Friday, November 05, 2004

Wright and Wrong

I'm not sure how I missed this long Robert Wright piece on fighting terrorism. It was written between 12/3/02 and 12/13/02 and certainly a great deal has happened between now and then. I last met Wright at a panel discussion where I was deeply unimpressed by his contributions.

There are two nice features to his (very long) Slate piece: 1) He highlighted the key propositions and key policy prescriptions in a way that makes the argument easy to summarize, and 2) it was written a while ago so we can see how some things worked out.

Below I have his propositions and prescriptions. I've used his wording throughout, and where there was ambiguity, I've added additional excerpts that clarify this meaning.

- Al-Qaida and radical Islam are not the problem.
- For the foreseeable future, smaller and smaller groups of intensely motivated people will have the ability to kill larger and larger numbers of people.
- The number of intensely aggrieved groups will almost certainly grow in the coming decades of rapid technological, and hence social, change.
- The amount of discontent in the world is becoming a highly significant national-security variable.
- The current phase in the evolution of information technology is anti-repression.
- The problem isn't poor people; the problem—or at least part of the problem— is poor nations—or, at least, underglobalized nations.
- Globalization, though a large part of the solution, is also a large part of the problem.
- Globalization has doubly bad short-term side effects, bringing transitional alienation to both developing and developed nations.
- We are seeing, and will continue to see, the globalization of resentment. ("Thanks to television and other technologies, the world has become a small town, even a neighborhood, and America is by far the richest kid in it. Do you remember how you felt about the richest kid in your neighborhood?")
- The lines separating domestic policing and foreign policing, national security and international security, are rapidly blurring.
- The force is with us but only so long as we see and respect its power ("Moral progress is directly rooted in technological progress. Technological advances, ever since the Stone Age, have correlated the fortunes of people at ever-greater distances. [That is, technological progress has put people in more long-distance "non-zero-sum" relationships, if you want to describe this historical trajectory technically, as I've been known to do]. And the result is a growing interdependence that translates enlightened self-interest into an expanding circle of moral consideration")
- Understanding where technology is moving us in the long run can save us lots of short-run turmoil. ("Could Europe have averted some of the chaos brought on by the age of print? Suppose that the pope had grasped the pluralizing import of the printing press back in the 16th century and had gracefully made reforms to accommodate the restive masses. Or suppose that four centuries later, on the eve of World War I, the rulers of the Austro-Hungarian empire had realized that to keep suppressing Balkan nationalism in the age of print wasn't practical. Could World War I have been averted?")

Policy Prescriptions
- Take your bitter medicine early ("So, if there are burdens we can bear now—in money, even in lives—that will dampen future terrorism, they're probably worth it.")
- The substance of policies should be subjected to a new kind of appraisal, one that explicitly accounts for the discontent and hatred the policies arouse.
- The ultimate target is memes; killing or arresting people is useful only to the extent that it leads to a net reduction in terrorism memes.
- In a war on terrorism, applying force inconspicuously makes sense more often than in regular wars
- Support free expression and, ultimately, democratization in authoritarian Arab and other Muslim states.
- Emphasize trade at least as heavily as aid in fighting the kind of economic deprivation that breeds terrorism.
- To blunt some of globalization's sharper edges, carry political governance beyond the level of the nation-state, to the transnational level.
- Honor President Bush's pledge—make America a humble nation.
- Share the blame. ("Invite allies to participate more fully in the conspicuous application of violence.")
- Develop a serious international inspection system for biological weapons.
- Use the World Trade Organization as the fulcrum for ensuring compliance with international weapons-control law.
- Imagine how biotechnology would have to be policed in all nations for the United States to feel secure 20 years from now; implement and then continually refine that policing strategy in the United States, while beginning the long, laborious task of getting every other nation on the planet to eventually adopt a comparable system.

While I agree with all of his propositions, I think many of his policy prescriptions make no sense. Like Wright, I agree that technology is enabling ever smaller groups to mount ever more dangerous attacks. I also agree that these disenfrachised groups come from repressive societies that 1) fail and 2) do not provide constructive outlets for feelings of frustration. Globalization both intensifies the accuteness of failure (now you can compare yourself to others and see how failed you really are) but also, ultimately, provides the solution (an integrated country with decent personal freedoms will both succeed and channel frustration efficiently). The last proposition, about being able to guess at the first world war from the invention of the printing press is simply ludicrous, although I think such preternatural foresight would be cool too.

His policy prescriptions seem to be centered around dodging blame, pushing freedom, and using transnational actors to push through good rules.

While I am all for the US dodging blame, I am not sure why any other country would want to play along (unless they were ideologically sympatico). I read an article recently where the author argued that the Arab world rallied around Bin Laden when Clinton scolded him for blowing up US embassies in Africa. The fact that Clinton paid attention to this guy and his bombing attacks were what made him #1. If that truly is the dynamic behind the blame, then it seems the key to getting the target of the US's back is to create competitive political systems in Arab countries -- then you have an entire structured section of soceity blaming the guys in charge -- something absolutely foreign to Arabs currently.

The "pushing freedom" prescription was not something that Wright seemed to back in Chicago, when he said he was opposed to the Iraq war. I'm not sure how Wright thinks open markets and accountable government will come to the region if not from the barrel of a gun. This path is certainly not easy, and maybe hopeless, but the lack of credible alternatives and the rapid transition of Afghanistan from an oppressive theocratic terrorist training camp to a stable, democratic, feudal narco state must surely go down as one of the surprise successes of the developing world. And the fact that that counts as a "success" shows how low the bar is. Moreover, last I checked the plan was for a freer Iraq to be a model for the rest of the region. It should not pass anyone's notice that Iran is just next door.

Bush's policies mark a dramatic change from the "prop up the local thug against Communism" that served the US well through the Cold War. With the Cold War won, it was time they changed -- a pity more did not happen under Bush I and Clinton.

Finally, Wright's proposal that transnational institutions create and enforce good rules seems the most ridiculous. I honestly cannot think of a single good rule that transnational institutions have enforced. The League of Nations did not prevent the Second World War, the UN has not prevented the Cold War (and the Korean War, and Vietnam), the Iraq/Iran War, the Bosnian War, genocide in Darfur, genocide in Rwanda, the first Gulf War, the second Gulf War, the Afghan War, the Stalinist Purges, Mao's "Great Leap Forwards", PolPot's killing fields, or any intra, inter, or extra-national conflict since it was founded. The IAEA failed to stop North Korea, India, and Pakistan getting nuclear weapons, and is obviously impotant with Iran. Wright's proposal to hobble the already beleagured WTO with weapons control laws would seem to reduce the incentive for disconnected nations to start connecting with the rest of the world through Trade. We both agree that this is a good thing, so why make it harder?

The question of how to integrate peoples that have isolated themselves from the rest of the world--North Korea, the Arab World, Africa--is tricky. Nation building is very hard. Global Guerillas are learning how to disconnect a country from the world as a prelude to hijacking it for their own cause. It is not unhelpful that the US Armed Forces are currently in Iraq learning how to set up civic institutions and combat those who are, very literally, the enemies of modern civilized life.


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