops not to get emotionally connected to the children they saw – they couldn’t bring them all into the compound.  But he broke his own rule.  He followed the boy to a hut, where the child stepped over his dead father and went over and snuggled against his dead mom, still trying to eat the biscuit.

Dallaire lost his capacity to close off the pain.   He said he decided then and there to adopt the boy.  He picked him up and started carrying him back to his vehicle, but before he got there Tutsi boys came and demanded the boy.  “He has to be raised by his own people,” they curtly told Dallaire.  These boys were 12 or 13 and well armed.  They snatched the boy and disappeared.

I put the book down and looked at my son and imagined that happening to him.   I sat in the garage with tears running down my cheeks thinking about him in such a situation.   I vowed to inject the human side of world politics into my courses — we Americans get used to abstracting the violence and suffering into concepts and terms we can discuss with apparent intelligence but no feeling.    But if we lose the sentiment, we lose the humanity.

These things cross my mind in the wake of the shooting.   20 dead children is a tragedy, horrific and vile.  Yet these children aren’t more valuable than children being manipulated and brutalized in war zones or young girls being turned into sex slaves.

These things are on going.  Every day there are lives in the balance.   So I feel a bit put off by the Facebook posts of people sharing a “prayer chain,” listing the names of the children or getting into emotional debates about gun control.   I felt the national pain on Friday, I had tears just like the President did as I thought about it.   But what do we do next?

Thinking of his daughters, the President let his emotion show

Thinking of his daughters, the President let his emotion show

We spend a lot of money on weapons systems, corporate welfare, and ways to support huge financial institutions because they drive the economy.   With a fraction of that money and a fraction of the energy there could be a global focus on bringing stability to sub-Saharan Africa, creating conditions where communities there could be self-sustaining, and do immense good.

The same groups that hate any kind of gun control here don’t want the US to participate in the UN Small Arms Treaty being negotiated.   They claim it will circumvent the constitution.   They’re wrong – no treaty can do that, by law any treaty that violates the constitution is invalid.   What they don’t want anything that might suggest guns are bad.  Yet those flows of small arms into these war zones is one reason we have so many child soldiers and war lords operating in areas of anarchy.

As the Jackson Browne song notes, "there are lives in the balance."

As the Jackson Browne song notes, “there are lives in the balance.”

So yes, let’s debate gun control and domestic issues.   But I wish that we’d expand our vision a bit and think about children suffering violence and despair elsewhere, especially since our weapons and policies helped create conditions where these problems could fester.   Wouldn’t it be nice if the emotion people feel after a tragedy could yield long term action on a variety of fronts to protect children rather than either fading away after the media cycle or getting gobbled up by partisan fights over guns and schools?

Because tragedies like the Connecticut school shooting happen every day.   We just don’t notice them.


Arranged Marriages

Lately my blog inspiration seems to be coming from the music I listen to in doing my morning step machine work outs.  Today I switched musical styles to Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell, and the song “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” got me thinking of a debate a group of us had back in graduate school at the University of Minnesota.

The song, for those who don’t know involves a couple who are making out in a car at age 17.  The boy wants to go “all the way,” but the girl insists that it’s only if he promises to love her forever, never leave her, make her happy for the rest of her life and make her his wife.   He resists, but when temptation grows he gives in and makes the vow.  At the end they are both “praying for the end of time to hurry up and arrive” because they regret the vow they made in the heat of passion.

The debate took place at a Friday night happy hour (a tradition for us in grad school).   At some point someone made a derogatory comment about arranged marriages.   Our friend Sheila, who was from Malaysia where arranged marriages still take place, interjected that it ridiculous for Americans to criticize the marriage practices of another culture.  After all, our divorce rates are about 50%, it’s not like we do the marriage thing well in our culture.   But arranged marriages?   Soon everyone was jumping on her, as she calmly made her case.

In an arranged marriage, the father knows that he wants to get someone for his daughter that will not only be a good match, but who is dependable, honest, and will be able to support the family.   He will essentially research the possibilities, consider the strengths and weaknesses of potential husbands, and ultimately make a deal with someone he thinks will suit his daughter.   And, of course, the man’s family has similar concerns.   Who do you think will make a better choice — a hormone influenced 18 year old aroused by some rugged rougish guy who turns her on, or a father thinking about the long term happiness of his daughter?

Moreover, in arranged marriages the couple does not suffer the illusion that romantic love can last.   In America, she noted, couples “fall in love,” and then when the romance fades and life becomes routine, they “fall out of love.”   We in the West seek to maintain the fantasy that you can find a soul mate with whom you’ll feel an eternal connection and bond.   When things start getting boring and the romance fades (as it inevitably does), we start to regret the choice we made.  Maybe he or she isn’t the right one?   We start thinking about what we could be achieving without being “tied down” by a spouse and even kids.   And, of course, since our imaginations are limitless, almost always we can fantasize a better life than the one we have.  Soon, desiring the sensation of “being in love” we break up, deciding that the other person just isn’t right.

In arranged marriages, you go into it with the idea that it’s not about love, it’s about commitment.   Both realize that their families made this choice, and they are responsible to get to know the other person and make a family.  Over time, the bond forms, and almost always (in part since parents usually are careful in making the choice) love happens.   And since it’s not the rush of romance followed by the let down of routine, it ends up being a stable love, one that doesn’t depend on emotional highs.

In the West, she noted, we start by falling in love with an illusion.   When we don’t know someone well we “fill in the gaps” with how we imagine them to be — usually imagining what we would consider the perfect mate.  I call this the “halo effect.”  When we get to know the person better, we inevitably find that our imagination was off, the person is real, not a result of our fantasy.   In an arranged marriage, you have no illusions, you may even fear that the person won’t be someone you can get along with.  You get to know someone on their own terms, generating mutual respect.  It is a more realistic relationship.

Finally, she argued, look at the results.   Here relationships and marriages break up right and left, tearing apart families, creating hardships for children, and often leading couples to keep seeking the unobtainable – long term romantic love.  In her country, and in most countries with arranged marriages, divorce rates are low, and people tend to have happy families.   How on earth can we defend our irrational emotion-driven method of having teens with hormone buzzes choosing who to spend the rest of their lives with compared to that?

At some point in the conversation I realized that this was a debate my side could not win.  Ultimately it came down to the fact that in our individualistic culture we’d never accept arranged marriages, and she agreed.   I think her point was to give our western arrogance a kick in the butt, and let us know that when we look down on traditional cultural practices, we often have no clue what we’re condemning and defending.

Yet it also got me to think about marriage in a way that affects me to this day.  Every couple will “fall out” of romantic love.   Every relationship will get routine, boring, and couples will often drift away, sometimes feeling alienated and isolated in what they thought would be a fun, exciting, romantic life together.   Sometimes couples will go weeks, even months without sex — or perhaps worse, sex becomes a routinized chore.   If kids are in the picture they demand time and love, leaving hard working couples worn out.   Is this all life is?   What could I be doing if these chains were loosened and I was free?

If marriage is primarily about feeling in love and happy with your partner and soul mate forever, very few couples achieve that, if any.   For some the dry spots will last years, for others months.  But as long as there isn’t abuse or resignation, people can choose to see it as a commitment, something that has to work because that’s what marriage is all about.  They can keep trying, force themselves to show affection even when they don’t feel it, learn to appreciate each other on other levels, and let a mature love develop.    We set ourselves up for failure if we see romance as the bond; it should be commitment.

To be sure, Sheila conceded, sometimes parents do make a bad call.  Sometimes an arranged marriage is a disaster.  But, she contended, it arguably works for cultures in parts of Asia better than our system works for our culture.   I realize, looking back at that discussion, it was really about modernism, and how difficult it is for we humans to deal with modern society.   In the past tradition and custom defined our lives, we were part of a larger society, we did not need to strive as individuals to succeed and define our own lives.

To us now, that would be a limitation of freedom, just as not choosing our own mate seems intolerable.  But our individualism is a construct of the modern secular era, it is part of our enlightenment choice to break from culture and tradition and take responsibility for making sense of our individual lives.  It liberates us from religious and traditional duties, but replaces them with no clear guide.   So we get it wrong.    Workers in the 19th century sweat shops are exploited horribly, we have wars, holocausts, and create ideologies to replace the lost certainty of religious faith.

As a culture, we’ve chosen the path of liberation, and it’s a very difficult path — as our problems maintaining marriage and family illustrate.   Our short term whims lead to choices that can blind us to what’s good for the long term.   We see the allure of liberty, without realizing its price.   We berate “backwards” traditional societies, even when they serve their society’s needs better than our practices serve our own society.   But maybe the “arranged marriage” debate also points us to a solution.   Just as we need to learn to choose commitment over mere romance, as a culture we have to learn to choose sustainability over short term greed and self-interest.    Maybe that’s the challenge of modernism  — to learn self-mastery and self-control.


21st Century War

We all know what war is.  It’s armies taking on other armies, conflict involving Generals, soldiers in uniforms, and states battling for land or perhaps some kind of ideal.  Such is the war of movies — the Nazis vs. the allies, or the US and the Soviet Union in a Cold War, with fears of a Soviet move through the Fulda Gap, and danger of nuclear annhiliation.

Such a view of warfare is increasingly misguided and anachronistic.  Back in WWI about 90% of the war casualties were soldiers (though, to be sure, the flu epidemic caused in large part by the war led to mass civilian death), in Iraq 90% of those killed are civilian.   Wars blanket sections of Africa, usually not with national armies fighting against each other, but with militias and movements in conflict with governments (which are often corrupt, fragmented units).  Though these movements spout ideological principles, usually they are more like organized crime.  The Tamil Tigers (LTTE) are not really about a Tamil state, and they certainly do not represent the Tamil people on Sri Lanka.  Rather, they traffic in people, drugs and weapons, and are willing to train would be terrorists.   Peace in Sri Lanka — which now appears achievable — means that the leaders will lose a lot of income.

In Sierra Leone Foday Sankoh was not about some kind of socialist alternative to the pro-western governments of the eighties.  He and Charles Taylor of Liberia wanted money from the diamond trade.  Under the guise of a civil war they could use the anarchy and lack of law enforcement to profit handsomely without being accountable in the form of taxes or regulation.  In southern Sudan a 2005 peace agreement is endangered by government and rebel posturing, in part because there is dispute over who will get the profits from the oil fields in the region.

In most of these wars the violence is cover for crime.  As long as the violence is intense, there will be no enforcment of law, and thus anything goes.  They sell women into slavery, put children on the black market, make drug or weapons deals — the dirty underside of the world economy can operate without watchful eyes.    The outside world, still seeing war as a dispute between groups with different goals, believes that somehow mediation or conflict resolution can end the fighting.  But usually it can’t, since the people involved count on the fighting to continue.

If the fighting were to stop they’d lose their anarchy, there would be more attention to their actions, and they might find themselves in legal jeopardy.  To prevent that, they try to assure that the fighting is as brutal as possible in order to make it very difficult for reconciliation.  Children are turned to soldiers at young ages, young girls are forced to become sex slaves to the soldiers, and bodies are mutiliated as child soldiers 12 to 14 years old learn to commit mass murder and horrific atrocities.  Often the young boys have cocaine smeared into open wounds and are given other drugs to keep their minds in a daze as they kill and terrorize.

Even in places where it isn’t that extreme, civilians suffer.  Somalia should be a breadbasket for northern Africa, but instead people suffer famine and starvation due to war lords fighting for power and wealth, using Cold War era weaponry and engaging in crimes such as piracy — something that definitely reflects lack of rule of law!

So war today is less rule bound, more likely to hit civilians, often less about ideology or state interests than criminal acts and money making, and most often found in the third world.   Terrorism can be seen as a tactic of this new kind of war.   It focuses on civilians, does not usually involve states (though states can support or ‘sponsor’ terror acts) and often is as much about money as ideology.   The Basque movement, for instance, has become more overtly like an organized criminal gang, while the Taliban and Afghan war lords focus on opium production.  Terrorism is the one tactic that can project this kind of violence into the “civilized West,” potentially subjecting us to the horrors suffered in distant parts of the planet.

Yet most analysts still fixate on states and militaries.   Will Iran get a nuclear warhead, will Israel attack Iran, will the Koreas go to war, what about China and Taiwan?  These are theoretical wars, all very unlikely to occur (even if Iran gets the bomb, they know they’d be obliterated if they attacked Israel), but yet they get the most ‘play’ in the world of punditry.  The Pakistan-India conflict, combining a bit of both the old and new in Kashmir, has even seen all out war become less likely each time they avoid allowing a crisis to go out of control.

Simply, among powerful states the risk of nuclear war is too great to allow a real war to start.  Among wealthy states and stable states aspiring to wealth, globalization and interdependence makes war fundamentally irrational.  We have created a world where war of the sort we’ve known is literally disappearing.  All out European war is certainly a thing of the past, a weakened Russia is more concerned about oil and gas influence than conquest (let alone ‘spreading communism’), and China is so involved in the US economy that it fears too deep a US recession.  We are closer to world peace than ever!

Yet, there remains a few pesky problem areas, with the brunt of the real wars involving third world failed states and organized criminal behavior.   We should be able to deal with these.    In most of these conflicts, small bands of criminals (and often as a counter part a small band of criminal government leaders) fight, with most of the population opposed to the fighting and fearful.  It’s usually not major movements fighting each other, more like mafia families in a brutal gang war.    And the only true military threat to the West — terrorism — comes from the prospect of these gang wars projecting themselves outward.

But our pundits remain ‘fighting the last war.’  We’re wedded to the notion of war as a military venture involving states and armies.  While we’ve learned how to use terms like “asymmetrical conflict,” we haven’t really come to grips with what it means when the major form of warfare is now of a sort very different than that which our military was designed to confront — and our inability to really understand how to confront it has been on display in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Rather than focus on weapon systems, technology, military preparedness, and strength, we need to recognize that the solution to the problems driving 21st century war requires a multi-dimensional approach to building stability in regions with poverty, corruption and instability.  It will require states working with NGOs and IGOs (Non-governmental organizations and Inter-governmental organizations) to build transnational civil society and develop local efficacy.   This has started, and in places like Sierra Leone and Rwanda there has been progress.   But while military actions may at various points be necessary, they will more likely be stopping pirates off the coast of Somalia than engaging in an all out war.

It’s hard for Americans to get our heads around this new kind of war.  It’s not what we’re used to, it defies old military stereotypes and threatens the kind of military spending that has become addictive to so many states and districts.  But unless we really grapple with the fact that war in the 21st century is fundamentally different than in the past, we could be setting ourselves up for disaster by commiting the age old mistake of ‘fighting (or preparing for) the last war.’


Colonialism and Failed States

Today in my course “War and Peace” we talked about failed or failing states.   In looking at states like Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, we directly confronted the question: would Africa be better off it were still run by the Europeans?  Are the Africans simply too primitive to run their own affairs?

It’s important to remember that colonialism was one of the most destructive forces in history.  It wiped out indigenous civilizations in North and South America, low tech holocausts where Europeans literally replaced the original inhabitants.  In Africa the entire political and social structure of society was obliterated, as the Europeans drew up borders and exploited their colonies for whatever they could find.  When they left, they imposed their political organization, the modern state, on the local populations.  These states often mixed up a variety of different ethnic groups, or cut whole tribes into pieces, with some of each group on different sides of various borders.

In the West, we often forget that the modern state was very hard to construct.  It emerged ‘naturally’ in Europe, over centuries, through bloodshed and violence.  Early states were more like organized crime syndicates than what we would call governance.  Monarchies emerged from large scale shake down operations and protection rackets, as the ‘bosses’ moved towards legitimating their rule as being of divine right or blue blood.  Even then it was centuries of violence, technological innovation and conflict that led to the first modern nation states.  After that it was centuries more of struggle to develop functioning democracy, get rid of slavery, and finally give women their rights.   The West did not have this imposed from the outside, but developed it along the lines of its own culture and civilization.

Looked at that way, the idea that former colonies could simply take western governmental structures and suddenly be functioning states is absurd on its face.   Democracy and functioning territorial states are very difficult to create and maintain, even European democracies usually failed on their first attempts.  In Asia states fit a bit better to the local traditions, most of which managed to survive European conquest (unlike in Africa).   The Americas not only got early independence, but thanks to the genocides committed there, they essentially replaced the indigenous population and culture with a new European one.   But in Africa, it was the worst of all words — the old culture totally destroyed, the population in tact, and a foreign political organization imposed with little regard to ethnic populations and natural borders.

Failed states were to be expected.  The Europeans modeled the behavior that those in power should control the population and exploit resources to their own ends.  Governments quickly became corrupt, and ethnic groups vied for power in order to control the resources and hand out government favors.   Despite that many governments were unable to penetrate their entire state, leaving vast swathes of Africa as essentially anarchies, run by local tribes or often war lords.

The lack of a stable culture not only meant that rule of law was not achieved, but when war and violence does break out, nothing seems to mitigate its affect.  Child soldiers are abundant in the various conflicts, often having cocaine directly rubbed into their bloodstream and told they are invincible.  Drugged up, they are taught to kill and mutilate, so that 14 year olds end up doing things so horrific they are beyond our imagination.  Groups fight for resources, compete for political power, and neglect the needs of the masses, caught up in chronic malnutrition (nearly half the population of the African continent) and lack of opportunity.

Those who argue that colonialism would be better than this ignore one thing: colonialism caused this.  Unless one wants to posit a perpetual colonialism as viable, whereby one group exploits another and in exchange keeps order and stability, privileging small groups while keeping the masses poor and powerless, it was inevitable that colonialism end.  And, while one might think that exploitive imperialism is better than what much of Africa has now — and in some ways it was — it was a fundamentally unjust, immoral and destructive relationship.  The problem is not that colonialism ended, but the transition to something new has been disastrous.

The result is the creation of state governmental structures unable to operate effectively.  In places like Nigeria, hundreds of ethnic groups compete for power, and with control of oil resources at stake, authoritarianism and corruption became the norm.  Sierra Leone started with an early successful transition, only to see corruption (thanks in large part to diamond trade) turn it into a civil war where amputation, child soldiers and atrocities overtook the country in the 90s.   Lacking a coherent social structure and political culture to support a stable government, countries had to choose between chaos and strict authoritarianism.  Transitioning from either to something better has proven virtually impossible.

It’s hard to see how to solve this.  Places with no effective governments are the most dangerous while the most effective governments are corrupt and authoritarian.  Simply, the state is not an effective political organization, at least not as defined currently in Africa.  And changing state borders to fit ethnic realities creates more problems — who controls resources, how are borders between ethnic groups defined, etc.   States don’t work, but there is no viable replacement.

One lesson in this is to recognize that any intervention by outside powers into a region’s natural development, even if they bring more technology, medicine and short term benefits, can lead to long term disaster.  (Star Trek’s prime directive was right on!)  However, while up until now failed states could be ignored — the world that said “never again” to genocide turned a blind eye to the Rwandan genocide, despite Romeo Dallaire’s heroic efforts.  Most people didn’t notice.  Now, however, with terrorism, new technologies, and the spread of both images and ideas, failed states can be dangerous.  One can imagine a charismatic leader finding a way to channel discontent into a major movement, one seeing the West — the colonizing powers that tore everything apart — as the enemy.  That could lead to a dangerous confrontation with a new kind of war.

We need to find a way to turn around that dynamic, to allow states to succeed.   And, unfortunately, this will require some intervention.  But I don’t think exploitive intervention like colonialism, or armed violent intervention like in Iraq, can be the answer.  Look what it did in Iraq, after all!  Or what the Soviets and the US collectively did to Afghanistan.  Rather, in Africa (where the problem is worst) the African Union needs to work with the UN to develop a plan to stabilize states who wish to work towards a functioning government.  There should be incentives (trade preferences, aid, etc.), and there should be oversight of all spending and government actions by an outside group, with a plan to assure transition to full independent control by the state itself.

To work, this would require a massive commitment by the industrialized states to invest time, money and people in giving states where people live in abject poverty, abuse and often the worst atrocities a chance to move forward.  We’d have to work with the people there, learning the culture and help them find their own path, not trying to simply create large export industries or infrastructure investment.   The current economic crisis makes that seem unlikely, but it could also create a volunteer pool for people needing work or a chance to make a difference.  Ultimately, a prosperous growing third world — albeit one with sustainable development, not just mass consumption — could help transform the world economy and avoid future threats of terrorism and mass migrations from South to North.

Impossible?   Only if the industrialized world lacks the will, or third world state governments refuse to go along.  The latter is less a problem; some states would take longer than others to join, some would fear neo-colonialism.  But it’s really an effort to relaunch independence for these states, and this time in an effective transition process.  More problematic would be the cooperation of the rich north in a time of economic crisis.  They will look inward, and not see the interdependencies and real danger of having mass amounts of people in dire straights.   There is still hope, but hope can always be trounced by fear and anger.

So, no, one can’t just blame the Africans for the failure of European imposed political structures to work.  People like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe are products of these structures, the average people have little recourse (and in Zimbabwe they’ve been bravely trying to force change, risking a lot and so far being crushed).   We live the advanced lifestyle we have because our ancestors exploited and abused their colonies.  That helped put the West where it is now.  We not only have a responsibility to work to alter that, but it’s in our interest.    At some point these states will not only not be able to be ignored, but they’ll be able to do real damage to the world system.   We need transformational change, and the sooner the better.