Sunday, April 16, 2006

Say, what's the big idea?

The post-Cold War era has been chock a block with big idea books attempting to describe what this new world is and how we should best act in this new world. Among the more important and influential are the Lexus and the Olive Tree and the Clash of Civilizations. The former posits that the forces of globalization are pushing the world to greater homogeneous, built essentially around Western models. The latter argues that major civilizational blocks will be in increasing conflict as the West declines in importance. Robert Merry's Sands of Empire sets it self up as a defender of the Clash of Civilizations world view, as well as a general critique of the Clinton and Bush 43 foreign policies.

Merry argues that the West has been in the thrall of the idea of progress, which is the notion that not only has technology improved over time, but so have people. While the path may wobble, the future holds the promise of increasing betterment of people themselves. This view comes in a variety of flavors including the Marxist, but also the American Way of Life model. There is an assumption of universality in the model as well. Wherever Progress is going, everyone is going to get on board.

Set against this world view is that of cyclical history which argues that civilizations rise and fall, and with that so do their values. Merry believes this is the reality of the world, and American policy is designed with the false idea of Progress in mind. From his perspective this is problematic because it leads to major miscalculation in policy. The liberal interventionists of the 1990s believed that everyone deep down wanted to be a Western (small d) democratic market oriented person and if the US just stepped in to tweak situations like Bosnia, everything would work out. Instead the US prevented the Serbs from oppressing the Albanians, but enabled the Albanians to start oppressing the Serbs. The neoconservatives on the other hand believed that everyone wanted to be a democracy and the US could walk into a country, knock off the dictator and waltz out with new democracies in place. We all know what happened to that idea.

Merry has a number of good observations. He chides the overuse of the notion of appeasement, as if any nation on earth is anywhere near as dangerous as Hitlerian Germany in 1938. He also makes the distinction between conservative isolationists and liberal isolationists. Conservatives like Buchanan believe the US is good and the world will sully and weaken the US. Liberals isolationists like Chomsky believe the US is evil and will sully and weaken the world. In the end they recommend similar things, but disagree on principles.

This is a synthesis rather than an original idea book, but it is still thought provoking.

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