Saturday, November 21
Monday, October 26
Matthew Duss, writing for Foreign Affairs on October 22, lays out his case for establishing a commission to investigate the sins of America over the course of the Global War on Terror and recommend remedial actions so that America never does anything like GWOT ever again. (U.S. Foreign Policy Never Recovered From the War on Terror: "Only a Reckoning With the Disastrous Legacy of 9/11 Can Heal the United States.")
The catch is that to follow what he wants of a GWOT commission is like following a description of Russiagate, which maybe five Americans can understand (I'm not one of the five), or the Tale of Benghazi, which is so confusing that the public (those 5 or 10 still game for solving the mystery) is still trying to figure out what happened that fateful night, and why.
So many tangled tales have arisen since 9/11 that it's the tangles, not any specific situations, which hallmark not only the long war but also all the major incidents of the early part of this century. Indeed the best description for this era is Red Herring.
A commission of the kind Matthew Duss envisions would only add to the tangle, with the entire enterprise collapsing in a tangle of counter-accusations.
A simpler way to approach the problem would be to look at the genesis of U.S. military actions that eventually got lumped in with GWOT but at the start had virtually nothing to do with it. Libya and Syria fill the bill. Straighten out the story of those 'wars,' then use that as a lens to study U.S. actions across the spectrum of GWOT.
To get the ball rolling across the mounds of red herring, I recommend Libya, the Obama Administration, and the Muslim Brotherhood (Part 1) and Libya, the Obama Administration, and the Muslim Brotherhood (Part 2) by Vincent Amoroso for The Best of Africa.
Note the date of publication -- January 2020. Yes, this year. The basic story has been known for a long time to interested members of public but it took an awful lot of work and patience to fit the pieces together in a way that wasn't hopelessly confusing to a general reader. Often it would be years before an intelligence agency would cough up a bit of the story, to be fit with other bits.
Yet when it's all said and done, when all the pieces finally drop, we will be staring not at the United States of America but at a logo.
That, dear reader, will never happen.
Thursday, October 8
"Settle your issues with Iran, leave Yemen out": Houthi to Saudi Arabia and US
October 7, 2020
BEIRUT, LEBANON (10:20 A.M.) – The leader of the Ansarallah Movement, Muhammad Ali Al-Houthi, called on Saudi Arabia and the United States to “settle their accounts” with Iran, instead of targeting the Yemenis.
Houthi said in an interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel:
"Saudi Arabia operates in the Arabian Peninsula as an American state that submits to Trump. The American president fixes the price that Saudi Arabia pays. The United States gives directions.
“We are not a terrorist group and fundamentally we do not recognize this term. The United States attaches the sign of terrorists to those who oppose its policies. Even the demonstrators on American streets have been described as terrorists by Trump. I ask myself why is this happening now? What is the red threat that we passed?"
Houthi continued, in response to a question about Western intelligence reports about the increasing use of Iranian missiles and drones by the Houthis:
“Why are Saudi Arabia and the United States fighting a war against us? On the pretext of our support from Iran? If we are funded by Iran, please, bomb Iran, the financing party. No, slaughter the Yemenis!"
This is exactly what we said to the Saudis and the Americans. If you have accounts with the Iranians, then settle them with the Iranians,” he added.
Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has led the Arab coalition, which has been waging intense military operations in Yemen in support of the Yemeni government loyal to President Abd Rubbah Mansour Hadi."
Thanks, Sputnik for catching her hard at work.
Monday, September 21
Mr. Xi’s “clean plate” campaign strikes at the heart of dining culture in China. Custom dictates that ordering extra dishes and leaving food behind are ways to demonstrate generosity toward one’s relatives, clients, business partners and important guests.
Such habits have contributed to an estimated 17 million to 18 million tons of food being discarded annually, an amount that could feed 30 million to 50 million people for a year, according to a study by the Chinese Academy of Science and the World Wildlife Fund.
Mr. Xi’s call is as much a warning against the dangers of profligacy as it is a reflection of the generational shift in values that has emerged as living standards rise.
[...]Many among the country’s younger generation, such as Samantha Pan, a 21-year-old student in Guangzhou, embrace being free from having to worry about saving food for a rainy day, and hold little regard for the state’s moral exhortations.
“This type of initiative is very boring and useless,” Ms. Pan said in a telephone interview. “I am entitled to order as much food as I want. If I just happen to love wasting food, it’s still my freedom.”
As we can see from Ms Pan's ringing defense of her freedom to waste food, not all of China is racing to tighten its belt. Yet China is now facing severe food insecurity, as detailed by the updated Times report and one from The Hill, Another famine coming? China struggles to meet basic food demands.
As with so many other kinds of crises that have arisen in this young century, the only viable course of action is for individuals to change their thinking.
Change or die; that's what the crystal ball is telling me.
Tuesday, September 8
Well, here is my opinion of Beijing:
Substitute "land" for "lady" in the lyrics, and there is America, the British Empire wannabe, to a T. These days you have to be crazy to join any American 'coalition of the willing'
Wednesday, September 2
Monday, August 24
I can tell you in one sentence what's wrong with America. But then you'd have to understand the sentence.
What's wrong is that when statistical data interpretation rules societies, disaster results. That's the truth, the whole truth about what's wrong with today's USA; everything else is blither spewed by superficial thinkers.
The fastest way to understand what I've told you is to gather your attention and plow through a lengthy, tortured article by Gwynn Guilford,, who spent six years in China researching their economy and trying to explain it for hedge funds. In her 2018 writing for Quartz, The epic mistake about manufacturing that’s cost Americans millions of jobs, she sets out to explain the thinking that led a majority of economists to misinterpret the statistics they used to interpret the American manufacturing sector. To call what they did a mistake, even an epic one, hardly conveys the disaster that resulted.
Here are a few passages from the writing:
... Manufacturers’ embrace of automation was supposedly a good thing. Sure, some factory workers lost their jobs. But increased productivity boosted living standards, and as manufacturing work vanished, new jobs in construction and other services took its place. This was more of a shift than a loss, explained Bradford DeLong, economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
So when Trump won the presidential election, the true-blue data believers dismissed his victory as the triumph of rhetoric over fact. His supporters had succumbed to a nativist tale with cartoon villains like “cheating China” and a shadowy cabal of Rust Belt-razing “globalists.”
But it turns out that Trump’s story of US manufacturing decline was much closer to being right than the story of technological progress being spun in Washington, New York, and Cambridge.
Thanks to a painstaking analysis by a handful of economists, it’s become clear that the data that underpin the dominant narrative—or more precisely, the way most economists interpreted the data—were way off-base. Foreign competition, not automation, was behind the stunning loss in factory jobs. And that means America’s manufacturing sector is in far worse shape than the media, politicians, and even most academics realize.
Here I'll skip over several paragraphs to get to this part:
In other words, the method statisticians use to account for these advances can make it seem like US firms are producing and selling more computers than they actually are. And when the computers data are aggregated with the other subsectors, the adjustment makes it seem like the whole of American manufacturing is churning out more goods than it actually is.
Misreading the manufacturing statistics
It’s this adjustment that is the crux of economists’ misinterpretation of the health of manufacturing. There’s nothing wrong with accounting for product quality. But most economists and policymakers have failed to take into account how adjusting for quality improvements in a relatively small subsector skews the manufacturing output data.
Later in the writing Guilford observes:
Two decades of ill-founded policymaking radically restructured the US economy, and reshuffled the social order too. The America that resulted is more unequal and more polarized than it’s been in decades, if not nearly a century.
In effect, US policymakers put diplomacy before industrial development at home, offering the massive American consumer market as a carrot to encourage other countries to open up their economies to multinational investment. Then, thanks to the popular narrative that automation was responsible for job losses in manufacturing, American leaders tended to dismiss the threat of foreign competition to a thriving manufacturing industry and minimize its importance to the overall health of the US economy.
Guilford stays away from the larger inference, but the tortured tale she unravels speaks for itself. We -- the American society as a whole, not only economists -- have reached a stage where we are simply overwhelmed by our attempts to interpret the shifting and changing statistics we wring from masses of collected data.
We are in over our heads. The awful state of American society reflects this.
Sunday, August 23
Thursday, August 20
Dr Ron Paul turned 85 years old today. He is a great American, a very loyal American, but by a curious logic just about every loyal American you can name these days who advises against mindless U.S. wars and meddling has been labeled a Russian agent. Such is the state of America's defense/foreign policy establishment and the media, here and abroad, that backs up the establishment.
Protesting the label is no use; there is no defense against the accusation. Whether you know it or not, you're a Russian influence agent even if you aren't on the Kremlin's payroll if you argue against, say, American actions in Syria, which Dr Paul most certainly has done. And God Forbid if you've ever been interviewed by Russia's RT, which Dr Paul has. Any American who speaks to RT or writes an opinion column for them is ipso facto a Russian influence agent. You might not think you work for the Russians but that just goes to show how much they have duped you.
Ronald Ernest Paul (born August 20, 1935) is an American author, physician, retired politician, and presidential candidate who served as the U.S. Representative for Texas's 22nd congressional district from 1976 to 1977 and again from 1979 to 1985, and for Texas's 14th congressional district from 1997 to 2013. On three occasions, he sought the presidency of the United States: as the Libertarian Party nominee in 1988 and as a candidate in the Republican primaries of 2008 and 2012. A self-described "constitutionalist", Paul is a critic of the federal government's fiscal policies, especially the existence of the Federal Reserve and the tax policy, as well as the military–industrial complex, the war on drugs, and the war on terror. He has also been a vocal critic of mass surveillance policies such as the USA PATRIOT Act and the NSA surveillance programs. He was the first chairman of the conservative PAC Citizens for a Sound Economy, a free-market group focused on limited government, and has been characterized as the "intellectual godfather" of the Tea Party movement, a fiscally conservative political movement that is largely against most matters of interventionism.
Paul served as a flight surgeon in the U.S. Air Force from 1963 to 1968, and worked as an obstetrician-gynecologist from the 1960s to the 1980s. [...]
I can't say I agree with every one of his political positions because I'm not familiar with every one of them, but I hope that the above is enough to convey why I admire Dr Paul.
So, from one Russian dupe to another (since the start of the Russian intervention in Syria I've probably quoted RT more than any other blogger) happy birthday, sir, and I pray for your long life and good health.
Tuesday, August 11
I stumbled across the following article while researching calcium supplements. The discoveries written about have been around for some time but this is the first I'm learning about them. All I can say is wow, and thank The Guardian and the reporter, a health journalist and former neuroscientist. And ponder that sometimes a failed experiment leads to a vast leap in knowledge.Does the key to anti-ageing lie in our bones?
By David Cox
July 4, 2020
Osteocalcin, a hormone produced in the bones, could one day provide treatments for age-related issues such as muscle and memory loss
Gérard Karsenty was a young scientist trying to make a name for himself in the early 1990s when he first stumbled upon a finding that would go on to transform our understanding of bone, and the role it plays in our body.
Karsenty had become interested in osteocalcin, one of the most abundant proteins in bone. He suspected that it played a crucial role in bone remodelling – the process by which our bones continuously remove and create new tissue – which enables us to grow during childhood and adolescence, and also recover from injuries.
Intending to study this, he conducted a genetic knockout experiment, removing the gene responsible for osteocalcin from mice. However to his dismay, his mutant mice did not appear to have any obvious bone defects at all. “For him, it was initially a total failure,” says Mathieu Ferron, a former colleague of Karsenty who now heads a research lab studying bone biology at IRCM in Montreal. “In those days it was super-expensive to do modification in the mouse genome.”
But then Karsenty noticed something unexpected. While their bones had developed normally, the mice appeared to be both noticeably fat and cognitively impaired.
“Mice that don’t have osteocalcin have increased circulating glucose, and they tend to look a bit stupid,” says Ferron. “It may sound silly to say this, but they don’t learn very well, they appear kind of depressed. But it took Karsenty and his team some time to understand how a protein in bone could be affecting these functions. They were initially a bit surprised and terrified as it didn’t really make any sense to them.”
Almost 15 years later, Karsenty would publish the first of a series of landmark papers that would revolutionise our perspective on bone and the skeleton in general. We used to view our skeleton as primarily a mechanical structure whose main role is to serve as a scaffold for the rest of the body. But our bones are very much live organs, which we now believe play a role in regulating a whole range of vital bodily processes ranging from memory to appetite, muscle health, fertility, metabolism and many others.
“The idea that bone is just a simple organ that’s separated from everything else as a mineralised tissue, and that doesn’t communicate – that’s changed,” says Thomas Clemens, professor of orthopaedic surgery at the Johns Hopkins Center for Musculoskeletal Research. “Karsenty has ushered in the idea that bone is involved in communicating with other tissues in the body that wasn’t really understood or investigated before."
We now know that bones communicate by participating in a network of signals to other organs through producing their own hormones, proteins that circulate in the blood. Karsenty’s mice eventually led him to realise that osteocalcin was in fact one such hormone, and understanding its links to regulating so many of these functions could have future implications in terms of public health interventions.
“The idea that bone could produce a hormone affecting metabolism or even your liver initially came as a bit of a shock,” says Ferron. “People did not expect that. But other scientists have since replicated the results, and even discovered new hormones also produced by bones. It’s opened up a completely new field in bone research.”
Reversing age-related decline
As we age, all of us inevitably lose bone. Research shows that humans reach peak bone mass in their 20s; from then onwards, it is a slow decline that can eventually lead to frailty and diseases such as osteoporosis in old age.
Over the past decade, new findings have suggested that this reduction in bone mass may also be linked to the weakening of muscles – referred to in medical terms as sarcopenia – as well as the memory and cognitive problems that many of us experience as we grow older. This appears to be connected to the levels of osteocalcin in the blood, through its role as a “master regulator”, influencing many other hormonal processes in the body.
“Osteocalcin acts in muscle to increase the ability to produce ATP, the fuel that allows us to exercise,” says Karsenty. “In the brain, it regulates the secretion of most neurotransmitters that are needed to have memory. The circulating levels of osteocalcin declines in humans around mid-life, which is roughly the time when these physiological functions, such as memory and the ability to exercise, begin to decline.”
But intriguingly in recent years, Karsenty has conducted a series of experiments in which he has shown that by increasing the levels of osteocalcin in older mice through injections, you can actually reverse many of these age-related ailments.
“Osteocalcin seems to be able to reverse manifestations of ageing in the brain and in muscle,” he says. “What is remarkable is that if you give osteocalcin to old mice, you restore memory and you restore the ability to exercise to the levels seen in a young mouse. That makes it potentially extremely attractive from a medical point of view."
Scientists have also found that for humans, one way of naturally maintaining the levels of this hormone in the blood, even as we age, is through exercise, something that makes intuitive sense, as physical activity has long been known to have anti-ageing properties. Ferron is hoping that these findings can be used to support public health messages regarding the importance of staying active through middle age and later life.
“If you exercise regularly, then it stimulates your bone to make more osteocalcin, and that will have these beneficial effects on muscle and brain,” he says. “From epidemiological studies, we know that people who are very active tend to have less of a cognitive decline with age than sedentary people. With time, maybe people will be more aware of this connection, and think of their bone health as being just as important as other aspects of staying healthy.”
Ongoing research in this area also suggests that exercising more during the teenage years and early adulthood can continue to have a protective effect on bone and other aspects of health much later in life.
“I think this could reinforce the message that it’s important for people to be active during adolescence and early adult years,” Ferron says. “This means they reach a higher peak bone mass, which will protect them from age-related problems linked to osteocalcin decline.”
Utilising bone hormones to develop new drugs
Osteocalcin is not the only bone hormone to have caught the attention of scientists, however. At the Mayo Clinic, Sundeep Khosla has been studying a hormone called DPP4, which is made by cells on the outer layers of bone, called osteoclasts, and appears to play a role in how bone regulates blood sugar.
Khosla is particularly interested in this hormone because the drug denosumab – which is clinically prescribed to osteoporosis patients to try and slow down the rate of bone loss – seems to have a positive effect on DPP4 as well. In a study of osteoporosis patients taking denosumab published earlier this year, he noticed that those also suffering from diabetes experienced an improvement in their symptoms.
“This shows that maybe this drug can treat both osteoporosis and diabetes at the same time,” says Khosla. “We’re now looking to follow up on these observations and test this through a randomised control trial."
However, osteocalcin, with its potential to prevent many aspects of age-related decline, remains the major topic of interest in bone research. Given that so many people ignore public health guidelines regarding exercise – in 2017, the British Heart Foundation reported that around 20 million adults in the UK are insufficiently active – Karsenty is working on a means of artificially increasing the levels of osteocalcin in the blood and has even filed a patent on using it to treat cognitive disorders.
“This is not easy, but what we are hoping to do is to deliver osteocalcin perhaps through developing a molecule which regulates osteocalcin,” he says. “We’re exploring various ways of doing this, but the idea would be eventually to have something which could be used to treat age-related diseases such as sarcopenia and memory decline. This is really going to profit the elderly the most, but anyone with a decline in muscle function, because of a hip fracture or another condition, could also benefit from this treatment.
Ferron says that such a treatment would differ from current medications designed to improve bone health in osteoporosis, as they only work by blocking bone loss. A drug targeting osteocalcin would aim to achieve wider health benefits through stimulating bone gain.
However, there are still plenty of hurdles to overcome. For example, simply injecting a form of osteocalcin is unlikely to be sufficient to achieve a therapeutic benefit in humans.
“Treatments like that tend to be more costly and more difficult as protein injections don’t have a very long half life,” says Ferron. “My lab is developing a stabilised form of osteocalcin so it can stay longer in the body, but the best solution would be to have some sort of small pharmacological molecules that could be put in a pill to target the receptor of osteocalcin to stimulate its activity. So that’s the idea I see for the future.”
But Karsenty’s findings have also led scientists to ponder a somewhat profound question: how did bones develop the ability to produce hormones such as osteocalcin in the first place?
The scientist himself believes that the answer lies deep in our evolutionary past. “I think that evolution has invented osteocalcin as a survival hormone,” he says. “Because to escape predators, you need your bones to be able to signal to your muscles to run, which is mediated by osteocalcin. To survive, you also need to remember where to find food or where a predator was an hour ago, and such memory processes are regulated by osteocalcin. More and more, we think that it evolved as a hormone to help animals escape danger.”
Thursday, August 6
Sunday, August 2
Semih Terzi, a general within the Turkish army, was executed on the night of the 2016 Turkish coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The new allegations unveiled in court testimonies from a hearing March 20, 2019at Ankara 17th High Criminal Court were made by Col. Fırat Alakuş, an army officer working within Turkey’s Special Forces Command’s intelligence section.
According to the Nordic Monitor, Terzi is said to have been executed after discovering that Lt. Gen. Zekai Aksakallı, in charge of the Special Forces Command at the time, was working covertly with Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) “in running illegal and clandestine operations in Syria for personal gain while dragging Turkey deeper into the Syrian civil war.”
“[Terzi] knew how much of the funding delivered [to Turkey] by Qatar for the purpose of purchasing weapons and ammunition for the opposition was actually used for that and how much of it was actually used by public officials, how much was embezzled,” Col. Alakuş was quoted as saying by the Nordic Monitor via his court testimony.
The Nordic Monitor said in its report published on Friday that Alakuş testified that Aksakallı had run a gang outside of the chain of command within the Turkish intelligence that was involved in illicit activities.
The report further alleged that Terzi was aware of public officials involved in oil-smuggling operations with ISIS from Syria.
“[Terzi] was aware of who in the government was involved in an oil-smuggling operation from Syria, how the profits were shared, and what activities they were involved in,” Alakuş said in his testimony.
Wednesday, July 22
There is no evidence that the accusations have a basis in facts, which the USA Today report eventually gets around to explaining. But the British are sure that if only they'd worked harder and earlier to investigate, they would have had the evidence.
I am so sick of British Shaggy Dog tales about the Russians but I told myself wearily I had to keep track of the nonsense because it kept unleashing horrors on the Syrians. Yet the British government's hatred for the Russians was not caused by Russian actions in Syria; it was an obsessive hatred. Why?
The standard explanations, plausible on their own, didn't stack for me; when there are so many explanations this is not about specific incidents or people. Instead the Russians had come to symbolize something for many British, something they hated. What did they symbolize?
I was so intent on my ruminations I didn't notice I'd been unseeingly clicking through YouTube videos after I'd watched a movie 'trailer' about the Brexit political campaign.
That was how the more mysterious of the YouTube bots took charge of my question. And that was how I watched scenes from a 1980s BBC TV comedy series called "Blackadder," which I'd never seen before and knew nothing about, and all the while asking myself, 'Why am I watching this?'
I had to go to Wikipedia to learn about the series. But I'll do to you what the bots did to me: with no introduction beyond that the scenes are set at the British front lines in the Great War (WWI), I'll throw you into the madhouse.
Ready? Start at the 19:11 mark, then watch until the end, which is about eight minutes later.
If you tell me after watching that there was actually nothing funny about it -- right.
I've heard that fatalism is part of the Russian character; whether or not such a generality applies, there is a big difference between fatalism and nihilism. So here I'm going to take a flying leap.
It could be that the Russians symbolize to the British upper class a people who avoided nihilism when by all rights they should have become nihilistic. Whereas many British lost faith in themselves over the course of two world wars and the breakup of their empire, and so fell into the trap of nihilism.
If I am in the ballpark, I venture the British need to be a little kinder to themselves before they can forgive Russians for being too dense to realize they have nothing to be proud of. That might be a hard to do if the British upper class and intellectuals take their sense of identity from a set of values that places great emphasis on adherence to high ideals.
In short, the British would need to acknowledge to themselves that the penalty for acting all too human should not be nihilism.
That's the best I can do with the Blackadder scenes YouTube wanted me to see. Ah well, the brilliant reasoning of those mystery bots is wasted on me.
Tuesday, July 21
Foreign Policy magazine
In some cases, this impulse arises from (mostly) benevolent aims: The leaders of some country genuinely believe that spreading (through force, if necessary) their ideals and institutions to others will genuinely benefit the recipients. Defensive motives may also be operating: A state may believe that it cannot be reliably secure unless other countries have similar if not identical institutions. U.S. leaders once worried that America could not survive alone in a world dominated by fascism, and Joseph Stalin believed the Soviet Union needed “friendly” countries on its borders, by which he meant countries governed by Leninist parties patterned after the Soviet model.
Of course, such claims may simply be a reassuring story that ruling elites propagate to justify aggressive actions undertaken for more selfish reasons. Whatever the motivation, if their efforts were successful the world would gradually converge on a single model for political, economic, and social life. Individual national variations would be modest and declining in importance, limited to purely local concerns (such as national holidays, cuisine, preferred musical styles, etc.). In theory, even some of these features might begin to lose their individual features over time.
This hasn’t happened, however, due to an intriguing paradox. Thus far, the only political form that has commanded nearly universal global acceptance is the territorial state itself, along with the closely related idea of nationalism. As Hendrik Spruyt, Stephen Krasner, Dan Nexon, and others have explored, the territorial state was only one of several political forms coexisting in early modern Europe, and its eventual emergence as the dominant political form was a contentious process that might have turned out differently. Many factors contributed to its ultimate success, and one of them was the idea of sovereignty: the principle that every government got to run its own affairs as its rulers (or, eventually, its citizens) saw fit. And once that principle took firm hold, individual local variations were reinforced and entrenched.
Add to this notion the emerging idea of nationalism—the belief that different groups of people have distinct identities based on language, culture, shared history, etc. and that such self-aware groups are entitled to govern themselves—and you have a couple of powerful and mutually reinforcing ideals. As John Mearsheimer argues in The Great Delusion, nations want their own state so that they can protect themselves in an insecure world, and states often encourage nationalism in order to unify the population and enhance state power.
The gradual spread of these twin ideas—nationalism and sovereignty—has had far-reaching if uneven effects. Nationalism undermined and eventually destroyed the Spanish, Portugeuse, British, French, Belgian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Soviet empires, and decolonization eventually swelled the United Nations from its original 50-odd members to nearly 200 states today. In this way, the territorial state became the dominant political form in the contemporary world, but the specific content within each state still varied enormously. Democracies, monarchies, oligarchies, one-party authoritarians, military dictators, religious regimes, etc. all coexisted within the basic framework of the sovereign state, along with a number of different economic systems.
Throughout this process, a number of countries have at one time or another seen themselves as models for the rest, and they have tried in various ways to convince others to adopt their formula. The leaders of revolutionary France sought to topple foreign monarchs and spread liberty to Europe and beyond, and Napoleon subsequently tried to impose his own order on the countries he had conquered. Soviet Russia was explicitly committed to spreading its particular form of socialism, and pan-Arabists, Nasserites, and assorted Islamic fundamentalists have sought to convince or coerce others into adopting their preferred model within the Arab and Islamic world.
Although Americans were initially ambivalent about whether their newfangled republic could be a model for others, confidence that other states would benefit if they become more like the United States grew as the country rose to great-power status and became the world’s strongest power.
Not surprisingly, in the unipolar era the United States increasingly favored a one-size-fits-all approach to other countries. Foreign countries may still have been regarded as formally sovereign, but the United States increasingly sought to influence (if not dictate) some of their national policy decisions.
In politics, Washington sought to promote democracy where and when it could, whether by providing money and advice to nascent civil society groups, supporting human rights more generally, or acting to topple regimes that were unlucky or unwise enough to attract Washington’s particular ire. The goal, as President George W. Bush put it, was “a generation of democratic peace,” and U.S. power could be used to speed up the timetable and get the globe there as quickly as possible.
Lastly, as my colleague Dani Rodrik argues convincingly, U.S. efforts to promote what he calls “hyperglobalization” led other states to alter their domestic arrangements in ways that would attract foreign capital, expand trade opportunities, and bring them into greater conformity with U.S. preferences. Whether in the form of the 1990s Washington Consensus or trade agreements like the stillborn Trans-Pacific Partnership, a world with fewer barriers to the movement of goods, people, or capital left national governments less able to chart their own course or insulate their populations from global market forces. As practiced, globalization meant states either had to put on what Tom Friedman dubbed “the Golden Straightjacket” or fall by the wayside.
The past 15 years has not been kind to this ambitious vision of a world increasingly united by shared values and similar institutions. Efforts to prevent adversaries from acquiring WMD were only partly successful (and at considerable cost). Key states such as China did not liberalize as expected yet continued to prosper. The spread of democracy slowed, stalled, and then went into reverse, and the state of America’s own democracy become deeply troubling.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, a broad backlash against globalization was underway, whether in the form of Brexit, Trumpism, the growing segmentation of the internet, and the partial decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies. As I’ve written elsewhere, the pandemic has accelerated and deepened these tendencies, and raised the walls that the United States and others had been trying to lower before the arrival of Donald Trump.
The common taproot to these various trends is simple. It is the desire of leaders or peoples in different states to have a greater say in how they live, even if it means somewhat less material prosperity. The leaders of the Brexit campaign may have been supremely cynical in the many false claims they made to sell their scheme, but the supporters who voted to “take back control” were utterly sincere. They wanted to defend a particular way of life against changes they saw as disruptive and as threats to a cherished “way of life.” Much the same instinct lies behind efforts to curb immigration in many countries, or the every-state-for-itself impulse that is leading many nations to seek a COVID-19 vaccine for themselves first and others later.
What we are seeing, in short, is a reassertion of sovereign independence on the part of great and small powers alike. The Westphalian model of sovereignty has never been absolute or uncontested, but the idea that individual nations should be (mostly) free to chart their own course at home remains deeply embedded in the present world order. The territorial state remains the basic building block of world politics, and, with some exceptions, states today are doing more to reinforce that idea than to dilute it.
Although there are clearly areas where our future depends on states agreeing to limit their own freedom of action and conform to global norms and institutions, greater respect for sovereignty and national autonomy has some obvious benefits. First, states that interfere in foreign countries rarely understand what they are doing, and even well-intentioned efforts often fail due to ignorance, unintended consequences, or local resentment and resistance. A stronger norm of noninterference could make some protracted conflicts less likely or prolonged.
Second, trying to impose a single model on other countries inevitably raises threat perceptions and increases the risk of serious great-power conflict. The Westphalian idea of sovereignty was created in part to address this problem: Instead of continuing to fight over which version of Christianity would hold sway in different countries (one of the key drivers of the wars that preceded the Westphalian peace), European states agreed to let each ruler determine the religious orientation of their realm.
Third, creating a more stable international economic order while preserving most of the benefits of trade and comparative advantage will require fashioning trade and economic arrangements that permit great national autonomy, even at the price of slightly lower global growth rates. Not only might this reduce the risk of global financial panics, but allowing individual states greater freedom to set the terms of their international economic engagement could also reduce the anti-free trade backlash that is currently fueling costly trade wars.
Finally, a world in which a single political and economic model prevails is probably impossible anyway, at least for the foreseeable future. To believe that one size could fit all ignores the enormous diversity that still exists in the world and the powerful tendency for ideas and institutions to morph and evolve as they travel from their point of origins.
Take pop music: Elvis Presley creates a new amalgam of rhythm and blues, gospel, and rockabilly (with a jolt of testosterone), his influence arrives in England and helps inspire the Beatles, who lead the “British invasion” of America in the 1960s, which then combines with Bob Dylan and the folk music movement to create the sound of groups like The Byrds. Or look at how Lin-Manuel Miranda combined hip-hop with his deep appreciation of traditional Broadway styles to create something new like Hamilton. These examples just scratch the surface of how music changes when different cultural streams begin to interact; I could just as easily have cited examples from Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, or the Silk Road.
Because humans are boundlessly creative social beings who resist conformity, and because no social or political arrangements are ever perfect, dissidents will always arise and contending visions will emerge no matter how fiercely they are repressed. Institutions created in one place may travel to other locations, but they will mutate and evolve in the process and exhibit different forms wherever they take root.
And that’s why I’ll raise two cheers for the (partly) sovereign state. A world made up of contending nationalisms is hardly a utopia, with the ever-present possibility of conflict and war and many obstacles to mutual cooperation. But trying to fit a diverse humanity into a uniform box is doomed to fail—and no small source of trouble as well. Even if we hold certain values to be sacred and are tempted to act when other states violate them, continued respect for boundaries and sovereignty is also a norm that can keep simmering rivalries in check. Libya would not have multiple powers interfering in it today had Britain, France, and the United States not decided to meddle there back in 2011.
As A.J.P. Taylor once archly observed, leaders in the 19th century “fought ‘necessary’ wars and killed thousands; the idealists of the 20th century fought ‘just’ wars and killed millions.”
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.