Thursday, 17 May 2018

Why progressive foreign policy never works

If you listened to just the progressives discuss foreign policy, they’re the sane ones and everyone on the left and right are crazies. They are the ones discussing acceptable actions, everyone else is capricious, mendacious and hateful.

Power always expresses itself as the voice of reason. It always speaks for the "reality-based community" which is only concerned about whatever threatens its control over the levers of power. Progressives’ party line is that progressivism doesn't exist. Progressivism doesn't exist because its beliefs are derived from reason, and reason is universal. See how perfect this loop is?

But it does exist. I’ve been watching it my entire life. The problem is their foreign policy assumes it's possible to do something about the world's problems without, actually, well, doing anything. They tend to confuse freedom and power. Voting is not freedom, it is power. Removing the power to vote does not make anyone less free. Controlling their actions or their minds makes them less free, and if they don't have political power, whether individually or collectively, the state has no rational motivation to infringe their freedoms.
Edward Luttwak

Edward Luttwak says for foreign policy to work you either do something, or you do nothing. He doesn't have much time for the State Department’s progressive missionaries or the transnational institutions they love. They create employment for civil servants but so little governance over the regions for which they are responsible.

Progressives tend to favour counterinsurgency, Luttwak says it’s a bad idea. This is a pretty big difference. Progressives favour ruling the world through "soft power," Luttwak favours abandoning it. The problem with foreign policy today is the “smart” ones think it's a good idea combine Luttwakian "hard power" in small doses, with progressive paternalistic, pseudo-democratic postcolonialism.

But when they try this concoction in places like Iraq, what they get is real democracy, which is no kitty-cat, and various militant groups that see right through the false toughness of the US military and immediately began working to seize power – in ways that can only be countered by real "hard power."

I get it. Sticks and carrots are both tools. Think of them like tension and compression in a bridge design. Some bridges rely more on tension and some more on compression. But I would look rather sceptically on any engineer who told me that tension is good and compression is bad, or vice versa.

My view is that when people today think about social structures, they underestimate the value of sticks (negative reinforcement). This bias is essentially Christian in origin and I can’t help but see foreign policy today as theocratic, in a much more dangerous way than anything Trump could get up to.

Because of its Christian origin, progressive foreign policy always supports the underdog. It's clear that early US communist/progressive support for Soviet communism was based on it being the underdog in Europe. It quickly became obvious to some (such as Orwell) that communism was not going to be liberating, but this insight took decades to percolate into the general progressive mind.

You’d think Nationalist movements are explicitly anti-progressive. But progressives support them when they are "national liberation movements" (ie, Palestinians) and oppose them when they are overdogs ("murderous gangs of fascist thugs"). This explains why they’re so fond of Nicolás Maduro: while he's clearly an oppressive overdog to the Venezuelan people, he's an underdog relative to the US.

This foreign policy fits a pattern:
  1. Intellectuals promote a worldview – global progressivism – which encourages nation-building abroad, on the reasoning that since everyone deep down wants democracy, equality and peace, all you have to do is build a sound state and you will achieve all these things.
  2. Conservative kids go to progressive-led colleges and develop a taste for nation-building. When a country kicks up a stink, those kids reply by bombing them back to the Stone Age.
  3. Since the central assertion of progressivism is wrong, progress is not achieved, and war continues.
  4. Progressive intellectuals see this as an argument for giving more power to government and certain NGOs, but only the ones that are progressive-led. Others, after all, have been discredited. And the cycle continues
Don’t get me wrong, progressives aren’t motivated by pure cynicism and hate. Quite the contrary – I think their positions come from sincere moral and even spiritual thinking. It's just that the structure of this thinking has evolved so that there is an instant friendship response to any movement opposing not the “bad guy” in some foreign country, but whichever foreign faction is allied with the progressive’s true enemy – their domestic US competitors.

Lord Cromer
If the US somehow manages to remain neutral in certain conflicts, that’s a signal not that the US has finally matured into a competent nation-state, but only that progressives can't use the conflict as a proxy civil war for control of Washington. So, at most, you get a sort of loose, dispassionate outrage about the far-away conflict because there is no one useful to hate. Marching for Syria makes progressives feel warm and fuzzy, but it doesn't evoke combat emotions the way marching against Trump does. These marches are more for the Syrians than against the Syrian government.

To see how strange this foreign policy structure is, imagine a debate between, say, Hillary Clinton and Lord Cromer. They would disagree on many subjects. But wouldn't it be helpful to have labels for both these people? It would be suspicious to regard Clinton as a reasonable, modern woman and Cromer as a medieval fanatic, and yet that’s what our foreign policy elites would have us think today.

Cromer would immediately recognise Clinton as a descendant of the Exeter Hall movement that laid him low – a movement whose Evangelical Christian roots were known by everyone at the time. He would also be very surprised that she Exeter Hall’s foreign policy perspective "secular." And he would dispute the claim that genocide is a "problem from hell," as fellow State Department alumni Samantha Power called it. There was no genocide in Egypt when Cromer ruled it, although there was plenty afterwards.

Cromer would say the reason genocide happens is that law and order breaks down, and the way to prevent genocide is to impose law and order. I'm really not sure what Clinton would say to this, because her progressive crew just finished spending the last century purging anyone who even came close to agreeing with Lord Cromer out from any position of responsibility or influence. That's certainly one way to win a debate...

If there is one phrase Clinton would identify with, I think it's the classic State Department "soft power." The problem is that soft power doesn't prevent genocide. In fact, it doesn't seem to do much of anything at all, except help the Clintons of this world look statesmanlike.

In other words, precisely what the Cromers of the world warned us would happen has, in fact, happened. The problem, he would say, is in the belief that vices can be suppressed by a cultural operating system of "turn the other cheek" and a focus on rewarding virtues. This belief is remarkably widespread in any place that listens to Harvard’s ideas and is entirely unjustified.

He would point out that virtues tend to emerge when you suppress the vices, and this can only be done by a culture that provides disincentives for the latter. The sine qua non of civilization, in other words, is punishment. Past societies that have been aggressive in punishing vice seem to also be remarkably virtuous as well – I am thinking of the Victorian culture, for example, which was unusual both for its hard-line attitude toward sin and high levels of altruism.

In fact, Lord Cromer and Ian Smith and others like them are not around today for a very specific reason. They were defeated, not militarily, but politically. Which is still defeated enough, of course – in fact, it's more pleasant for everyone. But a defeat is a defeat. They were defeated by the forces of the progressive left who Lord Cromer would have described as "missionaries" and "evangelicals." These defeats were not administered by "the peasants," "the workers," "the natives," or any other victim class. They were administered on behalf of these victim classes.

That’s the key to understanding progressive foreign policy: it is entirely a top-down concept disguised as bottom-up. Democracy was not a movement of peasants and artisans. It was a movement on behalf of peasant and artisans. Communism was not a movement of workers. It was a movement on behalf of workers. Civil rights was not a movement of African-Americans. It was a movement on behalf of African-Americans. If the only people who had supported these movements were the designated sufferers themselves, no one would ever have heard of them.

(Note also that the power of these movements come not from its leaders but from the people who report on them. The actual power, in other words, belongs to the press, which speaks with one voice on all subjects.)

Progressive foreign policy does not work because it does not prioritise political stability and order. Why do I prefer political stability? Because I've read history and notice how political instability (to be specific: nationalist-socialist mob violence) killed a couple hundred million people last century. Perhaps the revolutionary tradition has done some good as well. But, I mean, really – let's look at the big picture here.

The thing about law and order is it helps "keep the peasantry on the farm," so to speak. The point of good governance is not, of course, whether the peasantry will stay on the farm, or whether they will move to the city and take jobs as paralegals. The question is whether they will take their scythes and pruning-hooks and storm the Royal Palace. In other words, governance starts with a few well-trained guys with a couple of crew-served weapons in front of the Palace. You don’t want a system that encourages anyone to just stroll right in. Including a mob of peasants with scythes.

Progressives will say their policies are correct because mob violence is inevitable and irresistible. Then again, a mob by definition is organised around an idea, and ideas come from intellectuals, and intellectuals are all progressives. So, you’ll forgive me if I raise an eyebrow or three. And I always get the sense they are tempted to add: "it is foolish, pointless and unproductive to resist us" to the end of every sentence. At least that would be honest. This is the message of every conquering power.

A mob is made up of individuals. If the individual members of the mob have more incentive not to riot (or "demonstrate," "picket," etc) than to do so, they won't. If someone sees a chance of success in agitating, it is very easy to convince them that they are "not getting a fair shake." Who in the world has ever thought he or she was getting his or her due? Justice or injustice has nothing at all to do with it. The problem is simply power.

The response is generally that democracy is a safety valve. But if it is, it doesn't seem to work very well. The actual period of full-out democracy in the US was between 1828 to 1932. A disastrous and violent period, with four major wars, one being a civil war that clearly grew out of a democratic conflict.

To his credit, FDR ended democracy, but he built in its place a political machine of irresistible power – kind of like curing a headache with a .45 Colt. Since 1932, democracy has had little or no effect on the actual structure of Washington, except to help it expand. The EU takes this even farther – they run a perfectly normal modern state with essentially no democracy at all. It is pretty much the same for Japan.

Is this formula stable? In the age of controlled broadcast communications, maybe. In the age of the Internet, I don't think so.

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