Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Extinction of Conflict

"Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword" - Matthew 26:52 

Since I'm an atheist, people may be wondering why I'm quoting the Bible. However, like some other philosophies I've studied, I find much more at fault with the notoriously unscientific premises of Christianity than its moral conclusions. I don't entirely agree with those either, but I'm not a moral relativist and there are definitely some accurate bits here and there. Anyway, on with more important things. Edit: Also, since I like quoting fantasy, the New Testament is pretty appropriate.

As a follow up of my discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I wanted to talk about the place for conventional offensive military actions in the modern world, or possible lack thereof. A friend of mine wanted me to discuss things from an IR Theory perspective; the reasons that I don't like to do that is because IR Theories like neorealism and neoliberalism are notoriously unscientific and abstract. As Robert Keohane discusses in Neorealism and its Critics, these theories cannot be tested and proven in nearly as rigorous a fashion as theories in other scientific disciplines. Rather than base an argument on dubious theoretical supports, it is better for my purposes to discuss issues in the context of my own paradigm (hopefully I'll get to discussing that eventually). Then, if I'm wrong, I have nothing to blame but shortcomings in my own understanding. 

Since the end of the Second World War, interstate conflict has decreased in both frequency and extremity. It is apparent that this can be partially be explained by nuclear deterrent and mutually assured destruction, both of which kept the Cold War cold and still prevent at least nuclear powers from fighting each other directly. I am of the persuasion that even if there were no nuclear weapons, or in the case that an insanely efficient way of negating nuclear deterrent emerges, conflict would still stand to decrease eventually over time. Additionally, I assert that although nuclear deterrent has lessened the extremity of military conflict, it has ironically prolonged it's existence. These positions call into question the utility of a large national military, such as the one the US now possesses. 

It is a testament to humanity's collective will for survival that in 67 years of possessing the potential for self destruction we have managed to avoid killing ourselves. Seriously though, even in the context of geopolitical conflict and the desire for advantage through first strike, humanity has only once come even close to risking annihilation. Some political scientists will assert that this is mainly due to desire for one's own survival, and is indicative of nothing more. I suspect that even in the case that one side had the opportunity to destroy the other without retaliation, they would not do so because of the cost in human life. Nuclear weapons are the guns that may never be fired, but merely by their existence they have dramatically changed the way nations interact with each other.

Prior to the development of nuclear weapons, intra- and inter-state conflict was widespread but it had a purpose. It's method was that of natural selection; worse states would inevitably fall victim to internal or external fatal inefficiencies, and would improve over time. We can see this in the history of the United States quite clearly; many of our most important and defining amendments were passed in the wake of conflict. The most recently proposed amendment that was ratified was the one lowering the voting age to 18, passed largely due to the drafting of young men for service in Vietnam who could not vote (27th amendment technically proposed in 1789, and wasn't substantial regardless because the turnover rate in Congress is so high). From Ancient Rome to Modern Europe, conflict has served to advance human organization by process of elimination.

My main point is that continued military conflict in the 20th century was rapidly leading towards less military conflict and more constructive conflict. Industrialized nations that avoided large-scale military conflict, like the US, were quickly transcending states that saw this as a political necessity, like Germany and much of Europe. The shift that was happening on the international level mimicked the shift that had long ago taken place at the domestic level of the most developed states: dominance by debate and cooperation was taking the place of dominance by force. States that counted on offensive military action made themselves vulnerable not only externally but internally. The last visible result of this lesson is evident in the UN, however that organization was never able to actually reach maturity because nuclear weapons rendered it fairly pointless. 

The UN was an organization first and foremost designed with the purpose of preventing another large-scale conflict, like its predecessor the League of Nations. However, large-scale conflict was rendered completely obsolete by nuclear weapons. So instead of having its institutions tested by global conflict, the United Nations remained unused, purposeless, and dying, like a fish out of water. Additionally, small-scale conflict has been used as a proxy for the large-scale conflict that can no longer reasonably happen. These conflicts have without exception nearly always been self-defeating and wasteful, but not so much so (as the previous conflicts were) as to eliminate inefficient institutions. Small-scale conflict has resulted in small-scale change. What it has not resulted in is the rejection of military action as an acceptable way of resolving disputes yet, except notably in Europe.

I would like to draw a picture of the post world war two world sans nuclear weapons as a model: The United States, Soviet Union, Western Europe, China etc. recover slowly from World War Two, but the US more quickly than others. NATO forms. Soviet Union likely makes moves at Western Europe and China moves toward southeast Asia, Korea, and Japan. Unable to take sides between members of the SC, UN disbands. WWIII, massive casualties, all countries have damaged infrastructure except probably US (as always), Russia and China crushed in totality, resulting in forced political restructuring of these countries. Second UN established (likely in a completely different structure), most likely dominated by EU, US, rising India, and potentially a newly democratic China. I see all of this happening certainly in a shorter time span than it took the USSR to fall on its own.

I do not however, think that the development of nuclear weapons was a negative thing. Besides the benefits provided by Nuclear Energy and scientific advancement, this forced check on large-scale conflict has provided humanity with an opportunity to advance politically sans military action. It has given humanity an opportunity to reject the practical legitimacy of military action and deduce better structures for international institutions without fighting a World War Three. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Israel v. The World

 "Free folk and kneelers are more alike than not, Jon Snow. Men are men and women women, no matter which side of the Wall we were born on. Good men and bad, heroes and villains, men of honor, liars, cravens, brutes … we have plenty, as do you.” - Val (A Dance with Dragons)

So last night I was bombarded with a wave of Facebook statuses from my many Jewish friends about how Israel was justified in bombing Gaza because they had been being attacked for years, but that the obviously biased media wouldn't mention that. The ridiculous part was that I hadn't heard anything from the media about it yet, and when I did read the story on the front page of the NY Times there was, in fact, a detailed paragraph about the justification for the attacks. I enjoy discussing international politics anyway and as a central, complex issue I think the greater Israeli-Palestinian conflict is worthy of some attention.

Israel's actions have made it one of the least liked countries in the entire world; its approval ratings are just barely above those of North Korea and even Germany (which traditionally makes an extra-sincere effort to support Israel) is beginning to question whether or not supporting Israel is wise. The reason for this is Israel's unilateral use of force to further its policy goals with it's neighbors, and what is perceived as an unwillingness to compromise on issues like Palestinian statehood. Everyone recognizes that Israel is under threat; the question is whether the best way to meet that threat is with more violence or alternative solutions. I believe that using military force to consolidate Israel's security is counterproductive. Not only does it actually make Israel less safe in the long run, it destabilizes the already volatile political situation in the Middle East, erodes international support, and makes the world less safe for everyone. Israel itself needs to avoid using violence as a means of providing security and drive the process of creating a stable, diplomatic, multilateral solution for peace or the entire world will inevitably pay the price.

Update: 11/18/2012

Just by putting my thoughts on the issue out there my arguments have come under assault by my Jewish friends and relatives. Unfortunately (because the whole point of writing this was to get feedback), most of these counterarguments have merely attacked my ethos or used pathetic appeals without countering the substance of my argument. Also many 'tu quoque' points have also been pushed, stating that Palestine and the US also use violence. While this is very true, and I think that these are also destructive, they have very little applicability to my position. My assertion is this: Israel's new offensive is overly aggressive and detrimental to its own security as well as the world's. I said nothing of Hamas' actions, which I think are equally destructive, but I will address why I consider Israel the primary force of action in this process. I will also elucidate why, in my eyes, Israel is shooting itself in the foot.

To put it laconically, Israel's capabilities incomparably outmatch any threat that could possibly be posed to it by Hamas. Furthermore, Israel has membership in the UN, something that Palestine lacks. In addition, as a democracy, one would imagine that Israel has more of a cultural basis for rejecting the use of violence as a legitimate means of accomplishing goals. Surely, Hamas is just as responsible for the continuing violence, and I do not absolve them of responsibility for the crimes they have committed. But when it comes to the process of permanently concluding the violence, Israel has infinitely more influence, and the substantial support of the US. The truth is that Israel has no incentives to end the fighting; they are winning absolutely. Let us look at the deaths from the last invasion of Gaza: 1417 Palestinians dead (295-926 civilians) and 13 Israelis (3 of whom were civilians). So then the argument that these Palestinian terrorists pose a serious threat to the integrity of Israel is, in essence, laughably hyperbolic. Israel does not avoid a peaceful compromise because there is a threat, they do so because 1) Inevitably they would have to give up buffer zones and territory and 2) With the US behind them, lacking an actual threat to their security, they do not see any incentive to make these concessions. There is no moral principle guiding this choice; it is self-serving realpolitik at its most dangerous, and reeks of hubris. Conversely, the Palestinians have nothing to lose; they have already lost most of their land, they are attacked on the whim of Israeli politicians due to aforementioned circumstances, and death and instability is a constant. Faced with the death of their society, given little reason to trust Israeli politicians, they will continue to fight until given a very good reason not to. Violence will be no deterrent to them; what kind of threat is death when the other option is also death? The overwhelming military capability of Israel with the support of the US drives this cycle of violence with brutal efficiency, the only way a peaceful solution can be reached is if Israel rejects future use of violence, US refuses to support them, or US power wanes to the point where both sides are forced into a cease fire by international institutions.

I say again: this continued action by Israel is first and foremost destructive to itself. The last ground offensive proved that military action merely encourages violent opposition among Palestinians in Gaza. If Israel chooses to begin another one, a new Egyptian regime stands poised to intervene. Additionally, Gaza's own militants have been preparing endlessly for this assault since the last one. Above all, the question remains whether Obama (in control of the state department and military and no longer facing reelection) will remain neutral on the issue. Further military action by Israel simply offers no benefits beyond domestic political victories. Acting now, Israel may still secure a favorable permanent peace agreement. Later, with sympathy for Palestinians waxing worldwide, it remains unclear how much a brokered peace would take Israel's policy goals into consideration. I hope that this brings into light that, in the short term, military action seems convenient domestically, but in the long term Israel benefits far more internationally by establishing an advantageous, stable peace. As has been proven in North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Yugoslavia, the price for ignoring international relations in favor of unilateral goals can be fatally steep.  

Monday, November 12, 2012

Where the GOP needs to go: an independent's perspective

For my first post I wanted to discuss something current that resounded for me about the election. I study politics, particularly international affairs, seriously and need a place where I can share my thoughts regardless of who listens and blow off the intellectual steam that doesn't get used up writing papers. This isn't an issue of major significance in my eyes, but it is an issue that I hear a lot of people talk about and I can't resist throwing in my two cents.

The election was a huge success in my eyes, with referendums around the country demonstrating the will of the people despite gridlock at the federal level of government. As an independent voter, my only qualm was with the fact that I felt as though I didn't have a choice; I don't completely agree with either Republicans or Democrats, but I felt as though Republicans offered no reasonable alternative to Obama. Clearly many other moderates felt the same way. I actually would have voted for McCain in 2008, but this election there was barely a doubt who I was voting for from the Republican primaries onward. Therefore, I want to constructively explore my hopes for the GOP as it attempts to recover from the election. 

Romney was an unelectable candidate. He certainly made some fatal mistakes, particularly with his 47% comment, that cost him the election. The field of Republican candidates was far from ideal, possibly due to the intimidating prospect of going against such a formidable and popular candidate as Barack Obama. However, in an economy like this an incumbent President should not be winning elections, and definitely not by such an overwhelming margin in the Electoral College. This was the Republicans’ election to lose. They completely whiffed at a meatball of an election that should have seen them retake not only the Presidency, but Congress as well. The singular mistakes that may have cost them the election are not isolated occurrences; they are symptomatic of a much graver disease within the Republican Party itself that threatens its ability to take on the Democrats in the coming century.

The Republicans did not lose on the economy; to the contrary, more Americans tended to see Romney as better for the economy than Obama. In a recession, this should have resulted in a resounding victory and widespread support for fiscal conservatism and orthodox liberalism. Instead, Obama has received a perceived mandate for a much more interventionist approach towards the economy and the debt crisis in particular. Instead, the Republicans lost on social issues, systematically alienating the fastest growing demographics in America and putting the livelihood of millions of immigrants under possible threat. The impact of these issues can be seen even more clearly when looking at state referendums which portrayed clear support for gay marriage, women’s health choices, progressive solutions to illegal immigration, and decriminalization of cannabis. It is clear from voting patterns that many fiscally conservative people are voting Democrat, despite the economy, because they value their personal freedoms more than personal wealth.

These defeats bring to light the Republican Party’s central pathogen: its ideology suffers from fatal contradictions that make it unable to contend with an adaptive, mutating liberal agenda. The amalgam of fiscal conservatism and religious traditionalism imperils the ability of the Republicans to compete in a society that has been marked by the constant addition of new ethnicities and beliefs. Furthermore, this ideology possesses far less logical consistency than American liberalism. Libertarians scoff at Republican social stances for good reason; these policies are ideologically opposed to the conservative ideal of small government. Obama’s jibes about the antiquated and unsubstantiated nature of Romney’s intent to increase military funding were targeted at conservatives and moderates, not liberals. He was saying: “This is not what you believe in; this is not small government. This doesn't make sense. You are worse off with ridiculous policies that you partially agree with than reasonable policies that you partially disagree with.” And we received that message loud and clear. 

It is this inconsistency of ideology that is causing all of the symptoms of a broken party we can see: a ridicule and rejection of most media, consistent failure to achieve policy goals, and a receding primary demographic. For the last four years the Republicans have just barely managed to hold political ground, and now they are retreating into their own territory at full speed with enemies on all sides. Meanwhile, the GOP itself is split as libertarians and religious leaders pull at their respective corners of the political blanket. The cracks exposed in 2008 that inspired the Tea Party movement were deftly exploited and widened by Democrats in 2012 despite a bad economy and concerns abroad.

However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel of adaptation for Republicans: if policies allowing for more personal freedom are at accepted to an extent by the Republican Party, voting patterns indicate that they will be able to gain ground on economic issues. Appeal to fiscal conservatives without driving away minorities and young people with social stands that would appeal to voters in the 19th century. Lose religion, embrace personal liberties, and people will listen to the economic message. Serve fiscal conservatism with a side of Christianity, and 2012 should give you a fair picture of the next century’s outlook. As an independent, the most disappointing fact about this election is that the Barack Obama’s shortcomings were not met with any sort of reasonable counterargument. There was no logical alternative for me. That is bad for the country as a whole as well as for Republicans; a democracy without intelligible debate is a sad substitute for a vibrant party system. I can only hope that in future elections the GOP will adapt and offer a constructive opposition to present America with a real choice.