Posts tagged ‘American Civil War’

Shock of the New

Jackalope Pursuivant takes off from my post yesterday about Pearl Harbor.  If I were to give it a theme, I would call it "shock of the new."  From time to time folks, for example in the military, may say that they understand a new technology, but the fact that a few smart staff officers "get it" does not mean that the military has really adjusted itself to it.  Like any large organization, it has a culture and set of expectations and people who have been successful based on the old model of things.   They may say they understand that naval aviation has changed things, but they don't really adjust themselves until Pearl Harbor and Clark Field and Guam and Singapore are full of smoking ruins of planes and ships.

Dan's observation about how quickly the US dusted itself off and recognized that the world had changed is a good one.  One could argue that no one did this in WWI.  The Europeans had every chance to see what the machine gun could do even before the war in a few African wars.  Heck, the final year of the American Civil War around Petersberg was a preview of WWI, as was the ill-fated charge of the light brigade.  But armies were still dominated by cavalries and plumed hats and bayonet charges and elan vital. Even in 1916 and 1917, when they should have learned their lesson, commanders were still obsessed with making full frontal charges.  The Americans had the chance to watch the war for four years before they entered, and then promptly began committing the exact same mistakes based on the exact same faulty assumptions as in 1914.  (Neal Stephenson has a great take on American flexibility to craft radically new combat doctrine based on new facts in WWII in Cryptonomicon, absolutely one of my favorite books).

As for Pearl Harbor, I am reminded of a quote that was attributed to Frank Borman (at least in the From the Earth to the Moon documentary) when he was testifying about the Apollo 1 fire.  He called it "a failure of imagination" -- no one was even thinking about danger on the ground, all the focus was on space.  At the end of the day, the ultimate answer for Pearl Harbor's negligence in readiness was a failure of imagination.   They may have had war games and studies discussing Pearl Harbor attacks, and they may have addressed the possibility intellectually, but no one in command really believed that a couple of hundred aircraft would suddenly appear over peacetime Honolulu dropping bombs and torpedoes.

Save Our Industry, The Economy Depends on It

I have been on a Civil War reading binge lately, which began when I read "Time on the Cross", which is a really interesting economic analysis of American slavery.  Since I have read a number of other Civil War and Ante-Bellum history books, including James McPherson's excellent one volume Civil War history.

I was struck in several of these books by the reaction of British textile manufacturers to the war and, more specifically, the informal southern embargo of cotton exports in 1860-61.  These textile producers screamed bloody murder to the British government, demanding that they recognize the Confederacy and intervene on their behalf, claiming that the lack of cotton would doom their industry and thereby doom the whole country.  On its face, this was a credible argument, as textiles probably made up more of the British GDP at the time than any three or four industries account for in the US today. 

Fortunately, the British chose not to intervene, and risked the economic consequences of not supporting the textile industry by jumping into the American Civil War.  As it turned out, the British economy was fine, and in fact even the textile industry was fine as well, as demand was still high and other sources around the world stepped up (because of the higher prices that resulted from the Southern boycott) with increased cotton supplies.

The Libertarian Foreign Policy Problem

Outside of trade policy and climate treaties, I very seldom discuss foreign policy.  First, because it is not my first interest.  Second, because I am not an expert and do not spend the time to keep myself sufficiently informed on the issues to have useful insights.  Third, because of exactly this problem stated so well my Megan McArdle:

I periodically flirt with isolationism, or if you prefer,
"non-intervention". Like most libertarians, I'm attracted to "high
concept" political philosophy: simple rules that can be stated in a
sentence or less. No arguments about causus belli, blowback, or
ultimately unknowable political ramifications; just a simple "yes or
no" test. Did a foreign army invade the United States? For "Yes", press
one; for "No", press two, and go back to arguing about what should
replace child welfare laws in the coming anarcho-capitalist society.

Besides, all the foreigners hate having us there. Why not leave, and
see if absence makes the heart grow fonder? (I suspect that many
nations which have come, over long decades, to regard regional peace as
some sort of natural law, will get a rather nasty surprise. This might
make our influence look, in retrospect, rather appealing.)

But anyone who thinks at all seriously about libertarianism will,
fairly early on, be faced with a very high hurdle. There are a handful
of wars in which American intervention unambiguously halted gross
abuses of human liberty. World War II is one, though many end up going
around, rather than over . . . arguing that the Nazis were the direct
result of American intervention in World War I; or that it was
justified because Japan attacked us1; or that Russia and Britain would have defeated Hitler anyway2.  The American Civil War, however, is by far the highest leap; and the hardest to dodge.

In theory, every state has the right to secede, and the stated
Federal rationale for the Civil War--preserving the union--was the
vilest tyranny. In practice, chattel slavery was a barbarism even
viler.

And so we killed 20-30% of the Confederate Army, not a few of our
own, and uncounted numbers of civilians. That's not counting the
wounded, who probably outnumbered the dead. All we managed to achieve,
at this horrendous cost, was a corrupt and brutal occupation, followed
by the "freedom" of Jim Crow, sharecropping, and "separate but equal". And it was worth it.
The good guys won. We didn't do everything we wanted to, or even
everything we could have, or should have. Jim Crow was putrid. But it
was nonetheless so much better than slavery that it was worth the
horrendous cost--in my opinion, and that of almost everyone in the
world.

For me, a big part of the problem is one of information -- generally, most of the information one might find useful in deciding if X is a good war to pursue is from the government, an institution that demonstrably cannot be trusted based on past history when it makes this case.  Non-interventionism seems the right way to go, except for the
(relatively few) times it is not.  The problems is, to paraphrase the
famous dictum about advertising money, "half (or more) of our wars are
a waste -- we just don't know in advance which half."  Megan uses the
example of the Civil War, saying that that war was worth it because we
got rid of slavery.  But the war by no means began that way.  It wasn't
really until well into the war that both sides were pretty much in
agreement that the war was about ending or retaining slavery. I would argue that in advance, that war looked like an awful, terrible, horrible proposition.  The initial value proposition was "let's go to war so the Feds can have a bigger empire to run."  Only later did it become, "let's go to war to free a large part of our population."  There was a female professor, I forget her name, who made the point that the Emancipation Proclamation changed the war from a bloody waste of time to a moral positive.  But that came years into the fight.

The other problem I have is that the war is fought by, well, the government, the institution for which I have no trust.  One way of thinking about it is that every time we go to war, we put our lives and treasure and very future as a country in the hands of the Post Office.  Eeek.

Lessons for the UN from the American Civil War

The United Nations is broken -- this is beyond question.   The only thing left to argue about is if it is Worldcom-broken, where the basic business model is OK but the management is corrupt; or Internet-startup-broken, where the whole mission and business model is wrong.  I would contend that the answer is a little of both.

One of the sources of confusion in discussing the UN is that the organization has several very different missions.  These missions fall in roughly two categories:

  1. Distribution of aid and relief, including funds and training for education, public health, and poverty mitigation.
  2. Helping to manage relationships between nations and, sometimes, between nations and their people

The first mission, of administering aid, is plagued mainly by corruption and bureaucratic waste and mismanagement, and would probably be fixable to some extent with better leadership in place.  Personally, I think much of the aid provided is well-intentioned but misguided.  Poverty generally results from corrupt, confiscatory, totalitarian regimes.  As a result, much of the aid (see oil for food in Iraq) gets siphoned off as graft by rulers, and the rest may alleviate some suffering but provides no long-term progress toward fixing the real problems the poor face.  However, given that so many people and nations feel conscience-bound to keep sending the aid, and given that some of the aid does in fact help, a cleaned-up UN is probably a reasonable vehicle for delivering it.

My main focus in this post, however, is on the second UN mission listed above, that of managing the relations between peoples and nations.  The fundamental problem is that we as Americans (rightly) expect the UN to carry a set of values into its dealings with nations that the majority of its member nations do not share.  Here, I am not even talking about contentious issues that even Western democracies might argue about (e.g. abortion, capital punishment) but the basics -- things like free elections, free expression, and free markets.  Just scan the list of member nations, or, even more revealing, the list of countries on the UN Human Rights committee (yep, you can bet that Sudan brings a lot of moral authority to that committee).  The UN is a dictators club.

The best analogy I can come up with is the United States in the decade before the Civil War.  Imagine that rather than being split 50/50, the majority of states in the US at the time supported slavery.  In those circumstances, how much chance would there be that the Congress would successfully pass a law outlawing slavery?  Right, none.  In the same way, it is unreasonable to expect a UN that is majority-controlled by totalitarians to take any meaningful steps to support freedom and plurality.

Until the Civil War, states in the South believed that the Constitution allowed them substantial, in fact near total, leeway in setting their own laws and standards.  While in a Federalist system this is always somewhat true, what the Civil War was really about was the United States establishing that there are certain minimum standards that member-states will be held to, even if enforcement of those standards requires the use of force.   Ever since, though states may vary in terms of tax rates and such, there are minimum standards that are non-negotiable  (though sometimes this gets carried away - was the 55 mile an hour speed limit really a necessary element of these minimum standards?)  The civil rights movement of the 1960's was another such time when the US enforced a minimum standard on its individual states.

Bringing this analogy back to the UN, the UN is weak because there are no minimum standards for membership.  An immoral nation alone is immoral.  A grouping of immoral nations is still immoral - the grouping does not confer any moral authority.  When the UN was founded, it was thought that having as many of the world's nations as possible as members would confer the maximum moral authority on the body, sort of like having a higher turnout in an election tends to increase the perceived mandate and legitimacy of the victors.  Its becoming increasingly clear, though, that having all the nations of the world, many of them dictatorships, as members is in fact destroying any moral authority and effectiveness the UN might have.

Since 9/11, the United States has adopted a dual foreign policy of fighting terrorism and promoting democracy around the world.  Most Americans support these goals, thought many disagree with any number of the tactics over the last several years.  In achieving these goals, it would be far better for the US to be able to pursue them as part of a coalition, an alliance for freedom and democracy, rather than on its own.  As has been made pretty clear, the UN is not going to be that vehicle.  It houses too many terrorists to ever agree to fight terrorists (it cannot even agree on a definition of terrorism) and it encompasses too many totalitarians ever do anything meaningful to fight for individual rights (see Sudan, Congo).  Of course, this doesn't stop the UN from trying to take credit for progress made by others.

What is needed is a new organization with a core group of countries strongly committed to democracy that can act with greater moral authority than any single country but who will not be hamstrung by members who oppose strong interventions because they fear being the next target.  This article by Jonathon Rausch in Reason shows encouraging steps in the right direction:

Since 1996, a handful of foreign-policy wonks have been kicking around the idea of a "democracy caucus" at the U.N. Two administrations, first Bill Clinton's and then George W. Bush's, took quiet but significant steps in that direction. Now, according to Bush administration officials, the concept will be test-flown at the six-week meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights that began on Monday in Geneva.

He concludes:

"United Nations" is an oxymoron. Democracies and dictatorships are mongoose and cobra, with no real hope of uniting except opportunistically. But a community of democracies"”that might just work. It already works in NATO and the E.U. The new community is a fledgling, but many readers of this article may live to see it soar.

UPDATE:  By the way, a reader pointed out to me one other problem the UN has:  their mission has been perverted from one something like "working toward a more peaceful world" to "peace at all costs".  The problem with peace at all costs, and something the American left and many of my fellow libertarians need to do a gut-check on, is that if you seek peace above all else, it means that you are willing to live, literally, with anything else.  That can mean anything from living with genocide (Sudan) to living with totalitarianism (N. Korea) to living with sponsorship of terrorism (Iran, Syria). 

By the way, I will pre-empt the obvious straw man here:  opposing peace at all costs does not mean favoring war as a first option.  I approved of the war in Afghanistan, but opposed invading Iraq, though in the latter case I am hopeful for the Iraqi people and that the example of Iraq may be setting a good example elsewhere, as in Jordan.