Saturday, December 29, 2007

Blues for Islamabad

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto has brought into sharp relief what Alexander L. George called the classic security dilemma, wherein every maneuver undertaken to protect the national interest actually undermines it. The purported reason for the US partnership with Pervez Musharraf has been that Musharraf is the only person tough enough to confront the Islamist threat in his country. Even staunch Democrats promulgate this notion. And a recent policy recommendation from Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations, also advocates this approach.

Yet the Musharraf led government of Pakistan has proved utterly incapable of meeting the challenge of radical Islam. Meanwhile, the inconvenient truth from Iraq and Afghanistan shows that the Bush administration is unwilling and unable to deliver the concentrated form of violence necessary to defeat the Islamofascists. The administration makes overtures against Iran even as it struggles to maintain its footing.

As the economic center of the world shifts from New York to Shanghai, the US is embroiled in a terminal crisis of hegemony. The US deals with China but hasn't really come to terms with it. If genuine understanding and mutual cooperation could be achieved, then the benefits would immediately accrue to our Middle East foreign policy. An East-West consensus would be less vulnerable to manipulation and criticism by opponents as another form of American domination.

The real test for the US foreign policy establishment is whether it can suggest policies that aren't merely rational but effective. In the case of Pakistan, when does continued support for Pervez Musharraf pose an unacceptable risk?

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Geography and Fate

John L. Thornton, Chair of the Board of the Brookings Institution, has written one of the better analyses of China's current stage of political evolution. He gives a rather evenhanded assessment of the democratic processes in the People's Republic of China, PRC. Being a teacher at Tsinghua University presumably helps him discern subtleties which are usually obscured in stories about Chinese domestic policy.

However, while the text may be more than adequate, it is lacking context. Such context may be had by reading China: A New History by John K. Fairbank. Although China has 23 percent of the world's population, it contains only 7 percent of the planet's arable land. Ninety percent of cultivable land in China is used for agriculture compared to forty percent in the US. The population which is five times that of our own is encompassed in an area about one half the land mass of the US.

With an immense quantity of muscular energy and a tremendous need to reap maximum benefits from a limited supply of land under adverse conditions, nature held primacy over the individual. Collective action and strict adherence to obligations to family and the state became prerequisites for thriving in a harsh, isolated environment. The spirit of exploration and personal freedom essential to the West would have had deleterious consequences in China.

Based on descriptive pictographs, the Chinese language is believed to have developed strongly as a tool for assisting in the administration of government functions and recording family lineages. Trade and commerce seem to have had a secondary role. Historical periods were named after dynasties and the state dominated life. Keeping this unique history in mind along with the recent examples of Russian and Iraqi experiences, the reticence of the Chinese Communist Party to impale itself on the spear of reform becomes much more understandable. Perhaps it is a mistake to believe that the Chinese conception of democracy will ever converge on the Western ideal.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Let Us Now Praise Great Men

It was nearly one year ago that I met E.C. Hopkins during an exchange at Blacksmythe. We debated the bona fides of Tyler Perry as an artist. I quickly learned that I wasn't in his intellectual weight class. His great acumen, however, was matched by his gentility. It is all too easy for the demigods that walk among us mortals to fall into snobbery and disdain for their subalterns. E.C. bypassed this trapdoor.

I followed the link attached to his byline and glanced at his bio. Months went by as I continued to visit Blacksmythe but saw no sign of Hopkins. I would periodically wonder "Where is that brother from Arizona who was around these parts a while back?" Then I encountered his forum again.

Without meeting E.C. Hopkins I doubt that I would ever reread The Theban Plays of Sophocles, much less draw similarities between Creon and George W. Bush. Brother Hopkins is the embodiment of the best of Ralph Ellison, a man who takes complete ownership of the best of West European civilization without renouncing his particular Black cultural folk heritage. Cobb gave a much better tribute to E.C. If you haven't done so already, please check it out.

After writing all this I hope E.C. doesn't pull a Roger Clemens and immediately announce that he is coming out of retirement. Just kidding. I would love to read his lengthy expositions again. E.C. Hopkins is the only person who could use words like 'suzerainty' and not exude superciliousness. Heck, I wouldn't even use words like 'superciliousness' if it were not for him. He truly is and remains nonpareil.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A New Bandung

How much is necessary to defend the United States? That is, how much do we need to spend in order to protect the country and provide a modest degree of security? John McNaughton, one of the lesser known architects of Vietnam War policy, pondered this question in 1964 and thought that only $1 billion of the nearly $50 billion allocated to the Pentagon was sufficient. The rest, of course, was required to defend interests overseas. This is the essence of empire.

Giovanni Arrighi has recently released the best book I've read on geopolitics since 2004 when Thomas P.M. Barnett gave us The Pentagon's New Map. Whereas Barnett is an advocate of the forcible inclusion of what he calls the Non-Integrating Gap, Adam Smith in Beijing describes the emergence of a New World Order based on the China model.

"The revolt against the West created the political conditions for the social and economic empowerment of the peoples of the non-Western world. The economic renaissance of East Asia is the first and clearest sign that such an empowerment has begun." This quote from Arrighi stands in stark contrast to Barnett:

"Whether we realize it or not, America serves as the ideological wellspring for globalization. These united states will stand as its first concrete expression. We are the only country in the world purposely built around the ideals that animate globalization's advance: freedom of choice, freedom of movement, freedom of expression. We are connectivity personified. Globalization is this country's gift to history - the most perfectly flawed projection of the American Dream onto the global landscape. To deny our parentage of globalization is to deny our country's profound role as world leader over the second half of the twentieth century. More important, to abandon globalization's future to those violent forces hell-bent on keeping this world divided between the connected and disconnected is to admit that we no longer hold these truths to be self-evident: that all are created equal, and that all desire life, liberty, and a chance to pursue happiness. In short, we the people needs to become we the planet."
(emphasis in the original)

The Americanization of the globe is the desired objective. And because of this dementia the US imperial project is destined to fail.

There was a time when I was seduced by this arguement. It's simple logic is the embodiment of everything that I was taught in school. It is the typical example of American exceptionalism, egocentricism, and ahistoricism. Aren't we the reluctant superpower? Didn't we save the world twice - first from fascism and then from communism? Haven't we been called on once again to save it from radical Islamic fundamentalism?

But to be a full participant in empire you have to operate with a certain hemianopsia. If you peer too deeply into the governments in which you invest then you'll be disillusioned to find duplicity and decay.

Therefore, empires require self-intiated, self-satisfying goals and ideals. It was not by accident that the Napoleonic Code and the French banner of "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" gave birth to Spanish guerrillas.

By having a monopoly on the global expression of military strength, Arrighi asserts that the United States risks running a protection racket. There is much to this and without strong checks like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, both of which have been undermined by Republican and Democratic administrations, then nations are left with nothing but our self-restraint and goodwill to prevent abuse. So the international community can hardly be faulted for not sharing Barnett's sanguine outlook.

Using the Chinese resurgence and a careful reading of Adam Smith's An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Arrighi describes an alternate model of market based economic development. Free markets, as theorized by Smith and enacted by Chinese policymakers, are a means for the state to rule efficiently and promote domestic tranquility. This is a divergence from the Western model where the interests of the capitalist class are synonymous with, if not greater than, the state.

Another point of departure is that the East Asian model of industrialization is labor intensive. Moreover, European reliance on financialization and overseas trade as a source of wealth and the rising cost of military implements necessary to protect trade routes and privileged access to foreign markets created an escalating arms race. Needless to say, elevated living standards came at the expense of marginalized non-European peoples.

With a couple of chapters emphasizing economics and obscure Ming and Qing periods of Chinese history, Adam Smith in Beijing is less readily digested by the general reader. Despite this, it's very much worth the effort. The rise of China becomes understood more as a result of the convergence of hundreds of years of historic trends rather than a consequence of entry into the World Trade Organization and the rapid influx of foreign direct investments.

Two things especially stand out to me because of their potential relevance to African development. One is the role of the Chinese diaspora in raising the fortunes of their homeland. The other is the call for a concert of developing nations to form their own plans for economic advancement based on their unique strengths and cultural traditions. " For," in Arrighi's words, " a new Bandung can do what the old could not: it can mobilize and use the global market as an instrument of equalization of South-North power relations."

Depending on how the Iraq War plays out, developing nations are less likely to follow a blueprint issued from Washington than one from Beijing.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Getting Started

Welcome to my new blog. I hope that you'll make it a regular stopover during your travels.

First, I must give thanks to Dr. Lester Spence whom I met a year ago when my brother gave a lecture at Johns Hopkins University. Les introduced me to the blogosphere. I'm very indebted to the formidable Craig Nulan. Since the first time that I sent Craig a tentative email, he has responded with overwhelming kindness and treated me like a respected peer rather than an apprentice. My indebtedness extends to E.C. Hopkins, a beautiful mind who writes with a rare combination of lyricism and authority. Every construct must have a floor and for that my model is Michael David Cobb Bowen. He never backs down from a fight and has tremendous courage and certitude to match his ambition. Desmond Burton aka AfroNerd and Denmark Vesey are two cats who have taught me not to be afraid of controversy. There are many unnamed others that have inspired and challenged me with their comments at various blogs and for this I'm grateful to them.

My intent is to make this space a gymnasium for ideas. I'm certain that egos and feelings will be bruised. That's all in the game. Malice, however, will not be tolerated. I'm new to blog ethics but I'll use the Supreme Court standard for pornography - I know it when I see it. That said, I wish you and your families and loved ones Happy Holidays.