Sunday, July 16, 2006

But How is the Kingdom of Heaven like that?

Or: Pardon Me, But These Deck Chairs Need Re-Arranging.

If I recall correctly, Robert Wright was much praised for his two books, The Moral Animal and Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. (The idea, by the way, that somebody wins, somebody loses, in a "zero sum game" may have found a new vocabulary in game theory, but it is a "logic" as old as the proclamation of the basileia tou theou.) I rather reflexively assumed that anyone who was linking logic and "human destiny" was not really such a deep thinker after all, but just another purveyor of Generally Accepted Opinion ("GAO"), so I never read the books. Looks like I saved myself some time:

The American progressives of a century ago saw that as economic activity moved from a regional to a national level, some parts of governance needed to reside at the national level as well. Hence federal antitrust enforcement and the Pure Food and Drug Act. Analogously, problems that today accompany globalization call for institutionalized international responses.

In the economic realm, progressivism means continuing to support the World Trade Organization as a bulwark against protectionism — but also giving it the authority to address labor issues, as union leaders have long advocated. Environmental issues, too, should be addressed at the W.T.O. and through other bodies of regional and global governance.

Nowhere does this emphasis on international governance contrast more clearly with recent Republican ideology than in arms control. The default neoconservative approach to weapons of mass destruction seems to be that when you suspect a nation has them, you invade it. The Iraq experience suggests that repeated reliance on this policy could grow wearying.
"Wearying"? Invasion on a suspicion that turns out to be completely unfounded is critiqued as "wearying"? Not only that, it's fobbed off as a condition; it's "possibly wearying." This is an insight? Lord help us, none dare call it idiocy.

This isn't realism (obviously Wright's true idol) or even progressive; it's simply blindly idiotic. Wright wobbles about, arguing for national security by helping other countries economically, or by insisting on arms controls (which he equates to government regulation of domestic business), but then he pops up another gem like this:

That domestic security depends increasingly on popular sentiment abroad makes it important for America to be seen as a good global citizen — respecting international laws and norms and sensing the needs of neighbors. One of President Bush’s most effective uses of power was the tsunami relief effort of 2004, which raised regard for Americans in the world’s largest Muslim country, Indonesia. Much of the war on terror isn’t military.

Of course, some of it is, and we’ll need the capacity to project force anywhere, anytime. Still, a full accounting of the costs of intervention makes it clear that we can’t afford to be the world’s army.
Really? And what was your first clue? The fact that cellphones have cameras now? (That's his argument; not mine.) Let's go back to this issue of "projecting force" again, shall we, and let's be "realistic" about it. The invasion of Afghanistan was about "projecting force." The invasion of Iraq was about "projecting force." As I write, Israel is "projecting force" against Hezbollah by attacking Lebanon. Does anyone really believe Lebanon has enough of a government to effectively control Hezbollah? Does anyone believe Hezbollah has enough to lose to worry about "all-out war" with Israel? (And how is that different from what's happening today, by the way?) So "projecting force" against, say, Al Qaeda...just how, again, do we do that, and what results can we expect? Seems to me a "full accounting" has to call into question even the very idea of what is accomplished by "projecting force." Not what should be accomplished; what is accomplished.

Or am I being unrealistic?

But you'll be relieved to know that what's going on now is going on simply because Hezbollah doesn't have enough businessmen; apparently:

Fortunately, globalization has made the peaceful suppression of at least some forms of disorder easier. Economic interdependence makes war among nations less attractive, and never before has this interdependence brought so much transborder contact among businesspeople and politicians.
Paging Tom Friedman; Tom Friedman, pick up the white globalization
cliché phone, please.

But here is the fundamental problem, one that has been around since the first empire rose, one that felled even the Roman Empire, still the most significant basiliea on the planet:

This principle lies at the heart of progressive realism. A correlation of fortunes — being in the same boat with other nations in matters of economics, environment, security — is what makes international governance serve national interest. It is also what makes enlightened self-interest de facto humanitarian. Progressive realists see that America can best flourish if others flourish — if African states cohere, if the world’s Muslims feel they benefit from the world order, if personal and environmental health are nurtured, if economic inequities abroad are muted so that young democracies can be stable and strong. More and more, doing well means doing good.
And people call me naive because I confess a belief in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

This is nothing more than utilitarianism for nations. You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. So why isn't it working? The Middle East is supplying the lion's share of the world's oil. Why aren't the oil-rich nations at peace? Why is the US still pestering Venezuela? Surely there is a "correlation of fortunes" at work somewhere in this, right? But fortunes don't seem to always correlate with politics, do they? Funny, that. Now, we are supposed to be realistic enough to see that America flourishes when other nations flourish. We don't, of course. When China and India flourish, they ultimately do so at our expense. China sells us junk we don't really need, at prices that put American workers out of work. India and China drive up the price of oil by consuming more of it, and again, American suffer (well, economically). And it is is a simple economic rule: you can only work for someone richer than you are, because people with less money than you have, can't give you enough of their money for you to earn a living. Not unless you manage to geta huge number of them to give you money, but the number of people who earn a living that way is vanishingly small, and that doesn't undermine the rule. You work for a rich individual, or a large enough group of individuals that their aggregate income is enough to keep you solvent; either way, you need someone poorer than you so you can, in turn, employ them. In economics, when everyone is wealthy, everyone is poor.

Which brings us back to the basiliea tou theou, where the first are always last, the last always first. But that's no prescription for a nation-state; that only works for individuals. And it's so radical, it undermines nation-states. Also, it requires no assembly, no technology, not even communication beyond one person speaking directly to another. Besides it's so first-century. Wright wants us to be cutting edge and use the newest buzzwords. No, the basileia tou theou just won't cut it. Perhaps that's also why Jesus never tried to apply it to Rome, but merely offered it as an alternative to Roman power.

This sounds harsh, but it is only acknowledgment of something often left unsaid: a nation’s foreign policy will always favor the interests of its citizens and so fall short of moral perfection. We can at least be thankful that history, by intertwining the fates of peoples, is bringing national interest closer to moral ideals.
No, it sounds like Reinhold Niebuhr with a dash of hopelessly naive Wilsonian optimism for a topping. How 'bout we just scrap the idea of "moral perfection" when it comes to nation states and start from there? In fact, it's called "Christian Realism." But somehow I doubt Mr. Wright's heard of it.

This immersion in the perspective of the other is sometimes called “moral imagination,” and it is hard. Understanding why some people hate America, and why terrorists kill, is challenging not just intellectually but emotionally. Yet it is crucial and has been lacking in President Bush, who saves time by ascribing behavior that threatens America to the hatred of freedom or (and this is a real time saver) to evil. As Morgenthau saw, exploring the root causes of bad behavior, far from being a sentimentalist weakness, informs the deft use of power. Realpolitik is reality-based.
It is actually more properly called "amoral imaginativeness." Morality is about right conduct, not about manipulation. It may be true that morality has no place among nation-states, but let's not try to dress up an amoral policy and call it domesticated. If we are going to move as a tiger, let's move as a tiger. Newt Gingrich at least understands that much; or almost says he does.

In Gingrich's verbal bomb throwing privately, but more subdued criticism publicly, you can see already that this line of argument has no legs. It's being picked up by some as the next phase in the war on terror, but I don't see it. As Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker said:

"The challenge … is becoming more complex, and it's going to continue to be... That's why I'll tell you I think we're closer to the beginning than we are to the end of all this."
And "all this" is a result of precisely the kind of "realpolitik" Wright is trying to defend, even as he explains it's weakness, a weakness he seems to think is largely a product of technology, not policy:

The upshot, in my opinion: Policies that may bring tangible tactical or strategic gains, but plant the seeds of long-term hatred, are a less good idea than they were, say, 30 years ago.
Apparently the words "Vietnam war" mean nothing to him (though he cites the example of Kissinger), and he's never so much as read an essay by George Orwell.

So where are we now? Where we've always been. Jesus told his disciples there would be "war and rumors of war." Tommy Lee Jones memorably declared in Men in Black:

There's always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet, and the only way these people can get on with their happy lives is that they Do... Not... Know about it!
Except, of course, we do know about it. We always know about it. And by and large, we accept it as the background noise of life, and go on about our business. For Christians, our business is to proclaim the empire; not the empire of America, or of a Western hegemeony against "radical Islam," but the empire of God, the all-encompassing basiliea. The place where everyone is welcome, and everyone can buy food without money and wine without price. The place where it's very illogic is its most logical strength, because the emphasis is not on taking care of me by taking care of you, but simply on taking care of you. Despite what anyone else might want to do to you.

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