Wednesday, December 28, 2005

World Community

"Dr. Demarche" has been posting regularly at American Future, which gives us a great two-fer of insightful readers of the contemporary scene.

He's been wondering about the phrase "international community."

Is there such a thing as "the" international community? If so who are its members? In what arenas does this community act?

I tend to say "yes," because I tend to think of community on the most basic level of "a group of people who happen to live together in the same space." There is an international community, and all nations are part of it, and its arena is the world itself.

It wasn't always so. The world has been getting smaller since the European Dark Ages. That's almost literally true. Just two centuries ago, Japan was a closed kingdom and news took a month to travel from Britain to America. It's as though you drew spots with a felt-tip pen on a balloon, and then slowly let the air out of it. They get closer and closer. So with the nations of the world. They start out like farmstead clearings in a wide wilderness, and then at some point they have come close enough to one another to be called a village.

Which happened, to my thinking, some time circa 1950. It would be difficult to imagine any mid-19th century institution taking a name like World Bank (1930), World Cup (1930), or World Health Organization (1948). Carlyle, in 1831, looked forward to the day when there would be a world literature embracing the best of all lands, but that was just an abstraction in his mind; the Germans were the first to treat it as a reality; Longfellow brought the idea back to America.

Sure, as far back as the 1340s a disease mutation in central Asia eventually could spread as far as Iceland, and in the 1830s a cholera epidemic that began in India could kill thousands in America. But it seems to me the world passed a critical mass threshhold shortly after 1945, when a single conflict between two nations attained the power to wipe out all human life and perhaps all life on earth, in a half a day. At that point, we all became, of necessity, a community.

The mental construction of a world community began to spark in the collective Western mind a generation or two before that, not long before the tellingly named World War of 1914-18. And just as the Great War was 90 percent a European conflict, so the idea of a world community strikes me as a peculiarly Western notion. I am not sure it would naturally have gotten off the ground in China or Japan. I am pretty certain it was a non-starter in the Muslim world, unless it came about after the last infidel had been converted or beheaded.

World politics (German weltpolitik) is the precursor to world community, and that idea that goes back to the mid-19th century, but again it began to be treated as a reality only in the decade before World War I -- when the European colonial powers, whose reach literally did span the globe, began to think in global terms. Ironically, it was colonialism that paved the mental path to world community.

A community, in the way I am speaking of it, has no inherent organization. It may, or it may not, be a place of rule and justice. It can be a global totalitarian order, or it can be an anarchic hell. The identifying quality is that actions in one place inevitably are known in others, and affect actions in others.

A neighborhood, a city block, is a community whether it wants to be or not. The bum on the streets is as much a part of it as the mayor, as the baby up all night crying, as the old deaf woman who feeds the birds every day, as the proud car-owner who has to park it under the trees where the birds roost, as the strong young man who shovels snow off everyone's sidewalk in the middle of the night when no one can see him. A loud family argument is everyone's problem; a diseased tree dropping its branches is everyone's threat.

For better or worse, America is the rich family on the block, the one with a house decked in big-assed Christmas decorations every year. And, for better or worse, we're the one house on the block that keeps a gun case and a box of ammunition, and knows how to shoot effectively. In a well-policed community, a houseful of gun nuts can make people uneasy. But who are the world's police? And is the current world community more akin to a comfortable European retirement village or an Old West frontier town? And is the family that shoots not an asset on the frontier?

At the moment -- by which I mean "for most of my lifetime" -- the role of the United Nations in this community seems to be as a broken bureaucratic machinery useful only to people who want to punch a button and spit out a resolution condemning the United States or Israel. Maybe John Bolton can shake some vim into it and some use out of it.

If you want to see how a community behaves, consider the world reaction to the tsunami. A year ago, the ocean floor cracked and billions of cubic tons of water shuddered like the wave of a shaken blanket till they crashed the shores of South Asia in walls as high as a three-story house. When the seas drew back, they sucked with them more than 225,000 lives.

The wounded needed medical care quickly, and the 1.8 million homeless needed clean water, food and medicine. Without supplies, the wave of starvation and disease would be worse than what the water had wrought.

Your neighbor's house suddenly collapses into a heap of bricks. You can hear muffled cries for help from under the rubble pile. There also might be live wires sparking and sputtering in there, too. What do you do? Stand around and wait for someone to show up with a bulldozer and a bullhorn? Or roll up your sleeves and dive into the pile? Both are possible answers in a "community."

After the tsunami, many looked to the United Nations. Kofi Annan was on a skiing vacation at the Jackson Hole holiday ranch of James Wolfensohn, the World Bank president and a critic of the Bush administration. Annan did not surface in New York until three days after the disaster.

As Bush often has shown, in the modern world a leader can command from many places, even a vacation home. But in the case of the United Nations, it didn't seem to matter. Tidal waves had erased roads and docks in a region already remote. No amount of bureaucrats could solve that problem, and that was all the U.N. had to offer.

While Annan was still changing out of his ski gear, the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier group was steaming to Sumatra. In a few days, its Seahawk choppers clattered into Sumatran villages, the first sign to the survivors that the world had not forgotten them. U.S. Marine C-130s flew airlift support. The Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group headed for the scene with five ships that could churn out 90,000 gallons of fresh water a day.

This was not a unilateral American effort — not by any stretch. When the Americans arrived, they found the Australians already hard at work. Overlooked allies like New Zealand and Singapore did herculean heavy lifting. Tens of thousands of people owe their lives to this military effort, which was not coordinated by the U.N. In fact, until well into the third week of the calamity, the U.N. presence in Indonesia was limited to the five-star hotels of Jakarta.

When Bush announced the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia would coordinate the world’s response, British politician Clare Short said the American effort "sounds like yet another attempt to undermine the UN when it is the best system we have got and the one that needs building up."

Tell that to the Indonesians.

As for the money nations donated to the United Nations, the Financial Times reported last week that almost a third of the $590 million U.N. fund spent for the Indian Ocean tsunami relief may have gone to pay for administration, staff and related costs. Many charities consider a figure of 10 percent of project funds appropriate for administration costs.

In the wake of the tsunamis, Jan Egeland, U.N. Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs accused America of "stinginess." The U.S. government ultimately pledged $857 million in relief, more than any other nation, but its initial pledge was much lower.

Egeland, bred into the modern European system, where militaries are shunned and governments manage lives, did not see and perhaps could not see the Lincoln's choppers in the jungle saving lives while his agency was hard at work writing press releases.

Not did he notice, perhaps, the flood of U.S. private and corporate donations that ultimately dwarfed the official contribution — an unprecedented $1.48 billion, given to the kind of aid groups and charities that actually will rebuild communities, and with less than 32 percent administrative costs.

We're stuck with each other in this world community, whether we want to be or not. America, in particular, is stuck with a crappy dilemma: Act alone and be hated, whether we abate the problem or not; or go to the village meeting and watch them jaw each other to sleep while the fire burns.

My sense of "world community," obviously, echoes Marshall McLuhan's "Global Village" concept. To him, circa 1960, it was an interrelatedness based on media.

Postliterate man's electronic media contract the world to a village or tribe where everything happens to everyone at the same time: everyone knows about, and therefore participates in, everything that is happening the minute it happens. Television gives this quality of simultaneity to events in the global village. [Carpenter & McLuhan, "Explorations in Communication," 1960]

To me, it's literal and real. A hostage taken in Baghdad has consequences in Berlin. An earthquake in Pakistan changes lives in Canada. When the American economy sneezes, South Korea catches the flu.

"Village" is a word that tends to find favor in liberal hearts, as an alternative to the mean, technological city. But McLuhan loaded his observations with warnings. He saw mankind moving from individualism and autonomy to collective identity with a "tribal base." And this was potentially a place where totalitarianism and terror would rule. In fact, a great collective effort would be required to prevent that.

UPDATE: Also rising to the challenge are: Dave at The Glittering Eye, and Marc at American Future, and Dave at tdaxp, and Mark at Zenpundit. Needless to say, in that company, I'm the simple-minded one of the bunch, just like in high school, lol.