The U.N. Security Council. What’s Up With That?
And 9 other truly absurd features of contemporary geopolitics.
Those of us who work on foreign policy like to think of ourselves as hard-headed, rational people who don’t easily succumb to myths, fables, or delusions. If only that were true! In fact, foreign-policy mavens as just as vulnerable to blindered thinking as any other human beings, and our community has its own set of odd beliefs and practices that are rarely questioned or criticized.
In fact, if one moves outside the bubble of mainstream discourse and takes a hard look at some familiar elements of contemporary world politics, they begin to look rather peculiar, even absurd. What do I mean by that? I mean an unusual, bizarre, risible, and hard-to-justify state of affairs whose dubious nature is no longer questioned, mostly because we’ve grown accustomed to it and no longer notice how weird it really is. These situations are like the discarded oddities of a bygone era — like phrenology, corsets, powdered wigs, binding feet, etc. — or like the bad habits that we sometimes acquire without noticing how strange or damaging they might be.
Some of these absurdities persist because they’ve been around a long time, or because powerful interests defend them vigorously, or because they align with broader social prejudices. Some of them may in fact be defensible, but we should still bring such oddities out into the open air on occasion and ask ourselves if they really make sense.
Hence this column. As part of my self-appointed effort to ventilate the stale discourse of contemporary foreign policy, I offer up my list of Top 10 Truly Absurd Features of Contemporary Foreign Affairs. To make it a challenge, I’m excluding any mention of John McCain.
No. 1: It is absurd that the United States still has thousands of powerful nuclear weapons on constant alert or in strategic reserve.
Nuclear weapons are useful for deterrence, and getting rid of them completely could make major conventional wars more likely. One can even make an argument for a bit of redundancy, so that potential aggressors know that any direct attack could still be answered with a devastating response. Inflicting unacceptable damage requires remarkably few weapons, however, and it no longer makes any sense for the United States to keep thousands of them in its arsenal. It’s expensive, it undermines the broader effort to slow proliferation, and it increases the risks of nuclear accidents or even nuclear theft. The more we fetishize having a big nuclear weapons arsenal as a key feature of great-power status, the more the other countries may want to acquire more of them too. It’s easy to get confused about this subject if you spend too much time reading the arcane writings of nuclear strategists — who can come up with all sorts of bizarre warfighting scenarios where numbers might make some purely theoretical difference — but once you pull your head out of the fog and think about the issue like a normal person, our present posture looks rather silly.
No. 2: The current composition of the U.N. Security Council makes no sense. In other words, it’s absurd.
We all know why the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China are permanent members with veto rights on the Security Council: The first four won World War II (well, France helped) and China has nearly a quarter of the world’s population. But the present structure is one of the world’s great anachronisms: Germany is now more important than either Britain or France and states such as India, Brazil, Japan, or South Africa (and some others) would be plausible contenders for “permanent” status too. Plenty of people — including former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan — have tried to do something about this obvious absurdity, but efforts at reform are repeatedly stymied by a collective inability to agree on how the Security Council should be altered and by the P5’s disinterest in diluting their own special status. But make no mistake: The present structure makes no sense.
No. 3: It is absurd to believe that God (or Allah or Yahweh or Krishna or any other deity) is on your country’s “side.”
Warring nations routinely believe that “God is on their side,” even when the God to whom they refer was being worshiped long before their particular country was created, and even when their country has suffered many misfortunes in the past (with which God was presumably also involved). I don’t want to tread on anyone’s religious convictions here, but it is absurd to think that an all-powerful Supreme Being is taking a firm hand in the fate of nation-states, any more than that He or She cares about the outcome of the World Cup, March Madness, or who wins an Oscar. If there is a God worthy of the name, one suspects that He or She has bigger issues to worry about.
No. 4: It is absurd that anyone still questions the value of free trade. It’s equally absurd to believe markets are consistently efficient and require little regulation or oversight.
Competitive markets are a hugely valuable social institution and market economies consistently outperform centrally planned societies. Yet plenty of people still oppose free trade and favor various forms of mercantilism instead. At the same time, influential people also seem to think that markets work almost perfectly in any/all circumstances, and that the best way to generate sustained economic growth is to eliminate most if not all forms of government regulation. You’d think little hiccups like the 2008 financial crisis would have put paid to such malarkey, but this idea is a hardy ideological zombie that persists no matter how much evidence contradicts it. Its survival — and its enshrinement in our politics — is just plain absurd.
No. 5: Smart people keep declaring “power politics” over. That’s absurd.
World War I was the “war to end all wars.” Then World War II was going to make the world “safe for democracy.” We got the Cold War instead. When it ended, however, President George H. W. Bush talked about a “new world order” and presidential candidate Bill Clinton proclaimed that the “cynical calculus of power politics …. [was] ill-suited to a new era.” And smart intellectuals chimed in too, claiming that mankind had reached “the end of history” and that war was increasingly “obsolescent.” Last year, John Kerry described Russia’s actions in Ukraine as “19th-century behavior,” conveniently ignoring the fact that they were taking place in 2014.
It would be wonderful if all the world’s nations stopped worrying about security, competing for power, and maneuvering for advantage. Violence in the world may indeed be at historic lows, but it ain’t zero, and there are good reasons to fear that security competition will rise in the years ahead. To believe that we have permanently overcome great-power rivalry is overly optimistic, potentially dangerous, and, frankly, absurd.
No. 6: It is absurd to believe that the United States “stands taller and sees farther than other countries.”
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously described the United States as “indispensable” because it was so far-sighted, but one shouldn’t pick on her for saying what most people in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment seem to believe. Such confidence in U.S. judgment is unwarranted, especially after some of the follies of the past two decades. There’s little evidence to suggest that U.S. officials have a monopoly on wisdom or are consistently right about key world issues (news flash: Neither is anybody else). I’m not suggesting that American leaders are consistently malign or foolish; indeed, I think this country has done a lot of positive things over the past 50-plus years. The United States has also been very, very lucky — starting with its exceptionally favorable geopolitical position — and at this point a bit more humility would be more appealing to others and a lot less ridiculous.
No. 7: When you think about it, the amount of attention paid to one small Middle Eastern country is absurd.
Israel is a small country whose population is less than that of New York City. It can point with pride to any number of impressive achievements, but it looms larger in contemporary world politics than it should, especially here in the United States. The recent Israeli election was front-page news in the United States and endlessly dissected in the American media, and die-hard support for Israel has become a litmus test for aspiring U.S. politicians. Democratic and Republican presidents alike devote endless hours and political capital to addressing its concerns. Israel also gets disproportionate attention from its critics, most notably in places like the U.N. Human Rights Council. And there are still some anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists making idiotic accusations about matters Israel had nothing to do with.
I know what some of you are thinking: Didn’t I co-author a whole book about this topic, and doesn’t that show that I’m prone to this tendency too? Indeed I did, but a central theme of that book was that the United States ought to have a normal relationship with Israel, instead of the odd and one-sided relationship that exists today. U.S. and Israeli interests overlap in certain respects (but not others), and the United States should remain committed to defending Israel’s existence, as President Obama recently reiterated. But Israel’s outsized role in our politics is unprecedented in U.S. history and frankly kinda weird.
No. 8: It is absurd to think the United States can wage counterinsurgency warfare successfully.
Most of the U.S. military has never been enthusiastic about counterinsurgency, and with good reason. It is very hard to do, and it is almost certainly not necessary to keep the country secure from serious foreign dangers. The U.S. Army failed at counterinsurgency (COIN) in Vietnam, forgot most of the lessons of that unhappy experience, and then failed again in Afghanistan and Iraq. Additional practice is not going to make us better.
COIN is very hard because it requires local knowledge that U.S. forces invariably lack, and because a large foreign military presence triggers local resentments and produces a raft of unintended consequences. Successful COIN also requires reliable local partners, who are usually absent (if the locals were competent and reliable, they wouldn’t need help). Moreover, COIN is an expensive and time-consuming strategy that is normally conducted in places of modest strategic value. Because it is hard to justify big expenditures of blood or treasure for relatively small stakes, public support inevitably erodes over time. The insurgents know that Uncle Sam will eventually go home and that they can simply wait us out. Bottom line: The idea that the United States can or must master the art of counterinsurgency is absurd.
No. 9: It is absurd to think the state is withering away.
Ever since I started studying politics seriously, I’ve been reading books, articles, and commentaries claiming that the “state” was on its last legs and was about to be supplanted by some other type of political organization. In the 1970s, some people thought multinational corporations were taking over. Then there was the claim that the European Union was a new political form to which states were surrendering sovereignty and transcending old-fashioned national loyalties. More recently, a fair number of smart people — some of whom I respect greatly — have written interesting books or articles suggesting that sovereign states are less and less able to meet today’s political challenges.
But even if some states are failing in a few places (e.g., Libya, Yemen, etc.), there’s no evidence that the state itself is “withering away.” The number of states in the world continues to increase, as various national or ethnic groups occasionally make successful bids to govern themselves. The EU experiment has frayed badly in recent years, as the euro crisis has continued and nationalist sentiments trump any vague sense of collective European identity. And when new dangers have emerged — as they did after 9/11 — populations did not look to Apple Corp, Amnesty International, the Catholic Church, or other non-state actors for solutions. Instead, they turned to their national governments, with varying degrees of success. For all its flaws and limitations, the territorial state isn’t going the way of the Dodo anytime soon.
No. 10: It is absurd that countries still fight over trivial territorial issues, instead of resolving them peacefully.
As long as humanity is governed by territorial states, there are going to be disputes about where borders ought to be drawn. Sometimes, the location of these borders is very important, either because the land in question confers greater security or because it contains critical resources, or a sizeable percentage of one’s own national population, or whatever. So one can understand why serious territorial disputes sometimes arise and are hard to resolve.
But it’s still amazing to watch important powers contend over scraps of territory that are of little or no strategic, economic, religious, or political value. Why does Russia want to keep the southern Kuriles, and why can’t Japan and China cut a deal over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands? Was the disposition of the Falklands/Malvinas Islands (pop. ~3,000) really worth a war in 1982? Why were India and Pakistan willing to suffer several thousand casualties in the 1999 Kargil conflict, given that the immediate stakes were some disputed border regions high in the Himalayas? Such disputes usually reflect some combination of nationalism, reputational concerns, and miscalculation, but for the most part they are simply absurd and you’d think smart countries would know better.
There’s my list. I’d like to believe it was exhaustive, but I’m sure there are other absurdities I’ve missed. So feel free to fill up the comments thread: When you look out at today’s global landscape, what features strike you as odd, weird, indefensible, or even absurd?
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