Monday, November 27

Nationalism vs tribalism: a more productive debate than realism vs idealism?

“I wish we could take all the Lebanese to Canada or America, let them live there for two months and have them start thinking differently. Then we would bring them back, and they would change the situation at its most basic level.”
-- Resident of Ain Rummaneh, a segregated neighborhood in Beirut, Lebanon

Pundita, dear, Regarding your nondiscussion [11/20 post] about Ethical Realism, I would like you to clarify whether you utterly reject the realist camp. If so, pray tell does that put you in the idealist camp? This is an important question because the realist school has gained ground in Washington in time with the growth of civil strife in Iraq. This does not bode well for America's idealistic, pro-democracy interventions in troubled countries. Or have you landed somewhere outside the realist and idealist schools?
Boris in Jackson Heights

Dear Boris:
First, for readers who have not been following the escalating idealist-realist debate, see
Robert D. Kaplan’s Washington Post opinion piece titled Interventionism’s Realistic Future for a crash course.

The debate revolves around whether and to what extent the United States should rely on humanitarian principles as a guide to foreign policy and military intervention. In short, the debate calls the Democracy Doctrine into question.

Kaplan points out that Nato’s refurbished mission as a “global constabulary force” tends to moot the argument. I think he's right; like it or lump it, Americans will continue to support politically correct interventions such as action in Darfur.

The issue underlying the current incarnation of the realist-idealist debate is the extent to which the United States should act unilaterally in humanitarian interventions. Also, just what constitutes ‘humanitarian?’ Is a defense of democracy reason enough for the United States to intervene in another country’s troubles?

I avoid the current debate because the realists lean heavily on the US actions in post-invasion Iraq to shore their arguments. But it's nonsense to claim that the United States invaded Iraq for humanitarian reasons. So it’s equally nonsensical to use the problems with the US occupation of Iraq to challenge the Democracy Doctrine.

And, as Pundita has pointed out until she's blue in the face, in this era of portable nukes it's dangerous to interpret a defense of democracy as an idealistic position.

The supporters of the Democracy Doctrine argue that democracy is the only workable defense against a government's embrace of totalitarianism. I think they are correct, to the extent one can avert a totalitarian plan. So in my view it is nostalgia to intrepret a modern defense of democracy as idealism; in this era it is simply facing up to reality that it no longer takes an invasion by a standing army to put a wealthy, nonaggressive government on the ropes.

What makes the point hard to see is that there are very few national leaders publishing their version of Mein Kampf. I suspect that many in Western foreign policy circles see the anti-totalitarian views of Paul Wolfowitz and Natan Sharansky as grounded in trauma -- in a fear of another Hitler arising.

Yes, they were traumatized, but that's just the point; people who are not steeped in the lessons of World War Two or Meerkat Manor need to see a massive armed invasion of a peaceful country before they can muster any concern about totalitarianism in this era. And they tend to believe that once the GDP of a country reaches a certain level and the median income of its citizens goes above the poverty line, this will erase millions of years of conditioning.

It's hard to reject that line of reasoning because the Marshall Plan, and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are based on it. They are based on the notion that Hitler's totalitarian views were supported by the German populace because of trauma arising from Germany's treatment by the victors after World War One. So the victors in World War Two said in effect, "If we try to apply the Carthage Solution again, it will come back to bite us."

That's true but it doesn't prove that totalitarianism -- or the impulse to plunder -- is rooted in economic issues. The idea that poverty is the root of all human evil has bestowed a Nobel Peace Prize, rather the economics prize, on Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank. Yunus argues that poverty is a great threat to peace. The argument depends on which side of the gun you're standing on if you're the target of a plunderer, doesn't it? You can ask a professional mugger why he doesn't go to work for MacDonald's flipping hamburgers instead of surviving by hitting on you. But you know, that's a really silly question.

Nowhere is it written that once a plunderer has a full belly -- or even a color TV and car -- will he stop plundering. Yet Yunus's argument has become an article of faith among the school of development policy pushed by Jeffrey Sachs and his cohorts.

However, I have come to question the position that launched this blog. Pundita's initial stance was that the central debate is between the neomercantilism underlying Jacques Chirac’s multilaterialist philosophy, and the importance that Paul Wolfowitz places on struggling against governments that espouse totalitarian views.

I think there is a more fundamental debate, which I subbornly insisted had been settled in the latter part of the 20th Century. The debate is between nationalism and tribalism. So smug was I about the winner of the debate that in September 2001, when asked what I made of the 9/11 attack, I snapped, “Tribalism’s last gasp.”

Tribalism is not dead yet, but it took three years of closely following events in the Middle East and ex-Soviet countries, and two TV seasons of studying the wars between Meerkat tribes, to bring home to me that it wasn’t just a few holdout tribes in the Third World that were against nationalism.

The impulse to belong to a tribe, as the way of reinforcing personal survival and identity, is rooted in atavistic behavior and maybe in our mammalian genes. The issue underlying the tribalism vs nationalism debate is whether a tribal form of government is superior to a nationalist one.

In my view the debate has been settled by the emergence of megapopulations. Tribal government gets increasingly difficult to administer as the numbers in the tribe rise much above 40 -- and I note that the lessons of Meerkat Manor shore this argument.

Yet one only need study the aftermath of Israel's invasion of Lebanon this year to have it brought home that national government, per se, is not the antidote to the limitations of tribal government.

Many Lebanese turned to Hezbollah for help in reconstruction and getting basic services restored. The national government was deemed by many of the poorest Lebanese as insufficient to deal with the post-invasion chaos.

One may argue that Hezbollah simply put on a good show: they showed their faces in the villages, handed out cash, and did a lot of running around. But at least they were there to give comfort and thus, made a powerful argument for the inability of national governments to truly care for and serve the needs of the people.

I interject that it doesn't help the larger situation if foreign powers have to play ministering angel among developing world peoples; indeed, the humanitarian interventions by the rich countries reinforce the notion in the recipient countries that one's national government is not capable.

The only solution to this perception is more efficient local and national government actions, which are on the way thanks to technologies such as Dial 311. The US also needs to redesign our humanitarian interventions so they have a more 'local' face. But here we are, about a quarter century away (even in the rich countries) from the efficiencies that technology will afford national governments.

So the question is how to effectively argue for nationalism to tribal peoples who haven't seen much if any benefit from national government, and who won't see it maybe in their lifetime. Also, should the argument be worked into America's foreign policy?

Ironically, the great reliance on cutting edge communications technology that today's tribalistic terror armies embrace tends to dampen the fear of one's loss of identity in a nationalist society. Yet it does not dampen the totalitarian impulse in the most aggressive mammals. Any doubts on that score, watch both seasons of Meerkat Manor.

The flip side can also be seen by the meerkats. The most aggressive mammals are tribal leaders; in other words, if the most aggressive among us didn't exist tribes would invent them. Yet week after week, you can study the great success of the tribal structure among the meerkats. Even while it's right before your eyes, it is hard to take in that creatures no more than 12 inches tall have mastered the challenges that the Kalahari Desert pose for weak mammals. The meerkats do it through treamwork among the tribe members. The same happened for humans. When arguing for national government over tribalism one has to keep that point in mind.

It would also help if the tribalism vs nationalism debate was called out on more occasions for what it actually is. The news media tend to report on the issue in terms of 'sectarian strife.' Witness Anthony Shadid's November 23 article for The Washington Post about the great toll that sectarian divisions are wreaking in Lebanon. I'm not knocking the article but 'sectarian' issues are an abstraction from the concrete concept of tribalism, whether the tribe is formed along racial, religious or familial lines. I think it helps to be very concrete in terminology while discussing the issue.

The quote featured at the start of this post is from Shadid's article. Would the solution proposed by the resident of Ain Rummaneh actually work? Well, I appreciate the sentiment but the tribal-minded masterminds of the 9/11 plot spent more than two months in prosperous democratic nationalist societies. And the ghastly inefficiences of the US occupation of Iraq have not helped shore the idea that nationalism is superior mode of thinking.

In the end, people don't want to be separate and apart -- walled off along sectarian lines; they want to be successful. The task is for developed nationalist societies to frame that truth in measures that help tribal societies improve the workings of their national government.

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