Saturday, July 07, 2007

The approaching Age of Quarantine

A previous posting discussed the fate of modernization and integration outside the Western world since World War One. The most recent episode of "globalization," in the 1990s, was an extension of the earlier waves, but it also failed in some signal ways. Attempts to widen the circle beyond Asia, eastern Europe, and Latin America have created a lot of problems - in the Middle East especially.

Many countries are clearly not ready for integration, and others constitute borderline cases. Some of the latter, India and Brazil, while not "core" yet, are clearly on their way. Others like Russia have angrily rejected real economic integration in favor of natural resource monopoly dictatorship and a political class drawn increasingly from and into criminal gangsterism. Yet again, there's the great question mark of China, which is making rapid economic progress, but which is also not socially or politically ready for globalization. Right now, it's a good businessman, but not a good citizen. Then there are the agonizing borderline cases like Mexico and Turkey - not destitute or failed countries, but not fully modern either, and struggling hard.

Another signal of "globalization-gone-too-far" is the rise of nuclear proliferation, as explained in William Langewiesche's new The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor. If sushi is the happy face of globalization, the nuclear suq of A. Q. Khan is definitely the unhappy frown. A more practical look at this issue is John Robb's fine Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization.

As we back away from "globalization-gone-too-far," a greater unity of the West is important, to defend what we are, while avoiding any fantastical notions that we can "force others to be free." The last couple years have seen encouraging signs of maturation from the Europeans on these points and, at a different angle, from us. But for the Europeans, it's more important: it is they, not we Americans, who are much more under the gun. We face the threat of physical attacks alone. They face that threat (far more than the US media ever reports), but the real threat to them is political - and down the road, possibly even existential, like the kind of threat that Israelis face. An Islamist politician peacefully winning an election in, say, Holland is as much a defeat as some jihadi blowing himself up on the subway. Wars always are driven by political conflict in the final analysis - otherwise, World War Two was just a "war on submarines" and the Cold War just a "war on ICBMs." And political conflict can be expressed in many ways - violence is just an extreme version.

Some thinkers wrongly believe that worldwide globalization is here already and try to back this claim up with false theories of economic determinism. Modernization/globalization/democratization/etc. is fundamentally a political phenomenon - even a moral one - before it's an economic trend. It has economic consequences, of course, but that's not the root of it. In the 1990s, Thomas Friedman also pushed this idea, less emphatically (because he knew how naive it is), and he's since backed away from it in any case.

The first great age of globalization came to a fiery and bloody end in 1914, setting the twentieth century off on its disastrous course. World War One discredited the political-economic system that had made the stunning human progress from the late 17th century possible. It enabled extremist political movements to seize power and implement deadly agendas of social "improvement" through mass murder, first in Europe, then elsewhere. From 1945 on, emerging from its isolationist shell, the US led the creation of a more stable framework for global economic and security integration - designed solely for North America, western Europe, and Japan - and rejecting the European imperial system that once had partly integrated non-Western parts of the world. In the 1980s, Latin America was cautiously added, although not without serious problems. By the end of the 1980s, east Asia and eastern Europe were added, more successfully.*

But the attempt to extend this system to Africa and the Middle East has failed. Whether these regions really want integration is hard to tell - there are many conflicting signs and trends. Whether they're ready or not is more clear: no, they're not. In the case of the Middle East, the Israelis, with their security "fence," have stumbled on what is likely to become the template for what you might call the coming Age of Quarantine.** Far from being a monstrous deviation, the "Fence" is a harbinger of things to come. It will, I predict, become a master paradigm for politics in the next generation, as evidenced by Thailand and the European rejection of Turkey as a full member of the EU.†

The collapse of the immigration bill is another sign - the reason is simple: the overwhelming majority of Americans are opposed to it. Unfortunately, our political and media elites are 10, 20, or 30 years out of touch with reality on this and other issues. Only the rise of talk radio and the spread of the Web has made it possible for many people to check the biased, myopic, and self-interested actions and propaganda of politicians, lobbyists, and the media. It is a defeat for Bush, but it's really a defeat for the whole political class.

There was never anything inevitable or "economically determined" about globalization. It was always a political project, pushed primarily by the US and supported by certain key allies, like Britain and Japan, rooted historically in the Anglo-American vision of a peaceful international order based on what used to be called "enlightened self-interest," trade, and other forms of peaceful cooperation - projected internationally by Wilson and Roosevelt. It is a noble vision. But contrary to a dominant strain of 19th century thinking and modern libertarian fantasy, the necessary political framework does not happen automatically - it needs constant leadership and active protection. That was one of the harsh lessons of the World Wars and the Great Depression. It also needs enough sense to see when it's been pushed too far or inappropriately into places and to degrees beyond what people are ready and willing to accept.
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* I'm counting Israel as part of eastern Europe, which it is in some ways, not just historically, but economically as well - its profile fits moderately-high-income countries like Greece or Poland.

** Certainly all subsequent events in the Palestinian areas, especially in Gaza, have borne out this Israeli hunch. The Palestinians are not only not ready for peace with Israel, they're not even ready for peace with themselves. Some of them are now fleeing to Israel, while Hamas has sacked Yasser Arafat's house in Gaza and carted off his undeserved Nobel Peace Prize.

The "Jordanian" and "Egyptian" options for caretaker roles are looking more likely and attractive by the day. Such a development would bury for good the false promise started at Madrid in 1991.

† Thailand now has an Israeli-built fence with Malaysia, to stop jihadi groups from filtering over the border. And incredibly, Saudi Arabia is building a security fence (making indirect use of Israeli technology and know-how!) to wall out the violent anarchy of neighboring Yemen.

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