Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Couple of Trailers—Book Trailers: Kissinger & Fukuyama

I don't often write a review of a review or of a blog post based on an upcoming book, but I’m going to make an exception. Both Henry Kissinger and Francis Fukuyama have books coming out in September, and both will come to the top of my “to read” list. 

Image result for images: henry kissingerFor many, including me, the name of Henry Kissinger conjures up a lot of contrary thoughts and ambiguity. Some think of him as amoral, others as immoral, and still others as the devil incarnate. Of course, he’s also a Nobel Peace Prize winner, so go figure. Without question, his tenure as National Security Advisor and later as Secretary of State in the Nixon and Ford Administrations provides plenty of reasons to question his judgment, not to mention the morality of his actions. But set aside that period of this life and consider the role that he played both before and after his time in office: that of historian and theoretician to international relations. (With Kissinger, the roles of historian and theoretician don’t seem at all separated, which I believe makes his work all the more compelling and insightful.) I first read Kissinger as an undergraduate when Professor David Schoenbaum assigned A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822 for his 19th Century Europe class. That book is a study of the Congress of Vienna and the effort led by Prince Metternich to establish a stable political order in Europe following the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars. Later, on my own, I read a large chunk of his memoir of the Nixon Administration, a large chunk of his book Diplomacy (quite intriguing), and the entirety of this On China, which I found informative and fascinating  (and which I’ve now got on deck to read again). As a scholar, Kissinger writes well and he has terrific insights. Thus I’m I ready—eager—to set aside doubts arising from my uncertainty about his actions as a statesman to appreciate his scholarship. (Great figures, whether judged good or ill, are rarely simple and never unalloyed.) Now past 90 years of age, he still garners respect. (Just look at his 90th birthday party list from 2013: the Clintons, John Kerry, Valery Giscard D’Estaing, Donald Rumsfeld, James Baker, George Shultz, and John McCain. None were political allies of Kissinger, but all came, I assume, came out of a sense of respect.)

A preview review of the book by Jacob Heilbrunn in the National Interest praises Kissinger’s upcoming World Order. According to Heilbrunn, Kissinger argues that the nation-state system of balance of power and interest politics established by the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) remains relevant in the contemporary world. Kissinger is a master of this area of history (see his work Diplomacy for an existing example). In an era where China is on the rise and playing a larger role on the world stage; Russia remains an assertive—even aggressive—player; and the U.S., Japan, and Europe, all have significant and varying interests and roles to play, Kissinger’s insights will bear close consideration. Heilbrunn praises Kissinger for his lucid and incisive prose, and his use of diplomatic history, now often shunted aside in the study of IR (international relations). Along with examining the structures of international relations through the centuries, Kissinger also notes the importance of individuals, from Cardinal Richelieu to Metternich to Teddy Roosevelt, who ushered the U.S. on to the world stage. Of course, Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon receive consideration as two presidents who highlight the U.S. tension between idealism and realism in American foreign affairs. (Aside: Heilbrunn reports that Kissinger admires Nixon and offers the opinion that “Nixon’s solitary nature meant that he had read widely, a trait that Kissinger avers made him the best-prepared incoming president since TR on foreign policy.” Interesting angle.) 

The review essay is worth reading as a summary of what Kissinger has written and it provides a good summary of the history of his influence, especially within the context of the Republican Party. 

Image result for francis fukuyamaThe other short piece that I read was by Francis Fukuyama. He had a new blog entry after about a year and an essay in Foreign Affairs, both based on parts of this forth coming Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy that will come out at the end of September. I’m embarrassed to report that I haven’t read volume one (encouragement from the Glamorous Nomad notwithstanding), but I plan to dive right into volume 2. His Foreign Affairs essay on the decline of American political institutions is insightful (and depressing). His updating of his mentor Samuel Huntington on political society will certainly prove thought provoking. I find Fukuyama one of the most insightful political commentators writing today. Like Kissinger, he comes out of the academy, but he's worked for the State Department and Rand Corporation, so he’s been in a position to influence events as well as write about them from the outside. Also, like Kissinger, he draws freely and extensively upon history in his analysis. History is the ultimate laboratory for social science experiments, and it provides much greater insight than modeling and theorizing can provide on their own. 

I’m looking forward to both of these books, and it’s great to have these previews to guide my way into them. Like a good movie trailer, they make me want to take in the whole feature. Get out the popcorn! (Well, no, too greasy on the pages—even electronic pages.)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The World Has Changed--And It Hasn't: Part 2

I hadn’t planned a follow-up to my most recent post, but reading today has added some thoughts and points of view worth sharing. 

Roger Cohen
Roger Cohen in NYT writes about the participation in ISIS by volunteers coming from Europe. He writes: 

More than 500, and perhaps as many as 800, British Muslims have headed for Syria and Iraq to enlist in the jihadi ranks. In France, that number stands at about 900. Two adolescent girls, 15 and 17, were detained last week in Paris and face charges of conspiring with a terrorist organization. The ideological appeal of the likes of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is intact. It may be increasing, despite efforts to build an interfaith dialogue, reach out to moderate Islam, and pre-empt radicalization.

Cohen quotes a Brit who works with those (men mostly—of course) who might make this jump: 

“One minute you are trying to pay bills, the next you’re running around Syria with a machine gun,” said Ghaffar Hussain, the managing director of the Quilliam Foundation, a British research group that seeks to tackle religious extremism. “Many young British Muslims are confused about their identity, and they buy into a narrow framework that can explain events. Jihadists hand them a simplistic narrative of good versus evil. They give them camaraderie and certainty. ISIS makes them feel part of a grand struggle.”

Anticipating what Roger Scruton has written (see below), Cohen states: 

Perhaps racked with historical guilt, European nations with populations from former colonies often seem unable to celebrate their values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. Meanwhile, in the Arab world the central hope of the Arab Spring has been dashed: that more open and representative societies would reduce the frustration that leads to extremism.

Cohen concludes: 

[T]he deepest American and Western defeat has been ideological. As Hussain said, “If you don’t have a concerted strategy to undermine their narrative, their values, their worldview, you are not going to succeed. Everyone in society has to take on the challenge.”

So Cohen seems to conclude that we’re losing a battle for the hearts and minds of young men (mostly) who may have a connection (tenuous, as we’ll see below) to Islam. 

In this piece from TNR, writer Mehdi Hasan writes about the seeming weirdness of ISIS recruits and other would-be Islamic terrorists: 

Sarwar and Ahmed, both of whom pleaded guilty to terrorism offences last month, purchased Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. You could not ask for better evidence to bolster the argument that the 1,400-year-old Islamic faith has little to do with the modern jihadist movement. The swivel-eyed young men who take sadistic pleasure in bombings and beheadings may try to justify their violence with recourse to religious rhetoric— think the killers of Lee Rigby screaming “Allahu Akbar” at their trial; think of Islamic State beheading the photojournalist James Foley as part of its “holy war”—but religious fervour isn’t what motivates most of them.

Hasan continues: 

In 2008, a classified briefing note on radicalisation, prepared by MI5’s behavioural science unit, was leaked to the Guardian. It revealed that, “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could ... be regarded as religious novices.” The analysts concluded that “a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation,” the newspaper said.

For more evidence, read the books of the forensic psychiatrist and former CIA officer Marc Sageman; the political scientist Robert Pape; the international relations scholar Rik Coolsaet; the Islamism expert Olivier Roy; the anthropologist Scott Atran. They have all studied the lives and backgrounds of hundreds of gun-toting, bomb-throwing jihadists and they all agree that Islam isn’t to blame for the behaviour of such men (and, yes, they usually are men).

This means we have to think outside many simple parameters (“It’s Islam”) that seem so easy and direct but that simply wrong (because simple). Hasan quotes Atran: 

Atran pointed out in testimony to the US Senate in March 2010: “... what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Quran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world.” He described wannabe jihadists as “bored, under¬employed, overqualified and underwhelmed” young men for whom “jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer ... thrilling, glorious and cool.”

Roger Scruton
Yesterday I got into reading Roger Scruton’s The West and the Rest: Globalization & the Terror Threat (2002). This heavy-duty philosopher (aesthetics, music, Spinoza, Kant, etc.) is also is an outspoken “conservative” in the Burkean tradition (he's not one of the “all Hayek, all day” stations), and he’s a fine essayist. In this book, he contrasts the doctrine and culture of Islam with those of the Greek, Roman, and Judeo-Christian West (many rivers flow in to the Western basin). He argues that the West has developed some fundamental tenants, especially since the Enlightenment, which sets it off from Islam. Some of the key differences go back much further, but because one can argue that the Enlightenment was the most significant change in Western culture in about two millennia, I think that Scruton rightly focuses on differences arising from the Enlightenment. For instance, that’s when Western Christianity—Protestant and Catholic—began to play a different role in public life. Scuton doesn't think that the West has done enough (in arugment) to defend its values and traditions in the face of criticisms and that this lack of an energetic defense only serves to inflame and energize would-be attackers.

What I get from Scruton (so far) focuses not so much on background of terrorists and would-be terrorists, as (for example) Atran does, but instead Scruton focuses on the high cultural differences, especially in politics and law. One might at first glance think that he contradicts those such as Atran cited in the TNR article by Hasan, but I don’t think so. What I think that the significant cultural differences establish is that immigrants to the West, especially from Islamic countries, may have a greater disjunction between their native culture (so defined by religion) and the culture that they find in the West. (Some other non-Western cultures, for instance, Chinese, would not suffer the same degree of culture shock.) Because of the depth of the difference, a deeper, more threatening sense of alienation can develop. Of course, this needn’t be true, as many from Islamic countries emigrate successfully to the West (U.S., U.K. Europe, Australia, etc.). But if alienation develops, as it can so easily in young males, then you have a recipe for disaster because of the compelling claims that they can recover from Islamic tradition. From reading today, one gets a sense of “cradle” Moslems prone to violence and steeped in fundamentalist Islamic culture are sought out by those who use Islam as a vehicle into a violent and totalizing movement.

 Thus, you have two different groups and sets of motivations to consider when thinking about how to counteract the threats that they pose.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The World Has Changed--And It Hasn't

Nassim Taleb begins a chain of thoughts
A confluence of reading in the last couple of days has brought the perplexing pattern of modern political reality to the forefront of my attention. Recently on Twitter, Nassim Taleb commented that UK philosopher John Gray was the only one to recognize that Islamic extremism is a reaction to modernity. While not contesting Gray’s insight, I suggested that Karen Armstrong came to a similar conclusion in her book The Battle for God, published in 2000. (N.B. Taleb later references the work of Scott Atran, whose work also addresses this issue.) Regardless of who first grasped or published this insight, it seems to be gaining traction. Ross Douthat, in his Sunday New York Times column, discussed the idea that liberal modernity has always spawned counter-movements and that ISIS is
only the latest. Communism and Fascism are the prominent predecessors to the claim of anti-modern, anti-liberal ideological leadership. Douthat in turn references an American Interest article by Abram N. Shulsky, which provides a longer-range consideration of anti-modern, anti-liberal movements. (Modernity and liberalism are not synonymous, but they are closely linked and nearly inter-changeable for these purposes.) Finally, I reviewed an article by British philosopher Roger Scruton, a “conservative”*, who argues that the West must vigorously oppose what he perceives as seven core distinctions between the West and fundamentalist Islam. Scruton writes:
In the public sphere, we can resolve to protect the good things that we have inherited. That means making no concessions to those who wish us to exchange citizenship for subjection, nationality for religious conformity, secular law for shari’ah, the Judeo-Christian inheritance for Islam, irony for solemnity, self-criticism for dogmatism, representation for submission, and cheerful drinking for censorious abstinence.
 All this has led me to ponder some questions and suggest some possibilities:

Taleb, Gray, Armstrong, Atran, and others who agree with them are correct in characterizing Islamic fundamentalism as a reaction to modernity. To see the phenomena of Islamism as simply a regression to an earlier (medieval) form of thought misses the crucial importance played by modernity. Alas, to many in Moslem nations, modernity appears in the guise of Western imperialism and militarism or cultural dominance. Fault lines (a la Samuel Huntington) between Islam and its neighbors aren’t new, but Islamist thinking about Islamic society and its relation to its non-Moslem neighbors does come in modern garb.

Liberalism, with its individuality, free markets, and lack of legal and social restraints, is a recent development in human culture. While we can’t pinpoint a start date, northwest Europe began the transition around 1500, and it gained momentum from the incredible economic change that started around 1800 with the Industrial Revolution. By 1900, “the West” (western Europe and the English-speaking countries) dominated the world stage. But as Europe was the vanguard of modernity, so it served as the spawning ground for the first anti-modern, anti-liberal movements. 

Nationalism, Romanticism, Anarchism, Communism, and Fascism, are all anti-liberal, anti-modern reactions (in varying degrees). All arose and exerted a significant effect on Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries (and to a lesser extent on the U.S.).
Some of these ideologies, such as nationalism and forms politics approaching fascism, are now at play again around Europe:  Putinism in Russia, Erdogan’s regime in Turkey, and Orban’s regime in Hungary. The Hungarian case is most intriguing because Hungary had seemed securely within the post-WWII, post-communist camp embodied by the EU—and it is the most surprising in which to see an aggressive anti-liberal, anti-democratic regime. 

To some, these developments call into question the thesis of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. One can reach this conclusion if you read Fukuyama as arguing for the inevitable triumph of the Western liberal idea. I don’t think that’s what he argued. He argued that the democratic, market-oriented ideal no longer had a viable rival worldview. Who proposes a new worldview that can supplant liberal democracy? Not ISIS or resurgent fascism.
In addition, Fukuyama considered the problem of “the last man” and “men without chests” (both from Nietzsche). In some measure, the anti-modern viewpoints noted above seek to displace the logic and status of bourgeois society, and the problem could be endemic to the system, as Douthat suggests and as (I think) Fukuyama would admit. We might call it the thymos problem. (To what extent the thymos problem is a male problem is an intriguing one but one that I’ll set aside for now.)

Are we stuck in a low, sub-optimal equilibrium, with bourgeois society surviving but unable to put an end to the impulse to counter that's driven by atavistic urges? Is there a way out? To this, we’d have to turn to speculation. Dr. John Kemp, of the University of Iowa, for instance, in his Choosing Survival: Creating Highly Adaptive Societies, takes an optimistic perspective and suggests that the long-term trend impels nations and societies to move to open, modern social and economic institutions that include democracy, individual rights, and markets. But I’m not as confident of this trend. I fear that we will (at best) become stuck in a rut, economically, ecologically, and internationally, with the distinct possibility of a downward spiral if severe resource issues arise. With climate, ecological, and population pressures pushing hard on nations and societies, resource wars seem a distinct possibility, adding to and further inciting ideological and religious fervor.  

Another viewpoint, outside the mainstream box, comes from those best represented by Ken Wilber’s synthetic mind. (If you’re unfamiliar with Wilber, this movie review of Cloud Atlas from no less than the New York Review of Books, gives a brief account of his work and influence.) Wilber gathers and furthers many thinkers who argue that human culture is ready to step ahead and (presumably) out of our current stalemates. Wilber’s project has always fascinated and (largely) persuaded me. However, I believe that he’d agree that stepping up and out of current predicaments (fundamentalism, power politics, ecological and economic crises, etc.) isn’t guaranteed. Current political decisions shape our future. We can't hope to arrive at the Promised Land by drifting on the tide of history.

So it comes back to “What do we do now?” How aggressive can and should American policy be toward ISIS and other such anti-Western ideologies? Note that the Soviet empire and communism as a living ideology didn’t fall in a military defeat to the West. It collapsed from the inside because it compared so poorly to the West and because of its own internal contradictions. Our perceptions of the nature and extent of threats posed by anti-liberal, anti-Western ideologies affects how we respond to them. Anyone who supports the modern, liberal project—including those who seek to transcend it—must ponder these troubling issues. We have no easy answers, but our answers will shape our future.

*Americans, note well, that “conservative” by UK or European standards are often different from what we call conservative in the U.S., although Douthat, David Brooks, and David Frum are exceptional American conservatives in their greater concern for society instead of just economics, their articulate writing, and their—in a classical sense—liberal beliefs.