21st Century Blues

By Matthew Hutchings on September 29, 2014

image courtesy of Brendan Smialowski

As humans, we inhabit two worlds. The first one exists in upscale coffee shops in safe neighborhoods, in college classrooms, high-minded political functions, think tanks and celebrity fundraising galas. It is the world as it “ought to be”.

The second world exists in crowded slums, refugee camps, unemployment offices and mass graves. This is the world as it is.

The two worlds have a close working relationship and occasionally bump elbows. However, at the end of the day they are two fundamentally different things, and one is significantly more real than the other. Unfortunately for their citizens, many Western leaders now live more in the world of “ought to be” than they do in reality.

In their mind, the UN and a system of international rules that was developed during the Cold War and first truly debuted after the fall of the Berlin Wall a mere two decades ago is now firmly in place, when in reality it is still very fragile and very provisional. Not only is a legitimately stable international order still in the prototype phase, challenges to this order which is based on diplomacy and cooperation cannot be met by diplomacy and cooperation alone.

Threats like ISIS do not hold truck with diplomacy and must be met the old-fashioned way. No American president in his right mind would risk a UN Security Council veto from Russia and China on an operation that he considers vital to US interests. While this is an inherently logical and necessary conclusion, it also reveals the hypocrisy of labeling the 21st century as a unique new era of peace and diplomacy and international cooperation while at the same time pursuing military operations that prove that this era has not yet dawned.

On March 2nd of this year as Russia began it’s conquest of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, John Kerry had this to say: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped up pretext.”

This is a common refrain from the Obama Administration. Apparently, the commander in chief is such a gosh-darn reasonable guy that other countries will automatically come around to his way of viewing things as well. Apparently, we have also forgotten about Iraq, which will stand for all time as the classic example of an invasion based on fabricated pretenses. This resulted not just in a border change, but regime change as well.

On June 22nd, 2011, in a speech on Afghanistan Obama said “Yet tonight, we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding.” The president wishes to take credit for winding down the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he certainly has a right to, but he also wishes to link this to his philosophy of foreign policy that puts diplomacy without the threat of force forward as the main tool with which to deal with foreign countries.

And yet at the same time he castigates Russia for behavior befitting the 19th century great powers and their endless schemes of conquest, he is waging a very un-21st century bombing campaign against a terrorist organization whose primary goal is to bring it’s subjects back to the 7th century and who consider severed heads as an appropriate analog to diplomacy and negotiation.

How often we westerners forget, while sitting in our climate controlled homes that the entire concept of civilized relations and international cooperation between countries as a solemn duty backed by the force of law is a very recent development.

Other developments have indeed made this century less violent than the twentieth in terms of raw body count, but we are barely 14 years into it, and that could change in a heartbeat. The Obama Administration is right to note that technological trends like the video camera and cable television and the internet and air travel have brought everything in the world closer to our everyday lives and made the entire earth one big neighborhood. The only reason this has resulted in less bloodshed is that the bloodshed is much louder and more widely transmitted, and therefore outside forces intervene more quickly.

There are currently no less than 43 ongoing armed conflicts around the world. 22 of these have been going on since before the 21st century. In the same 14-year period at the beginning of the 20th century, there were 38 armed conflicts that occurred, a good many of which were resolved in a year or less than a year.

So clearly while the number of bodies is decreasing, the number of actual conflicts is increasing. The tide of war is not receding. Fareed Zakaria claims in a Washington Post article that because the number of conflicts that resulted in border changes has decreased, this means we are in a new era:

“Almost all of these critics have ridiculed Secretary of State John Kerry’s assertion that changing borders by force, as Russia did, is 19th-century behavior in the 21st century. Well, here are the facts. Scholar Mark Zacher has tallied up changes of borders by force, something that was once quite common. Since World War I, he notes, that practice has sharply declined, and in recent decades, that decline has accelerated. Before 1950, wars between nations resulted in border changes (annexations) about 80 percent of the time. After 1950, that number dropped to 27 percent. In fact, since 1946, there have been only 12 examples of major changes in borders using force — and all of them before 1976. So Putin’s behavior, in fact, does belong to the 19th century.”

By narrowly defining this odious “19th-century behavior” as only conflicts in which borders change, and then claiming that the decreasing numbers show that conflict as a whole is on the decline, Fareed claims to have proved his point. His reasoning is patently dishonest, but then again you probably shouldn’t be reading the Washington Post editorial column if honesty is what you are searching for.

So on the one hand we have our current administration, it’s cheerleaders, and it’s ideas about how the world ought to be. Their goals might be noble, and maybe even achievable in our lifetime, but in the end all nations must engage in “19th-century behavior” from time to time, especially the United States.

Being a gentleman on the world stage is a luxury, and doubly so when your nation has positioned itself through military action as the final, ultimate arbiter of world events. That position is bound to put us in situations in which we must partake in the very things we officially profess to despise, and it will put us there again, and again, and again.

Perhaps the visionaries are right, and this new dawn of peace and diplomacy is coming, but it is not going to happen today, and not tomorrow either, and it is probably not going to happen next week or next month or next year. It will be a slow transition, and it will have to be guarded against people like Putin and Al-Baghdadi with every ounce of “19th century” martial spirit we can muster.

I'm a transfer student, an aspiring writer, and a banana slug. I like to slide around among the leaf litter because it keeps me cool and moist. My favorite sport is global politics, and I always stay up on how my teams are doing. If I'm not at the burrito place or walking in the woods you can catch me staring at news feeds and hitting F5 like it was the treat dispenser button.

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