Sunday, March 05, 2006

A Possibly Crazy Answer

Michael Reynolds pens a plea for a world government. His plea is both passionate and reasonable.

The first four graphs seem to be an argument against American isolationism, in terms almost everyone can accept: You can't seal off the borders against a plague and no amount of port security will be 100 percent effective against a determined terrorist. The dirty bomber will get through.

Distance is an illusion. Borders are an illusion. Our economy is inextricably linked to the world. Our health is bound up with the health of villagers in the Congo. Our ability to travel and communicate is held hostage by people in Malaysia and Columbia and Timbuktu.

All of which is true and well-said. But there's an interesting shift in the fifth graph:

Only governments can cause, and only government can stop, genocide. Only governments can cause, and only government can stop famine. Governments restrict free trade and plunge millions into unecessary poverty. Only government can reverse that fatal protectionism. Only government can stop global warming. Only government can respond when a new disease erupts. Only governments can cause, and only government can stop, war.

He's writing now not merely about reacting to problems, but spreading positive good. Excellent! At first I thought he'd gone all neo-con on me. This was supposed to be my schtick, and I thought he was the hard-headed, cynical Democratic realist. But then I noted he said "can," not "should." He's talking about capability, not moral obligation.
The piece turns out to be an argument for overarching international governmental bodies, not for aggressive moral action by existing United States, but the inclusion of moral crusades among the practical problems opens up some intriguing lines of insight.

The time has come, in this interconnected, and vulnerable world, for the civilized nations to consider some form of world government.

He takes as his tilting-target a sort of paleo-con or libertarian parody position of letting the world's problems sort themselves out in a sort of free market. This allows him to make an end-run around the neo-con position, whose uncomfortableness I understand because, and I think Michael agrees on this, it co-opts, or outright embraces, so much of what used to be called classical liberalism. Paleo-cons are a lot easier to whack on.

So what of it? He's wise enough to disavow at once the bad example that people who make this argument often mistakenly hold up as good one: the U.N.

How in God’s name are we to include the Iranian Ayatollahs in a government with liberal Swedish socialists and Indian capitalists? How could we have a functional democracy in a world where China and India could out-vote the rest of the world? How would we keep the world’s poor from using a world government to confiscate the wealth of North America, Europe and Japan?

Ah, how indeed. Calhoun had the answer to the tyranny of numbers, and it was called "concurrent majorities," but no one reads Calhoun anymore because we're all told that everything he wrote was simply meant to justify slavery, so let it pass.

Michael upholds the European Union as a better model, in part because "The EU admits only those countries which meet certain standards on human rights and economic responsibility."

His argument against continued Yankee unilateralism is a bracing mix of arguments from both sides of the current artificial political divide.

The American experience in Iraq has demonstrated that we need the “international community.” We’ve tried to be the world’s policeman, and we’ve screwed it up pretty well. And yet, the world needs a policeman. The world needs someone to fight the viruses, and the terrorists, and the famines and genocides, the environmental threats, and to stop wars from starting. The world needs government, and that government cannot be the government of the United States. The world needs a cop, and it can’t just be us.

As it is now, we give the civilized world a free pass. We jump into the fray and leave the Europeans, Japanese, Canadians, Australians, South Africans, South Koreans, Indians, all sitting on the sidelines offering snide commentary on our performance. We call this leadership. But how is it wise for us to carry the only badge and gun? How does that help us?

A world government would be limited to established democracies. Just as Europe has done, we would carve out large areas of national independence — we wouldn’t stop being the United States. Just as Europe has done, we would set standards for those nations hoping to join that world government. Rogue nations would be ever more isolated. The power of the world government would grow as it gained members. The momentum would become almost irresistable.

He says this is not pure idealism, and it's not. He says it's less idealistic than the notion of the United States trying to manage world affairs alone, but I'm not so sure about that.

His proposal for a starting point is a union of North America (is he including Mexico?), Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand, Israel, South Africa (!), "stable South American democracies," and Europe. "If Russia can reverse its slide into autocracy, they can join. If China can throw off its Communist dead weight, they will be members, too. Every nation that sees three peaceful democratic political successions, controls corruption, and subscribes to standards of human rights and the rule of law, would be eligible."

It's a good start, and more thoughtful than many proposals I've seen. But I can't seem to take it much farther than these baby steps when I try to visualize it.

I know human rights and corruption-free systems when I see them. But have we really even yet defined them in a legalistic sense? Wouldn't there be instant trouble between, say, Europe and America over the death penalty, or Europe and Israel? Even if you ignore the dictators and kleptocracies, the U.N. offers warnings. The involvement of state-owned or controlled European industries and agencies in Saddam's oil-for-food scandals, for instance -- and it wasn't North Korea or Zimbabwe that was throwing up obstacles to U.S.-sponsored resolutions against Saddam -- it was the very democratic French and Germans who had his brass jingling in their pockets.

I suspect even the business of defining "democratic" governments is going to be more tricky than he suspects. First of all, you've got to have someone doing the defining, which immediately presents a problem of something higher than the highest authority. The end of World War II was one of the rare moments in history when the gods arranged for a defined set of "victors" to stand above the world and arrange a peace. And even then it wasn't easy for the victors to decide who was on their team. Should China have been included? Should France? Should Italy?

And today? What about Singapore? Not truly democratic, but scrupulously honest and more deserving of a seat at a world council than many of its nominally democratic neighbors.

Not all the world problems Michael describes admit of military solutions. But most of the ones that actually are happening (as opposed to killer asteroids, etc.) do. And I'm not convinced of the wisdom of going to war with a lot of "Europeans, Japanese, Canadians, Australians, South Africans, South Koreans, Indians," et al in tow. Just because the U.S. is up to its ass in troubles in Iraq doesn't mean it would have gone smoothly if we had ridden in there with troops from 50 other countries piled onto the bandwagon.

And really, even the coalition we had showed me something that military experts have known for years: Individual soldiers from anywhere may fight bravely and well, but except for the British and the Australians and a few others, mostly already at our side, there aren't many nations left on earth that bother to finance a military that can fight 21st century warfare the way the Americans do. You can debate whether we're over-reliant on technology as opposed to pure muscle, but for better or worse, this is now how we do it, and frankly I prefer it, for all its limitations, to area-bombing of urban centers and meat-grinder amphibious assaults a la WWII.

Even if the rest of the world was willing to invest in such militaries, wars are best waged by one head, not by committee. The cooperation even of two allies with the same language and heritage, as the U.S. and U.K. in Europe in 1944-45 (or in Gulf War I) shows how difficult this can be.

But the continental European nations (except France) have deliberately demilitarized themselves and they're proud of it. I question even their effectiveness as police forces in nasty places like Afghanistan, since they are hampered by restrictions in the name of human rights that may be impractical on a battlefield with al Qaida.

And let's face it; the proposed world government would not be an alliance of equals. It would not be divided into teams of large and small states, as the American colonies were in 1776; there would not be a "Big Three" as there was at Potsdam in 1945. There's not even a "big two." It's "U.S.A. and all the rest." What's to keep the other partners in the world government from continuing to see it, as many of them do the current U.N., as primarily a vehicle for restraining American might, even if it involves allowing global wounds to fester?

This is not the time to turn over the reigns to a global committee. Though it might be wise to start erecting one, on principles of democracy, freedom, and human rights, because unchallenged American power won't last forever. But while it does last, it ought to accomplish what can only happen at such rare moments in history.

Here we stand, a virtual empire in which an evangelical desire to do good abstractly forms a significant motive force in our national life, and our self-interest, as we perceive it, includes an aim to see all the world's people more free, more secure, more healthy, and more materially successful.

Not since Britain after the fall of Napoleon has the world been ordered this way. Before that, you can look to the Roman Empire at its height for another example. For the latter, I'll recommend the "What did the Romans ever do for us?" scene from "Life of Brian."

Reg: They've bled us white, the bastards. They've taken everything we had, and not just from us, from our fathers, and from our fathers' fathers. ... And what have they ever given us in return?!

Xerxes: The aqueduct?

Reg: What?

Xerxes: The aqueduct.

Reg: Oh. Yeah, yeah. They did give us that. Uh, that's true. Yeah.

Commando 3: And the sanitation.

Loretta: Oh, yeah, the sanitation, Reg. Remember what the city used to be like?

Reg: Yeah. All right. I'll grant you the aqueduct and the sanitation are two things that the Romans have done.

Matthias: And the roads.

Reg: Well, yeah. Obviously the roads. I mean, the roads go without saying, don't they? But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct, and the roads--

Commando: Irrigation.

Xerxes: Medicine.

Commando 2: Education.

Commandos: Ohh...

Reg: Yeah, yeah. All right. Fair enough.

Commando 1: And the wine.

Commandos: Oh, yes. Yeah...

Francis: Yeah. Yeah, that's something we'd really miss, Reg, if the Romans left. Huh.

Commando: Public baths.

Loretta: And it's safe to walk in the streets at night now, Reg.

Francis: Yeah, they certainly know how to keep order. Let's face it. They're the only ones who could in a place like this.

Commandos: Hehh, heh. Heh heh heh heh heh heh heh.

Reg: But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

But I'm more interested in the British example, as it's more recent and more relevant. British evangelical busybodies browbeat their government into outlawing slavery, which was making a lot of money for a lot of British people. Having outlawed slavery, British self-interest required that it make an effort to see that its economic competitors did so too. Self-interest and humanitarian idealism merged, backed by a modest fleet of three-decker capital ships each of which could hurl a 2,000-pound broadside and shred anything else on the high seas.

The British Navy -- itself a bastion of evangelicalism and full of officers who hated slavery in the abstract with a righteous zeal -- went to war against the African slave trade with a will and by aggressive and essentially unilateral action it accomplished the great good of virtually extinguishing the international slave trade in the 19th century, everywhere but in the Islamic world.

Michael writes, "The American experience in Iraq has demonstrated that we need the 'international community.' ” As painful as that experience has been and as tragically as every lost life is, I think history won't judge it quite so harshly. History casts a colder eye on these things, and perhaps it is unwise to stand amid the events and predict what people will make of them after we're gone. But the British, in the period I wrote about, lost whole armies in Afghanistan, and the Middle East, and even when they won they usually had their resources over-stretched and faced protracted insurgencies. History does not judge them to have been failures.

It's called "imperialism" now, and it's taught as a dirty word. British imperial and corporate interests unilaterally forced "Western values" down the throats of societies where piracy, raiding, and slave-taking were culturally ingrained, as they once had been for the Viking forefathers of the men who manned the British Navy. If instead the British had formed a committee in 1815 with the French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese to "solve" the slavery "problem," slave ships might still be plying the Atlantic today.