Thursday, November 30, 2006

Baby and bathwater

Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits, nevertheless, calmly licking its chops. - Mencken

My multi-month musings on the failure of string theory might make it sound as if I just don't like string theory, period, but that's not my purpose. My real target is the warped sociology of high-energy/particle theory, because it is this, not string theory per se, which has brought physics to its present impasse.

String theory started in the late 1960s. The first string "revolution" occurred in 1984, when the absence of certain infinities in a small number of string theories was proved. Because these theories included supersymmetry, bore a striking resemblance to grand unified gauge theories, treated "forces" and "motion" on an equal footing, and required (for free) a force that looks like gravity, they immediately became the prime candidate for a "theory of everything."

There were good reasons in the 1980s to welcome string theory as a big step in the right direction. But by 1990 or so, fatal problems had arisen: the partially-defined nature of string theory and the riot of non-unique solutions that string theory apparently implies. (The complete "theory" is really a conjecture, not a theory - the dynamics is defined only through second order in a Taylor series - and the "solutions" are actually conjectures as well). The second string "revolution" of the 1990s solved none of these problems. Instead, it added conjecture upon conjecture ("M-theory") and eventually led to the dead-end of the anthropic principle as an escape hatch for undefined theories and their very large number of conjectured solutions. I've posted before about the anthropic principle and won't belabor the point.

A final, and fatal, objection to string theory is that it is not background-independent and therefore cannot be a true quantum theory of gravity (QG). That is, it assumes a spacetime in which the other fields move, rather than solving for that spacetime as a result of the gravitational dynamics. This feature of string theory violates one of the basic features of general relativity. At best, string theory is another semiclassical theory of gravity, one that assumes a classical spacetime background, then perturbs it with small quantum fluctuations. The fact that string theory gives certain results consistent with other semiclassical approaches to quantum gravity should therefore come as no surprise - it has to. Such results don't deserve the hype that surrounds them - they're special cases of the general result first proved by Beckenstein and Hawking.

And of course, there's no contact with experiment or observation. String theory says nothing definitive or new about the most important beyond-the-Standard-Model phenomena of the last 20 years: neutrino masses, dark matter, and dark energy. It also has nothing to say about impending high-precision asotrphysical tests of fundamental symmetries or cosmological inflation. By historical standards, this is a bizarre situation. String theory, the supposed "theory of everything," adds no explanatory power to already-existing unified field theories and, in fact, detracts from them.

It's time to back up and ask where string theory went wrong. Setting aside the question of observing any distinctively "stringy" physics, we should pause to consider the striking fact that the only real theoretical progress has been in good old quantum field theories (QFTs) related to strings through duality and higher dimensions (including branes). We should also go back to string theory's origins as a "rubber-band" picture of quarks bound inside hadrons by chromodynamic flux tubes. Unlike electrodynamics, the color force does not decrease with distance, but becomes constant. That looks like a string under tension, and hadronic strings form the basis of a good effective theory for strong interactions under restricted kinematic conditions.

String theorists should take the hint. Gauge theories can be formulated in terms of flux lines. Is string theory (or brane theory) an effective theory of extended blobs occurring in a more basic gauge-like theory, but one that is background-independent, i.e., does not assume a fixed spacetime background? Such irreducible flux blobs abound in nonstring approaches to quantum gravity, like loop QG and spin networks. They begin with elementary events, the atoms of spacetime, then add a causal structure and a topology. Space and time as we know them emerge from these more primitive elements. They're not assumed as they are in string theories. True QG theories fully respect the symmetries of general relativity and are background- independent by construction. They also keep the zero-wavelength divergences that typically plague QFTs from ever happening in the first place, because spacetime has an atomic structure.

This whole conclusion should not come as a surprise - string theory was invented by particle theorists, for whom gravity and general relativity are usually tacked on as an afterthought. Particle theorists look at the world through the prism of elementary particles and subnuclear gauge forces (electromagnetic, weak, strong). Strings apparently allow a common language of gauge and gravity forces (open and closed strings), but only to low order in the perturbation series. OTOH, QG theorists do know how to cope with gravity as a full theory in its own right, but tend to shove matter and non-gravitational forces into the stress-energy tensor as an afterthought. Maybe that should change.

More is needed for these approaches to constitute a theory of everything. General relativity is a theory of spacetime, while particle physics tells us about matter and energy. There's a third category, sometimes ignored in such discussions, that needs attention: information. We already have a theory of information and its evil twin, entropy, called thermodynamics. We already know general relativity is connected to thermodynamics, e.g., black hole and other horizon entropies. But the usual concept of information is too restricted. The information in a physical system requires initial and boundary conditions, which in a dynamical theory of spacetime, cannot be specified in the usual way. Perhaps horizons have some connection to this and also to the so-called "holographic principle" (everything inside a system is specified by its boundary).

There is also the information embedded in the phases and other properties of the non-gravitational dynamics. This information has to be protected from quantum decoherence at the Planck scale. There should be some effective symmetry that does so. Perhaps the symmetry is not exact and is broken at some tiny level that can be measured, either in the laboratory or through astrophysical measurements.

We also need to generalize standard quantum mechanical concepts in an appropriate way to cope with gravity. For example, the vacuum cannot be the ground state in the usual sense. It's not the state of lowest energy, since the spacetime is dynamical, and there are no energy states. Perhaps we can substitute with cosmologies of maximal symmetry. If such maximal symmetries are overwhelmingly probable ones, then that explains why we're in the universe we're in. Perhaps the universe starts in an ensemble of horizons, then evolves towards the universe of maximal symmetry. QG should also have a "ceiling state" as well, a state of minimal symmetry. These might also be defined in terms of curvature: smallest curvature, largest curvature.

Such issues are connected to the cosmological constant question and why it's nonzero but very small. The answer to that question will probably connect the quantum properties of spacetime (the smallest events) to the global properties of spacetime - that is, the whole universe (the largest event).

A short and not-too-technical review of nonstring approaches to quantum gravity can be found in Lee Smolin's article in the November 2006 Physics Today (requires subscription). In spite of the incompleteness of non-string theories of quantum gravity, they have led to real predictions that can be measured, without appeal to multiverses. These theories include semiclassical canonical QG (black hole thermodynamics, Hawking radiation, gravitational back-reaction in high-curvature situations) and the spin network and loop QG approaches (extensions of Poincaré invariance, small breakings of fundamental symmetries, a suppressed but nonzero cosmological constant). Here, for all its limitations, is real progress, unlike strings. Unfortunately, most of this progress is happening outside the US, because American fundamental theoretical physics is still in the deadly grip of string/M-theory.

The full story can be found in Smolin's friendly, readable, but sometimes-heavy-going The Trouble with Physics. Smolin cares about fundamental physics and about why it's floundering. His primary point is not to bash string theory, although he deftly dismantles the twenty-year-long hype surrounding it. He states clearly the critical contribution string theory has made to unifying subnuclear gauge forces with gravity (the open and closed strings), but also makes clear string theory's otherwise consistent failure to answer any fundamental questions about phyiscs.

Smolin uses the term "craftspeople" for the majority of physicists; the technical virtuosos of physics are the cream of the crop of these craftspeople. A much smaller, but critical, group is now missing in academia, and those are what Smolin calls the "seers." Einstein and Bohr were seers: they saw and outlined the peaks that the virtuosos then climb up and over, better and better. Filling in the gap between seers and craftspeople is a third group that Smolin misses, one that might be called "valleycrossers." They are the critical group that takes the visions of the seers and turns them into reliable machinery for "normal" science. They also serve as forerunners of scientific revolutions, because they identify connections that no one saw before. And they pursue interdisciplinary science that ignores academic boundaries, which nature knows nothing of. Science adds up to far more than its separate branches because of them. If the seers have visions of mountain peaks and virtuosos compete with one another's climbing skills, the valleycrossers are the first to make the actual journey from old peaks to new ones. They discover or make the paths that later virtuosos follow and hone to perfection. The present sociological structure of academic physics renders them an endangered species.

Smolin smartly uses these concepts in analyzing the pathology of institutionalized and academic science in the last part of his book. In it, he explains how and why the scientific situation degenerated into the desperate condition it's in now: the sociological forces driven by the structure and hierarchy of academia, the funding agencies, and the peer-review system. This system gives us, and can only give us, more technical virtuosos who can't grasp foundational questions or who wilfully ignore them. For physics to get out of this deadend, that situation has to change.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

The anthropic principle and why it's not science

The anthropic principle (AP) has a number of forms and variants, but in essence, it connects the overall form and evolution of the universe with the existence of life, the existence of intelligent life, and/or with the existence of us. Stated as an empirical fact, we are here, and all the preconditions for our existence obviously place a constraint on theories we might invent to explain the universe. This version of the AP seems like an empty truism, but, like all truisms, it is true. The critical point is that such a meaningful principle is a statement about theories or explanations, not about universes. Then at least, the principle is applied in a way that be verified or falsified. Falsifiability is critical: only if your theory can be proven wrong, can you really be sure that it's right.

Starting in the 1970s, a different and nonscientific form of the AP gained popularity in some quarters as a statement about possible universes, rather than theories. One form, vaguely theistic or at least teleological, states that the universe takes on the form it does so that we can be here. Another form, recently popular among string theorists unable to sort through the apparently very large or even infinite number of possible string theories, states that every string theory is realized in some (unobservable) universe, a small piece of a multiverse. Yet another form posits the existence of new universes evolving from old ones and "selected" by the presence of life.

A number of well-known scientists have tried to claim successfully using anthropic reasoning to arrive at nontrivial conclusions, but none of the examples presented really do that. They use some general property of the cosmos (the presence of carbon, the age of the universe, etc.) to arrive at these conclusions, and none of them require life, much less intelligent life, as a necessary assumption. The originators of the anthropic principle had more explicitly teleological or theological goals in mind, and they were at least honest about the role that religious faith or teleology played in their thinking. (Teleology might prove correct, after all - we don't know enough now to say.) The most recent version is driven by another faith, faith in string theory. The requirement that string theory "must" be right, combined with the failure to produce any complete, consistent, and predictive string theories, has led theoretical physicists to this impasse.

Some have even claimed that we must accept anthropic reasoning or be doomed to accepting Intelligent Design (ID) theory. This is strictly a tempest in a teapot: ID is a type of AP reasoning and, like all such anthropic thinking, has no place in science. We have no alternative universes to compare ours to, so the endeavor is futile.

Besides the lack of observability, a more subtle problem invalidates the AP. Lacking a complete theory that could specify and enumerate possible universes, we have no way of identifying and counting what these universes could be. As mathematicians say, we lack a "measure on the space" of possibilities. Our universe could be one of a large number of random possibilities. ("Random" means: all possibilities are equally likely.) But we don't know the possibilities - we have no non-repetitive and exhaustive list, and no way to assign probabilities. No one knows whether our universe is "likely," or even what that would mean.

It's a sign of how misguided AP advocates are when you consider that, in various forms, it's used by religious fundamentalists, teleological types, and secular academic physicists, all to rescue their respective pet theories from being "not even wrong." The fact of our existence tells you that the Universe has to have a certain age, a certain structure, and the presence of life on one planet that we know of. Any theory not compatible with these facts is ruled out - that's it. No multiverses, no alternate realities, and so on. Whether it proves the existence of G-d is not something rationally decidable. That's why religion involves faith.

(I'm not arguing here against religious faith - humans couldn't live without faith in something: faith in G-d, faith in the future, faith in reason, and so on. I'm just saying it's not definitive and precise knowledge based on experience, which is, after all, what science is about.)

In brief, appeal to the AP and multiverses is not science. We know for sure what we know about the world based on the evidence of the senses and the reasoning based on that evidence. Although scientists use technical and specialized concepts and instruments to pursue knowledge, at the end of the day, they're operating with the same framework as everyone else. If the anthropic principle is about possible universes, we've left the realm of science for speculative metaphyiscs, theology, or science fiction.

Why is this happening?

The current invocation of the anthropic principle is a desperate fad among string theorists to evade the fact that no unique string theory has turned up, and there are no mathematical demonstrations of a unique or even set of realistic solutions to these non-existent "theories." Of all possible theories, they say, all are real, "somewhere". This is nonsense. Any outsider would have to rub his eyes in astonishment to see respected and talented scientific figures playing such games.

POSTSCRIPT: The deadend failure of string theory, what most theorists have devoted the last generation of theoretical physics to, drives this latest outbreak of anthropic lunacy. Theorists want to continue believing in it, even though it's obviously going nowhere. A crisp and illuminating new book by Lee Smolin (himself a quantum gravity theorist) politely but decisively dismantles string theory claims and explains not only what's gone wrong in physics, but why classical scientific self-correction mechanisms have been short-circuited in the postmodern university. I'll discuss Smolin's book in an upcoming posting.

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Friday, November 17, 2006

Climate change: Foreplay

Binah has been asked a number of times to share his views on climate change and the "global warming" hysteria we've all been subjected to for the last 15 years. To discuss this subject properly would take a long sequence of interconnected blog postings,* but I have some foretastes to offer that readers can dig into on their own.

An excellent summary of climate observations, historical climate studies, and the intense politicization of the subject can be found in this public Senate white paper (PDF format). The author is Joe D'Aleo, a former official of the American Meteorological Society and a co-founder of the Weather Channel. (His document was part of Senate testimony that included Ben Herman, one of the founders of satellite-based climate observation, and Bill Gray, one of the founders of the modern science of hurricanes.) A deeper, more theoretical discussion is the wonderful book of Essex and McKitrick, Taken By Storm. Read it and learn about the 1D, 2D, and 3D cartoon mouse!

The entire subject is a case study in the disgraceful nature and nauseating aftereffects of politically-correct "science," a mix of careerism, cynicism, manipulation, fanaticism, and fear. It's not new. What's refreshing is that more and more scientists are fed up with it and no longer intimidated by the hysterics. Instead, they're dumping their guts - their scientific consciences - in public.

And of course, everyone should read Michael Crichton's shredding of "consensus science," a euphemism for "organized makebelieve and prejudice." Real science doesn't need "consensus." The politically-driven manufacture of "consensus" is what got us into this mess in the first place. Can climate science survive and recover from this hideous episode?
* Starting: here!

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Yet more unreal realism

UPDATE: The realists' influence on Bush is growing, even as their views increasingly disconnect from reality. Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post explains why, with the Middle East, there's no going back to old illusions and policies.
The real source of the Bush administration's coming policy changes in Iraq and elsewhere is not the new Democratic Congress, but the Baker commission. Baker in some ways is already a shadow Secretary of State. Bush is falling back on Daddy and Daddy's friends to bail him out of a tight spot.

Baker and Bush Sr. are supposed to be "realists," yet they demonstrate the same sort of delusional thinking that realists exhibited at the time of the Persian Gulf War or the Suez Crisis. Now we hear that Baker wants to involve Iran and Syria in patching up Iraq and drawing down the US presence there. Remember the Pentagon's original plan was five years, entry in 2003, exit in 2008. We're sixteen months away from March 2008, and that's the (rough) deadline. But involving Iran and Syria will only guarantee a generation of civil war in Iraq and turn that country in a larger version of Lebanon. The Shiites will fall into orbit around Iran. The Sunni "insurgency," supposedly "just like Vietnam," will actually lose - badly - to the Shiites. America's Sunni allies (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, etc.) are now in a panic. Many Iraqi Sunnis will be begging the US to stay, not to leave, once they "get it" - that is, get what's going to happen to them.

Don't expect Nancy Pelosi to understand any of this, of course. Sunnis and Shiites are not liberal pressure groups that donate to the Democratic party, so she's not interested. The Democrats in Congress are incompetently led and will be badly divided in any case, on any number of fracture lines, so their effect will be: not much. There's little the congressional party can do, except inflict a McCarthyite moment on the rest of us: bogus hearings, "I have a list" demagoguery, and tiresome conspiracy theories.

The Democrats do have an historic opportunity, with their new "blue dogs," to change the orientation of their party. But keeping Pelosipalooza in charge will just remind everyone of why they've been voting Republican for the last 25+ years in the first place. If the Democrats don't take heed, they will be rudely reminded again in 2008 by another voter rebellion. Signature liberal positions on gay marriage, gun control, and eminent domain continue to be pummeled. And remember what happened to Clinton in 1994: a serious misreading of a volatile, populist-leaning electorate by a liberal president and establishment media.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Where do we go from here?

In my last pre-election post, I bemoaned the political situation in the US as one party getting it wrong and the other not getting it at all. I didn't make any predictions, but the election results were more favorable to the Democrats than I expected. It looks as if they might control both houses (counting Lieberman as a Democrat). Expect two years of gridlock. (A better outcome would have been a Dem Senate and Rep House, but, oh well.) I think my mistaken view was based on concentraing too much on Bush and Iraq. This election was, of course, about Congress, not Bush, and voters have lots of good reasons to be very unhappy with the congressional Republicans. We also live in an era of rapid political cycling. What used to take years now takes months. But there are implications beyond Congress nonetheless.

There will be intense pressure on Bush to force Rumsfeld out and to leave Iraq as quickly as possible, by 2008 at the latest. (The Pentagon's original timetable for Iraq was to leave in 2008 anyway.) Iraq will move from a half-baked civil war to a fully-baked one, and Iran will effectively control the southern half of Iraq, to the extent that anyone controls it. It's been the case that American foreign policy since 9/11 has been strangely favorable to Iranian interests, and the Iranian government has been both riled up by American intervention in the region, but at the same time, liberated by the removal of two regimes (the Taliban and Saddam) that they viewed as threats. Even with the recent drops in oil prices, expect Iran to feel its oats as never before in the next 2-3 years, running up to the moment when they have functional nuclear weapons. The Iranians are likely not to use those weapons, but once they have them, expect a regional arms race. The Republicans will make big hay out these developments in 2008, especially after soldiers start returning from Iraq and embarass the Democrats. But the Republicans can't expect voters to give them a free pass on spectacular incompetence forever.

More generally, especially after 2008, expect a gradual American withdrawal from global commitments. The Democrats are still in the confused state of having no foreign policy and most of them still look back nostalgically on the post-1945 era of America leading willing allies. What they don't realize yet is that the post-1945 liberal internationalist era, with its institutions, processes, and so on, is dying, if not dead already. The US will be in less and less of position to prevent regional arms races, regional conflicts, and trade wars. American foreign policy is headed towards a much narrower construal of US interests. Democrats, once the party of foreign affairs, have largely lost interest in the rest of the world. The implication is that US allies will have to start figuring out their own futures and redeveloping their own military and foreign policies. Expect regional instability in east Asia, for example, a much lower profile for the US in the Middle East, and a polite American write-off of Europe. Unilateral Israeli action has already become more comon, with no imaginary pot-at-the-end-of-the-rainbow "peace process." The whole range of Middle East conflicts has now gone full circle back to being religious, not nationalistic. Few in the US really understand this yet, but we soon will.

The voter mood in the US hasn't suddenly become more liberal. The large number of conservative or "blue-dog" Democrats winning in this election indicates something else, roughly similar to the early 1990s. The voter mood is populist - anti-free-trade, anti-immigration, and suspicious of foreign policy involvements. The Republicans have stirred the expectations of populist voters, then disappointed or angered them. That's a sure way for politicians to get into trouble. Read what George Will has to say: The Iraq war, like the Alaska bridge, pungently proclaims how Republicans earned their rebuke. They are guilty of apostasy from conservative principles at home (frugality, limited government) and embrace of anti-conservative principles abroad (nation-building grandiosity pursued incompetently).

POSTSCRIPT: Rumsfeld has resigned. His apparent successor, Robert Gates, has a tough job ahead of him, pulling out American troops from a country with an accelerating civil war. Unlike Vietnam, the so-called (Sunni) "insurgency" will not win, but will be crushed by the Iranian-backed triumph of the Shi'ites. Within a couple years, Iraq will be three countries. American relations with key Sunni allies (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt) will be strained beyond anything seen before.

Expect darkness to reign in the Middle East for the next while, starting with another war in Lebanon, superficially against Israel, but in reality to break Lebanon for good. The same forces will be at work in Iraq.

Thoughts-in-parallel from Michael Totten.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Weird science redux

Binah is a fancy-pants scientist with a PhD from a major university. That' s why I leave all the true science blogging to him. Maybe one day he'll be a talking head on Nova. That frees me up to comment on pseudo-science. Maybe one day I'll be a talking head on the E! Channel.

In his "Weird Science" blog post below, Binah dashes my hope for true tele-transportation of matter. Admittedly, I had a sneaking suspicion since the age of eight that Kirk, Spock and Bones were not really being disassembled and reassembled while tripping the beam fantastic. Now, Binah's post has made me think more deeply on the topic, raising the horrific realization that the Enterprise crew's persons and souls were actually irreversibly decomposed into subatomic dust upon their maiden beaming. As a result, the protagonists we enjoyed watching over all those episodes were merely clones of the originals!

Don't beam me up, Scotty! I'll take the shuttle.


Weird science

Every couple years, there's another one of those quantum teleportation stories in the media. They frequently make it sound as if the latest research breakthrough is the first in this area (which it's not) and they often obscure the fact that it's really "tele-copying" that is being discussed.

Matter and radiation (atoms and photons) are ultimately defined by their quantum state. This state is specified by the list of physical variables. Classically, these would be position, velocity, orbital angular momentum, and spin angular momentum, as well as charge. In quantum mechanics, the state is typically specified by position, radial and orbital quantum numbers, spin quantum numbers, and charges. For photons, it's simpler: a photon is just its frequency, direction, and polarization (spin). The matter quantum state might be familiar to readers of Kavanna from high school or college chemistry.

Quantum copying amounts to "reading" the quantum state of atoms and photons, then impressing this state on another set of atoms and photons elsewhere. The earliest forms of quantum teleportation required destroying the original while making the copy. The more recent forms allow copying-without-destroying, as well as copying quantum numbers from matter to radiation and back. The most important applicaton of quantum teleportation lies in quantum cryptography.

See these articles about quantum teleportation, here, here, and here.


Friday, November 03, 2006

The most depressing election ever

American politics has been getting more and more depressing since the late 1990s, with one serious but flawed party (the Republicans) abandoning its guiding ideas in favor of pork, vote-buying, and questionable foreign policy adventures; and the other, unserious party (the Democrats) that's become a hollow joke. Diana West summarizes the foreign policy situation in her column today as one party getting it wrong and the other not getting it at all. With regards to the threat of radical Islam, the right approach is opposition to jihad, not support for democracy. Most politicians in the Western world - emphatically including Bush, his supporters, and the neoconservatives - are too enmeshed in the woozy rhetoric and practice of political correctness to accept and act upon this fact.

Domestically, the Republicans have abandoned the promising conservative reform agenda of the 1990s and embraced big government in astonishing ways. Instead of working to end political correctness and the erosion of intellectual standards in education, they have instituted an expensive and breathtaking federal takeover of American education with a dubious, one-size-fits-all program of incessant testing - the sort of thing you would impose only on failing schools - that threatens to lower everyone to minimal competence. Instead of grabbing the opportunity to start the overdue reform of federal entitlements - phasing in benefit and eligibility changes, replacing the regressive and job-destroying payroll tax with a national sales tax - they added the largest new domestic spending commitment since the Great Society.

But of course, you'll get nothing better from most Democrats, just more of the same: denial that there's any problem with entitlements, and refusal to break with the teachers unions and educational establishment. And the Democrats have, not a bad foreign policy, but none at all. The party instead has been gorging on its diet of juvenile Bush-hatred, with nothing better to feed on. The one glimmer of hope from that side is that so many conservative Democrats are running this time.

One party's wrong, and the other - to borrow from my recent musings on string theory - is not even wrong. What's a voter to do?

The Republicans may redeem themselves in the end - they have great conservative traditions to fall back on, if anyone could awaken them from their current stupor. Some are beginning to realize that the real problem with Islam, is Islam. They only need look back on the history of Christianity and the pivotal role of the Reformation to understand the problem. If they really knew the history of how Islam was spread by coercion and the classical Islamic attitude towards non-Muslims and women, they would understand even better. And they could form a potent alliance with liberals and secularists in consistent opposition to jihad. Unfortunately, Bush's "democratism" threatens to permanently put a serious alternative out of reach.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

More on the unreality of realism

It's not just recently that foreign policy realism has seemed, well, unreal. Fifty years ago, 1956 saw the Hungarian Revolution and the Suez crisis. The latter in particular was a fiasco that has cost us a lot in the years since: the US sided with Nasser's Egypt and the Soviet Union against Britain, France, and Israel over Nasser's illegal seizure of the Anglo-French Suez Canal and his support for Arab guerilla attacks on Israel, just after encouraging, then failing to help, the Hungarians throw off the Soviet yoke.

Eisenhower and especially Dulles undoubtedly thought they were being sophisticated and clever. In fact, what they did was delusional and self-destructive. Later, after he left office, Eisenhower admitted as much.

Instead of explaining it myself, I'll let Arthur Herman and Martin Peretz do the talking. The Suez crisis marked the first cracks in the Western alliance and the start of the grand delusion of pan-Arabism, the immediate ancestor of the pan-Islamic virus.

POSTSCRIPT: About the failed 1956 Hungarian Revolution, see Charles Gati's remarkable new book and his talk on C-SPAN.

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Why America is not an empire

America as empire is nonsense, of course, but there you are. You hear it incessantly from the Left, with its monumental narcissism and historical ignorance. Even people who should know better use the terminology of empire, but only at the price of serious distortion.

What is an empire? An imperial relationship is when people A rules people B without any consent or input from people B. It's a political, not an economic, concept. Empires have been important in the development of civilization because, until the last few centuries, they were the only successful large-scale civilizational units. Only in recent times and certain places, has a new and more advanced type of civilization appeared, one based on common consent and self-interest, undergirded by the "social contract." (See here, here, and here for this all-important feature that makes modern societies modern.) Its characteristic political unit is not the empire, but the nation-state, because its characteristic political principles are individual citizenship and self-rule by representation, not rule by outsiders.

It's useful to be reminded of where actual empires come from and what they look like to clear the air of this pseudo-question. Historically, empires have arisen when a people develops a large advantage over neighboring peoples in organization, technology, surplus wealth, and military prowess. They are typically exporters of surplus people and (with modern empires) of surplus capital. In their mature forms, they are also exporters of political order, as they encounter neighboring peoples who lack the same skill at organization and are often either primitive or decadent. The exported political order might also include culture and religion. This feature requires an aristocracy or at least a class that can function as one.

The most important example in Western history was the Roman empire, an entity that still influences our lives to this day. (Pick out all the Latinate words in this posting.) The Roman empire had two halves, the Greek-speaking East and the (over time) Latin-speaking West. In ancient times, the former was old, wealthy, highly populated and urbanized, but by the time the Romans took over, militarily weak and politically decadent. The latter was new, poor, poorly populated, and agrarian. To the East, the Romans exported political order to a place that could no longer could generate its own. From the East, the Romans imported capital, people, and culture. To the West, the Romans exported order, capital, and high culture to places that never had it. From the West, they imported little except slaves (in the early empire). The Roman empire was, in part, a result of the breakdown of the Roman republic. Imperial institutions replaced republican ones, although the latter lingered on as vestiges. The modern West was hatched in the ruins of the western Roman empire.

The most important modern empire was the British. Unlike the Roman empire, the British was a sea empire, largely based on commerce, with a "light" military presence. Unlike the Romans, the British also (except for the American Revolution) voluntarily phased out their empire, by modifying their imperial rule over non-Britons into partial, then complete, independence. It was the world's first self-liquidating empire, a tribute to the Britons' own system of representative government at home. During the era of the British empire, this representative system grew stronger, deeper, and broader, and many British imperial possessions inherited some form of it. The self-demolition of the British empire was not totally voluntary: some Britons wanted to hold on to it. But Britain's bankruptcy after World War II forced the issue.

America's sole experience with empire came in the wake of the Spanish-American war (1898-1900),when it came to control three former Spanish colonies, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. Each one was treated differently and had different fates. Because the United States is a republic, it could not claim indefinite rule over these possessions, and it didn't. Each one was put on the road to political independence after World War I. American involvement was longest, deepest, and most successful in the Philippines, where the Filipinos were promised independence during World War II for their loyalty in fighting the Japanese (and they did fight, fiercely). They became independent in 1946. The Puerto Ricans eventually rejected independence in favor of a semi-imperial relationship, where Puerto Rico has internal self-government, and external foreign policy and military matters are taken care of by the American federal government, with significant amounts of federal money flowing in on net. The least successful was Cuba, which was prematurely cut loose from the US in 1934 and immediately turned into a dictatorship (Batista), overthrown in 1959 by the Soviet-oriented revolutionary Castro. Cuba today is a half-finished imperial project abandoned by two superpowers and ruled by a dictator who's turned the island into a tropical prison.

America is the world's dominant power and its remaining superpower. It's fair to call it a "hegemon" (a legitimate word sometimes used pejoratively). It is the linchpin of the civilized world's security and economic system. That does not make it all-powerful in some absolute sense. American foreign policy has largely focused on exporting international order, while leaving internal order within countries up to those countries, with a few exceptions (Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia). Exporting international order is much easier and well within American capabilities. Imposing internal order within countries is much harder and probably beyond anyone's power.

It follows that, while America is powerful yet not omnipotent, America needs friends and allies to help. The help is in our interests and theirs, often much more in theirs. This is the type of "hegemony" to be expected of a superpower nation-state in a world of other nation-states. It is based on the reality and legitimacy of the nation-state system, yet recognizing that some nations are much more powerful and critical to the system than others.

But American dominance has evolved in a curious and unhealthy way in Europe, the Middle East, and east Asia, where many countries have abandoned the ability to defend themselves and developed significant problems with political legitimacy. They have come to rely on the US and yet resent that dependence. The current agony we're in now is the result of other countries' backing away from military defense and foreign policy, figuring, let the US do it - and, let the US take the heat. Here is the crux of why people feel America is an "empire," even though it isn't: it's become a republic with a quasi-imperial role, an uncomfortable and unsustainable situation. Americans, both ordinary voters and foreign policy experts, were unprepared for this post-Cold War development. The US military is too small to serve as an imperial force and depends on allies able and willing to pull their own weight. But apart from a handful of exceptions, many American "allies" are actually "military welfare" cases. The US can fill this void only imperfectly and suffers, in some sense, from imperial understretch. (Yes, you read that right.)

But the solution is not to try to turn America into an empire, an impossible goal in any case. America is a middle-class, commercial republic, as well as a net importer of capital and people, three facts enough to kill the "empire" conceit. And it has no aristocratic imperial class or ethos - such things are foreign to American culture and society, fueled as they are by immigrants who all must get along within a framework of political and legal equality.

So let's hear no more of it: we're not an empire, never were, and aren't becoming one. We certainly shouldn't try. The real question is: can our relationship with our so-called allies be changed? And can they police their own corners of the globe and take control of their fates?

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John Kerry, patrician airhead

John Kerry, the Democrats' presidential candidate in 2004, is a complete retard who can't keep his mouth shut. He was the "accidental candidate" and a pretty pathetic one at that. Trouble is, he still thinks he's important.

What's remarkable is what the 2004 election says about Bush, being able to beat such a weak opponent only 51-49. Zogby wrote a year ago about a post-election poll he had taken: In our new poll, every president since Carter defeats Bush. But Kerry still loses to Bush by one point. What am I missing here? Kerry happened to be liberal enough, but he wasn't Howard Dean, proven poison and doped up on his own arrogance.

Some Minnesota guardsmen in Iraq had this amusing response to Kerry.

P.S. No blogging recently as Binah has been very busy with personal life. Hope to return to active blogging soon. There's always more to say!

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