Friday, July 08, 2005

Yankee Unilateralism

The hue and cry last week over the U.S. Commerce Department's announcement regarding ICANN probably reveals, more than anything, how little most folks know about how the Internet works -- even the people who use it every day.

The fight is more a political turf war than anything. It may well be a case of the Bush administration not wanting to give up a power it doesn't fully understand, out of fear of unwittingly giving up something essential to national security. On the other side, there's a hefty dose of America-is-Evil paranoia. The wider world, poisoned by long-cultivated fear, cries "unilateralism."

This analysis offers one version:

I suspect that most countries in the world would strongly prefer the UN to have the role of overseer of the monopolies because they trust the UN more than they trust the US in times of instability. So far, the US government has not abused its power over ICANN and the root by, say, changing the nameserver records for countries with whom the US has been at war. But it could.

But it hasn't. I don't think it's jingoism to say the United States is the most frequently and vituperously insulted nation on the face of the earth, and the one that does least to gag those who curse it.

So doesn't the "If it ain't broke" rule apply? Especially if the "repairmen" who show up and ask to take control of the non-problem look like Moe, Larry & Curly. I fear control by the U.N. more than I fear occasionally seeing the Internet babysat by a U.S. administration that includes a John Ashcroft or a Dick Cheney.

And in fact, the U.N. is eager to get its hands on the Internet domain name system, as this version of the story explains:

The announcement also represents an effective snub to a United Nations process that is set to culminate in a summit in Tunisia in November. One gripe of the summit participants has been poorer nations should have more say in the way the Internet is operated.

Why on earth being "poor" qualifies you to make rules for the Internet is anyone's guess. And once again, this is why the idea of turning control of it over to a "world body" sends shivers down my spine. It was the UN, after all, that put the genocidal

government of Sudan at the head of its Committee on Human Rights. Can you imagine the Internet controlled by delegations from Beijing and Tehran?

The possibility mentioned in the article, of changing nameserver records of an entire nation, suggests awesome potential for terrorism or economic warfare.

The Internet, under the benign protection of the U.S., has established itself as a place of free commerce, both of goods and ideas. To me, the proper analogy is the old British Navy.

Arthur Herman's book "To Rule the Waves" is the story of how "a single institution, the British navy, built the modern global system, which is our system, for better or worse. It did this first by challenging and toppling the global system forged by Spain and Portugal in the age of Columbus. Then it reshaped the world in the eighteenth and ninteenth centuries to fit the needs and desires of the British Empire. Those needs -- access to markets, freedom of trade across international boundaries, an orderly state system that prefers peace to war, speedy communication and travel across open seas and skies -- remain the principal features of globalization today."

His thesis is hardly radical; it has been understood since Mahan's day. But though the British Navy has since retired as world's policeman, Herman gives this history an ongoing relevance to the most modern situations. Some discontent minds romanticize the pre-modern or non-globalized world. I am not among them. Nation-states can be destructively violent, and competitive economies can be ruthless. Yet many of the modern system's numerous faults and defects may be overcome in time by the wealth and widespread knowledge it generates. If you want to see the plausible alternative, try some Talibanistan or one of the failed states of Africa.

The world system that emerged after 1815 would be one increasingly reliant on the British Navy as international policeman. The sea routes on which the British Empire depended were made accessible to other nations, as an expression of the British principle of free trade. The peace and security the navy brought to Britain's shores increasingly extended to other parts of the world. The personal liberty Englishmen enjoyed became a basic human right .... British navy vessels regularly intervened to protect Briton and non-Briton alike from tyranny and violence. An empire, originally born out of ruthless ambition and brutality, had become the basis for a new progressive world order.

And "globalization" still depends on sea power. Though the American Navy has inherited the job of keeping the world's sea lanes open, almost 95 percent of the world's international trade is waterbourne -- 99.5 percent of all transcontinental trade.

Did the British fleets in their day behave selfishly, unilaterally, and for moralistic reasons? You bet. They single-handedly slammed the door on the African slave trade in the early 19th century, and dried it to a mere trickle. The Portuguese, Spanish, Latin Americans, French, and Yankees still wanted to keep it up.

Certainly the multilateralists of that day would have yearned for an international governing body of "poorer" (and less moralistic) nations to take control of this "system" away from the British Crown. But I hardly think we would consider the results an improvement.

The U.S. Navy continues the tradition of policing the seas in both a humanitarian and military sense. Its role in the Sumatra tsunami disaster last December was wel publicized. But smaller incidents take place every day, and never get told. When the U.S.S. Cole arrived in Philadelphia this year for the grand Fourth of July celebration, a story transpired that I only learned because one radio talk show host interviewed the captain who happened to mention that the Cole almost didn't make the event.

Before arriving in Philadelphia, the Cole participated in the annual Baltic Sea operations, a joint exercise of 11 nations. But the Cole took an unexpected detour on the way here, for reasons that offer a symbolic story about the U.S. military, one which hasn't been told until now. Here is the way [the Cole's commander, Brian A.] Solo spelled out the itinerary in an e-mail to me:

"At 2300 hours on 27 June, COLE received word via the Coast Guard regarding a medical emergency aboard a civilian sailboat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean... more than 300 [nautical miles] to the southeast of COLE's position. The patient was initially reported to have appendicitis. Due in Philadelphia, COLE nevertheless turned and headed, at best speed (30+ knots) towards the position of the sailboat. Simultaneously, the merchant vessel CHIQUITA NEDERLAND, who was in the vicinity of the sailing vessel, took the patient, a 16-year-old French national, on board, and then headed at best speed to the northwest to meet COLE."

Yes, one of the Navy's finest - in the midst of the war on terror - changed course to save a French teenager. (This isn't a picture of the military the mainstream media is anxious to portray. It's far too sympathetic.)

"Two Canadian Search and Rescue (SAR) parachutists were dropped from a C-130 aircraft to the merchant vessel to assist with the medical care of the patient... At this point, our arrival to Philadelphia on time was in jeopardy because of the high speeds that would be required in order to make it in time to pass under the Walt Whitman Bridge at low tide. Cole is approximately 150 feet tall and the bridge is only 150 feet tall. COLE was also concerned... because we were burning fuel at a very high rate and we would need to rendezvous with an oiler... much further east than previously planned."

The Cole - at sea for weeks and anxious to get to Philly for the Fourth - put the visit in jeopardy to save a sailing Frenchman.

"Cole's Independent Duty Corpsman, HMC(SW) David Hendricks rendered first aid, and the patient began to stabilize. Ultimately, the Cole sought and received permission to take the patient... directly to Philadelphia. The French patient's father met him in Philadelphia and both he and the two Canadian parachutists were transferred without incident," Solo said.

"While we hope that situations requiring rescue operations won't arise, we work hard to maintain our readiness just in case. We, along with the Canadian search and rescue team, were fortunate to be in a position to help this young French citizen."

Labels: ,