It’s A New World

I’ve been marinating this particular post in my brain for a couple of weeks – it started when I was thinking about writing more about the assassination of Benazir Bhutto when I got back after taking Christmas week off.  And I’ve been contemplating writing it here since Red offered me the chance to sub in for her while she went away.  Red and I share a deep interest in plicy thinking, in developing new ideas and seeing where they lead.  Were she and I in the same city, this is what I would be bouncing back and forth with her over dinner.  In lieu of that – I miss you, too, Red – I’m putting my thoughts here.

President Bush has apparently settled on the traditional Lame Duck presidential route of “concentrating” on foreign plicy on his way out the door – laughably, in his case, because he’s been lousy at foreign policy, the messes he’s dealing with are largely of his own making, and his “Policy team” seems especially short on skill these days. Thinking about that has led me though to think about what comes next, why we are where we are in the world, and how we got here.

And here’s the thing – by accident or by design (though mostly, I think, by accident), Mr. Bush has forced a transition from Post World War 2 diplomacy into a new, somewhat uncharted territory: I don’t have a name for it yet, but it’s something like “Post Post Colonial” or “Post Yalta”… something that reflects the changes of 60 or so years of recent history.

It’s tempting to call this “Post Cold War”, but I think that overstates the presence of the Cold War in a larger story, the world as it was reshaped by World War I and then World War II.  Yes, the aftermath of WW2 led to a superpower conflict between the US and the USSR, but that conflict was part of a larger story, not the story itself, I think.

No the story is about paternalism and colonialism. And what we are living with now is the transition away from the remnants of that last vestige of colonial thinking and paternalistic Western decision making for the world.

Consider, for instance, the countries that lead the international news right now.  Each one, really, is a hybrid nation, a makeshift arrangement – probably by the British – that has been “independent” for a relatively short period and fraught with internal conflict: Kenya, Sudan (Darfur), Pakistan, Iraq, Myanmar… these nations are the direct result of British control, that extended well into the fifties.  Israel was created… by the British.

Stepping back a bit, into the nineties, we can add Rwanda (German/Belgium) and Yugoslavia, which dissolved in the wake of the Soviet collapse and set Serbs and Croats upon one another. It’s the Bosnian conflict that underlines that the Cold War is part of the story, not the whole of it – Afghanistan, too is part of the story of Russia’s postwar colonial ambitions, the “last stand” as Charlie Wilson’s War describes, of a long march to resources and seaports.

What we have witnessed in the last 15 to 20 years or so is the breakdown of the last vestiges of these colonial superstructures, I think. One could, probably, tie its ending to the passing of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan from the World stage; they were, arguably, the last in a long line of “great man/great nation” strategists who believed in Western dominance.  Since then, no President seems as eager (the first Bush, or Clinton), or as able (our current President) to stamp US dominance on the world, much less a Western European one. Indeed, America – a former colony – has no interest in the kind of colonial dominance of the old European powers.  At best, we have tried to play cleanup and “Good Cop” in a world we see as needing order… but not an order we are willing to provide in the old colonial framework.

That, for instance, is why I think Tony Blair’s role in the Iraq war is one that will bear future scrutiny – it’s Blair who seemed to struggle, more than Bush, with the meaning of a post-post-colonial world.  The sens of personal responsibility he brought to trying to make sense of Iraq seemed driven, in part, by acknowledging his nation’s historic role in creating the conglomeration of Sunni, Shia and Kurd that never made sense and, after Saddam Hussein, lacked almost any sort of true organizational principle except geography and man-made history. President Bush, never a deep thinker on these topics, seemed and still seems far more passive on the implicvations of what the British have wrought.  He stull speaks in terms of “winning”and “victory” as if we were ina conflict with the size, shape, and heft of World War II.  Almost every thinking diplomat – including his own, as well as his Generals -  have abandoned this rhetoric, and talk, in smaller terms, of what’s really doable and what’s realistic to expect.

Still, I think this view of what’s happened and what’s happening now does mitigate some our harshest assessments of President Bush; no President could, realistically, be expected to know how best to navigate an international situation where almost every traditional approach – from the UN to the World Bank to most diplomacy that’s conducted by Western powers meeting in secret and then directing others – no longer is the operating paradigm.  This is a world full of countries disinterested (China, India, Brazil) or disinclined (Russia) towards paternalistic moves by the old powers. And America, by history and by design, is a nation strongly aligned with those old notions, even though what they represent are beliefs and values we ourselves don’t share – it’s why the Inaugural Address of a “Freedom Doctrine” by President Bush was at once so accurate, and so misplaced: we can’t achieve the goal he laid out, because it’s for others to achieve.  But it explains why we also have suh trouble being the World’s Cop – it’s not a role for which we are naturally suited.

Is there a way forward? I think so; but I think we have to be prepared for more violence, less certainty, and a real reorganization that may hurt many Americans economically and socially. A world which we are “part of”, not “in charge of” is a world we don’t entirely recognize.  And for others – Pakistanis, Kenyans, Serbs and Croatians, the Sudanese… and on and on… these violent reorderings may not seem like any good at all.

But it is, most likely, time.  Time to really understand what a United Nations – where all nations are actually, not just theoretically, equal – looks like.  Time to rethink nationalist tendencies, xenophobia, and the reluctance to free border crossings and immigration. Time to face that all of us, around the world, have to contribute to discussions of the environment, world economies, world peace and world order. It is, in short, an amazing time, and a new world.

To be cross-posted, eventually, at NYCweboy. 


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