October 21, 2011
The two big books of the moment are Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (which I reviewed in the November issue of The American Conservative) and Pat Buchanan’s Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025? (which I reviewed in VDARE). Pinker argues that the future belongs increasingly to peaceful cosmopolitan globalism, while Buchanan claims that ethnonationalism’s universal appeal can ultimately lead to national stabilization.
How do the two books’ contrasting forecasts look following the spectacularly violent homicide of Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi?
Pinker, the noted Harvard psychology professor, contends (among much else in his 832 pages) that there exists a civilizing process that makes people behave less violently over time.
Granted, Kathafi’s end turned out not to be not quite as Facebookish as the sort of National Defriending that promoters of the Arab Spring had implied. The whole NATO Highway of Death routine followed by militiamen (apparently) executing him point-blank seems a little pre-Twittery.
Still, compared to the 1958 coup that overthrew Iraq’s Hashemite Dynasty, the 2011 Libyan mob was almost decorous. Richard Grenier’s 1983 novel The Marrakesh One-Two recounts the way aggrieved Arabs behaved toward overthrown rulers 53 years ago:
“...the Iraqis had hitched Regent Abd al-Ilah to the back of a truck and dragged him through the streets of Baghdad, with people in the crowd screaming in delight and dashing up and cutting off pieces of Abd al-Ilah for souvenirs, first his sexual organs….Then Abd al-Ilah’s body without the arms and legs was hung from a balcony and the crowd went wild and stabbed it with pointed sticks, and people climbed up and whittled off slivers to celebrate.”
“Maybe he wasn’t popular,” said Omar.
So score one for Pinker’s civilizing process: Souvenir-hunting Arabs in 2011 excitedly snapping cellphone pictures of their former dictator’s battered corpse are more civilized than 1958 Arabs carving off chunks of carcass.
Yet Buchanan is right in that ethnonationalism helped fuel Libyan discontent. Quathafee’s 1969 coup came in the age of Nasserite pan-Arabism, or ethno-internationalism. But the colonel soured on his fellow Arabs and kicked off a bizarre pan-Africanist project to become black Africa’s leader. To increase his popularity in Africa, he imported a million or more sub-Saharan immigrants, which didn’t please his North African subjects. Fittingly, his loyalists’ last redoubt was the Ouagadougou Conference Hall, named, with Gathaphee’s characteristic disdain for spellability in Western alphabets, for his ally to the south, the former Upper Volta.
In 2003, following George W. Bush’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein pour l’encouragement des autres, Kazzafi, suitably encouraged, formally capitulated to the New World Order. He agreed to give up his nuclear program (big mistake), pay reparations for past terrorism, and maybe torture terrorists for us. Soon he was holding photo opportunities with Tony Blair and similar representatives of the global great and good.
But how nonviolent is cosmopolitan internationalism in practice?
The colonel found out in March, when the leaders of France, Britain, and America agreed to kill him. Sure, they described the war they started as a “no-fly zone” to “protect civilians.” (Even after Gaffathi had been executed, a NATO spokesperson legalistically rationalized the aerial bombing of his fleeing convoy by claiming it “appeared to be attacking civilians as it made an attempt to break out of Sirte.” Yeah, sure.) But once Barack Obama decided to attack Libya, the colonel was doomed. Obama couldn’t run for reelection as the president who had started and lost a war with one of the few foreign bad guys American voters know.
While Pinker says international organizations promote peace, Buchanan emphasizes their shadow history of facilitating war (one reason peaceful Switzerland traditionally avoided them). Transnational cooperation, as with NATO, can lead to what insurance companies call “moral hazard.” Claiming to represent an international community encourages confidence when starting wars and provides opportunities for blame-dodging.
Moreover, alliances often work like subprime mortgage securitizing: The search for safety in numbers can reduce the frequency of smash-ups while increasing their intensity. This pattern of international cooperation leading to a few huge crashes can be seen both militarily and economically. The alliance systems turned 1914 and 1939 into World Wars. Granted, NATO and the Warsaw Pact didn’t fight World War III, but a .333 batting average is good in baseball, not in World War avoidance.
Similarly, the moral hazard inherent in the euro now threatens Europe with economic ruin. Nobody would have loaned the Greeks all that money if the German economy hadn’t vaguely backstopped them.
While international alliances don’t have a terrific track record of avoiding wars, they are good at winning wars. And the victors write the history books.
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