Civis Americanus Sum

In his remarkable mathematical fantasy (and social satire), Flatland, E. A. Abbott described in sometimes mind-numbing detail how its inhabitants experience a world of just two dimensions:

Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which straight Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it, very much like shadows — only hard and with luminous edges — and you will then have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen. Alas ! a few years ago, I should have said ” my universe ; ” but now my mind has been opened to higher views of things.

The inhabitants of Flatland are no more able to perceive Spaceland, where we live, than we are able to see the backs of our own heads.

An unspeakable horror seized me. There was a darkness ; then a dizzy, sickening sensation of sight that was not like seeing ; I saw a Line that was no Line ; Space that was not Space ; I was myself, and not myself. When I could find voice, I shrieked aloud in agony, ” Either this is madness or it is Hell.” “It is neither,” calmly replied the voice of the Sphere, “it is Knowledge; it is Three Dimensions : open your eye once again and try to look steadily.”

After World War II Americans took the Hobbesian world that was left standing after all of the carnage and for good or ill created within it a Kantian world in which the rule of law prevailed and international institutions had significant standing and secured it with our military might (and a considerable amount of cash). Some Americans and most Europeans think that’s the natural order of things. Other Americans have forgotten we ever thought that way or acted with such optimism and prudence.

Si monumentum requiris circumspice. Within the American sphere of influence, countries prospered and its citizens became wealthier and more free; outside the American sphere of influence the nasty, brutish, and short-lived Hobbesian world continued on its merry way.

A graphic illustration of this contrast are North and South Korea. One people; historically, one country. One part is prosperous and becoming increasingly free. That’s the part within the American sphere of influence. The other part is a starving, sick, authoritarian mess. That’s the part outside the American sphere of influence.

I don’t for a moment claim that we have been or are perfect or even that we’re well-intentioned or that the people in all countries do or should desire the things that being in the American sphere of influence brings. This is merely the way things are.

It is that world of law and international institutions that Bill Richardson thought of when he reacted to the events in Georgia (from George Will’s column):

On ABC’s “This Week,” Richardson, auditioning to be Barack Obama’s running mate, disqualified himself. Clinging to the Obama campaign’s talking points like a drunk to a lamppost, Richardson said that this crisis proves the wisdom of Obama’s zest for diplomacy and that America should get the U.N. Security Council “to pass a strong resolution getting the Russians to show some restraint.” Apparently Richardson was ambassador to the United Nations for 19 months without noticing that Russia has a Security Council veto.

That’s the world, too, that our European cousins refer to when they talk about international law and complain about our violations or obduracy. That’s a world that we made, we secure, and we have benefited mightily from and for a brief moment after the collapse of the Soviet Union it looked as though that world might prevail in what some refer to as “the end of history”. The Europeans and those here who long for that lovely Kantian world can no more see the world as it is than the inhabitants of Flatland can see Spaceland.

But, as George Will notes in his column, the conspiracy of events has tossed things in another direction:

Now, into America’s trivializing presidential campaign, a pesky event has intruded — a European war. Russian tanks, heavy artillery, strategic bombers, ballistic missiles and a naval blockade batter a European nation. We are not past such things after all. The end of history will be postponed, again.

It’s nothing of the kind, of course. Depending on your definition Georgia is not in Europe but in Asia; at the most it straddles Europe and Asia as does Russia, its larger and more powerful neighbor within whose sphere of influence Georgia finds itself.

America acts within its sphere of influence as it will; Russia does the same. I think Europe may find it difficult to straddle the two although I have no doubt it will try. Maintaining its own sphere of influence requires effort and expense that I don’t see France, Germany, or the United Kingdom as willing to put forward. If it turns its back on Russia, Germany will have a cold, dark winter.

Perhaps the dumb Yanks won’t notice.

7 comments… add one
  • Antiquated Tory

    If Russia didn’t care at all about the legitimacy or perceived legitimacy of its actions, why did it bother provoking the Georgians into using direct military power first? Russia could have rolled into Georgia anytime it wanted.
    I’m not saying the UN could make the Russians magically go home, but the Russians might settle for something less than 100% of what they want to preserve the fig leaf of legitimacy.

  • Thanks for all of the comments, Antiquated Tory. Much appreciated.

    I’m not sure we know what happened or ever may know. Clearly, the Russians have been preparing their action for some time. They didn’t just bumble into South Ossetia. There are some indications that the Georgians prepared their own actions for some time, too.

    Were there mis-signals? Mis-communications? Were the Georgians deliberately lured into thinking that they could re-take South Ossetia with impunity?

    I think that the Russians have already achieved their objectives, namely halting the incorporation of Georgia into the European system and demonstrating that Russia is willing to act in its own interests, and anything else is just a lagniappe.

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