Thursday, June 11, 2009

Fromkin -- on the survival of the human race

It might seem that David Fromkin’s The Independence of Nations, published in1981, would be dated, and it is in a few respects, but Fromkin is one of the most impressive historians I have read. Probably anything he writes as an historian has value.

In this book he grapples with the causes of war and the prospects for the survival of the human race. His conclusions are grim. Has anything happened in the past 30 years to change them? Perhaps. I comment about that below.

He emphasizes that pacifism doesn’t work, but probably only a few benighted souls on the fringe still believe in it. No government holds to pacifism; the views that predominated in Britain, France & the US prior to 1937. Pacifism didn’t stop World War II. It merely made it easier for Germany and Japan to start it. No one is unilaterally disarming today, certainly not Britain, France or the US.

Neither history nor anthropology provides any hope for the elimination of war. Our inclination to war may be hard wired in our DNA. In hunter-gatherer societies we loved those of our group and hated the outsider. Civilization did nothing to change that. Fromkin says that if we don’t have important reasons for war then we will find unimportant reasons. On page 152 he quotes Gibbon on the Romans:

“Chariot racers at that time wore colors of red, white, green, or blue; and at some point the backers of the racers began to arrange themselves into factions, distinguished by the color of the racer whom they were backing. The conflict that developed between these factions grew to such proportions that it shook the foundations of government, family, and society. Religious and political significance was read into the choice of one color or the other and caused the feuds to become bloodier. Sedition and blasphemy were imputed by those who favored one color to those who favored another. Gibbon writes that on the occasion of one religious festival, the Greens massacred three thousand Blues; and that at another point, the blues took control of Constantinople and indulged in a bloody orgy of persecution of the Greens that included mass execution. It was only the higher loyalty that all of them owed to Rome and Byzantium that eventually kept the conflict within bounds. In ‘the blind ardour of the Roman people, who devoted their lives and fortunes to the colour which they had espoused,’ one sees an extreme example of what effect membership in a group has on its members.”

The problem with Nations, Fromkin tells is that there are no higher authorities like Rome and Byzantium. People living within nations do have authorities over them. But nations themselves do not. The nations are in a state of anarchy with each other, and when disagreements reach a certain stage, the means for resolving them is war.

There really isn’t a principle we can apply here and Fromkin doesn’t try to apply one. He examines prior attempts to abolish war and concludes, as anyone probably would, that they have all been failures. The best we can hope to achieve is a sort of “balance of power,’ he says on p. 144, harking back to the time of Talleyrand, Salisbury and Bismarck. “Their successful pursuits of political equilibrium gave Europe, in the century from 1815 to 1914, peace and stability such as few civilizations have enjoyed.”

Fromkin concludes that there are two means for saving the human race from its warlike inclinations. The first is a single world government. The second is to move out into space so that people can put distance between themselves.


Fromkin back in 1981 didn’t think the chances were good that we could achieve either a world government or the establishment of colonies in extraterrestrial locations in time to avoid future serious wars. He implies that we ought to strive after a balance of power and use Talleyrand, Salisbury and Bismarck until we can achieve one or the other – and perhaps both.

Since Fromkin is alive and still writing, he has lived through America’s “Unipolar Moment” which is the antithesis of the “balance of power.” Is someone trying to provide a balance against our power? Not very hard. America abused its unipolar power only in the view of certain nations (prominently France and Russia) when it invaded Iraq. As abuses of power go, I don’t think Iraq will go down in history as an egregious one.

Some will continue to think the invasion of Iraq was an abuse of power despite evidence to the contrary, and perhaps that belief contributed to the election of Barack Obama. Obama would never, so the nation was led to believe, abuse power in that way. But if some of us worried about President Bush abusing power, some of the rest of us now worry that Obama will refuse to use power when circumstances (in our estimation) warrant its use.

The impression I have at the present time is that Obama doesn’t consider the American recession a serious matter. He is borrowing the trillions he needs to solve the economic problems he is concerned about, but he is going ahead with his Social Programs as though we have the ample economic means to afford them. And perhaps we do. I hope so.

On the military front, he has calmed fears that he will apply a pacifistic solution to Iraq and Afghanistan. He plans to pull out of Iraq, but not too soon, and it continues to at least seem possible that Iraq may ultimately turn out to be a success story. Yes, it has its terrorists, but so do several other Middle Eastern nations. What is required is an Iraqi military and police force capable of not being overcome by them, and that seems in the offing.

The Obama administration rightly considers Afghanistan and Pakistan serious problems that need to be dealt. Surely McCain would have pursued these problems as well. Whether Obama will be successful remains to be seen, but he seems willing to listen to his military leaders. He doesn’t seem inclined to countermand them.

I don’t believe that military action was “ever on the table” in regard to North Korea. It has been in regard to Iran, at least it hasn’t been formally removed since the last administration put it there, but it doesn’t seem likely that Obama will initiate military action. He may even discourage Israel from it. Do we have anti-missile systems that will protect such nations as Israel from an Iranian nuclear attack? Patriot missiles aren’t infallible. I doubt that Israel would be willing to trust their existence to them, but perhaps we have been working on something better. That might be a solution that would appeal more to Obama than to Israel.

So perhaps we aren’t seeking Fromkin’s “balance of power” but we don’t have military action as a top priority on any of the tables in authoritative use by the present administration. Those who are inclined to worry about American unilateral action, can worry less, at least for the rest of Obama’s administration.

The advance of technology has been such that no one in the wings seems capable of balancing American power – except locally. We discussed a hypothetical war between Russia and the US – not because we think it likely, but merely as an intellectual exercise. If we exclude the use of nuclear weapons; then Russia would almost certainly win a land war if the US were to invade it. On the other hand, Russia does not have the means to invade the US; so that sort of war is moot.

The same sort of thing could be said about China and a number of other powers. They couldn’t invade the US, and taking it one step further, it is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which the US would invade any nation other than Iran. The US would have to marshal public support for any war. It got it before invading Afghanistan and Iraq, but how could it get it for invading Russia or China? It couldn’t. Could it get it for invading North Korea? Not unless North Korea attacked South Korea. We still have 30,000 troops on the 38th parallel; and if they were attacked we would mount a serious defense and might very well follow through and topple the North Korean government – assuming we could get China to stay out of it; which it might if North Korea were to engage in an invasion of the South.

As to moving out into space, I am all for it. We should set up colonies on the moon as soon as possible. Let any nation who wants to build bubbles and then go underground. Perhaps mining can make these bubble cities self-sustaining. After that let us go to Mars and the moons of Jupiter. We don’t have the means to get out to another star-system unless we were to build star-ships capable of supporting several generations of explorers. But perhaps by the time we’ve exhausted the potentials of our present solar system we shall have those means.

One thing Fromkin wasn’t able to take into consideration was the internet. When he wrote, the control of information by individual governments was still possible. Does what we are able to do on the internet now make war less likely? I don’t know. I had an extended discussion of warlike matters with the Russian Michael Kuznetsov on this blog not so long ago. We ended up on friendly terms. I certainly wouldn’t want to go to war with him.

We have opportunities to understand one another that we didn’t have when Fromkin wrote. Will these opportunities be widely used? Or are they being used for that purpose only by a few? I am inclined to be pessimistic – as was Fromkin when he wrote back in 1981.

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