From Way Up Here

From way up here the earth looks very small,
It’s just a little ball of rock and sea and sand,
No bigger than my hand.

From way up here the earth looks very small,
They shouldn’t fight at all
down there upon that little sphere.
Their time is short, a life is just a day,
You think they’d find a way.
You think they’d get along
and fill their sunlit days with song.

Words by Malvina Reynolds, 1962

The trouble is he’s lazy.
The trouble is he drinks.
The trouble is he’s crazy.
Tne trouble is he stinks.
The trouble is he’s growing.
The trouble is he’s grown.
Krupke, we’ve got problems of our own.

Words by Stephen Sondheim, 1957

One of the many things I love about my country is the way that historical arguments have a way of raising their heads, projecting themselves into the public discourse, being challenged, tried, and proven in the crucible of that discourse and finally emerging as a policy that amazingly, miraculously reveals for us the way ahead. It isn’t merely by the accidents of geography or the good luck of vast natural resources or even divine intervention viz. the remark attributed to 19th century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck “The Lord God has a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America”, that has made America the pre-eminent world power. It is all of those things and the emergent force of many voices on American foreign policy.

As the power of our current president, George W. Bush, waxes and wanes with the poll numbers, these voices are being heard again. In a stunning post, “The Breach”, New Sisyphus re-asserted the Jacksonian* view: dishonorable attacks by foreigners should be punished by massive punitive actions and we should then withdraw and leave them to their own devices.

The most recent voice in the discussion is from The Mighty Middle’s Michael Reynolds. In his post, “A Not Entirely Crazy Idea”, Michael notes the many possible catastrophes that we face: pandemic, world war, nuclear disaster, global climate change, meteorite strike and conjectures that only world government would have the power to deal with these enormously deadly (but highly unlikely) occurrences. He calls for a union of the world’s proven democracies.

Michael’s post is largely self-refuting: he notes the fecklessness of the European Union

True to their natures, the Europeans have made the Brussels government something of a laughingstock.

and the United Nations

How would we keep the world’s poor from using a world government to confiscate the wealth of North America, Europe and Japan?

Unlike Michael I don’t believe that these qualities are accidents. I believe that they are intrinsic characteristics of such bodies. Any attempted world government will by necessity be bureaucratic, inefficient, undemocratic, and arbitrary.

I think that our main disagreement lies in this trope:

Distance is an illusion. Borders are an illusion. Our economy is inextricably linked to the world. Our health is bound up with the health of villagers in the Congo. Our ability to travel and communicate is held hostage by people in Malaysia and Columbia and Timbuktu.

Certainly physical distance has been mitigated by modern transportation and communication but that isn’t the only kind of distance. The more important barriers are those between the hearts and minds of human beings, particularly those who are members of different cultures, and I believe that those distances are as great as ever. When you descend from the heights and look more closely the differences are much more apparent.

Get closer to the ground.

India, the world’s largest democracy, from up close is a middle class country of some 300 million people living side-by-side with a a country of neolithic peasants of 800 million. When you get closer yet you see that the poverty and misery of many of these 800 million are extreme. They live in a world of ignorance, superstition, governments by tribunals of village elders.

Our cousins in Europe are democratic on the face only as well. Look more closely and you see that their countries are actually governed by large, self-serving, unanswerable, arbitrary bureaucracies. When you look more closely yet you see that state and city governments are departments of their central governments which, in turn, are becoming departments of the European Union bureaucracy.

This is somewhat different than our notion of democracy with our dizzying array of state, county, city, and other governments down to neighborhood committees and local school councils which are self-starting and -directing and which function largely independently of either similar or superior governmental entities.

But I don’t want to dwell on a critique of Michael’s thoughts which I think have merit. Read his post and draw your own conclusions.

What I want to concentrate on is his echoing of traditional themes: Michael’s view is an old one here and is a restatement of the relentlessly optimistic and positive viewpoint which was originally associated with American missionaries and has come to be called “Wilsonian”. Let’s make the world safe for democracy!

You don’t have to search too hard to identify the voices of Hamiltonian realists out there: you can read their views in the op-ed pages of the most influential journals in the country and their exponents have famous names like Brent Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger. Keep the wheels of commerce turning and make whatever deals you need to do that (however horrible and untrustworthy your correspondent may be)!

Blog-friend Callimachus of Done With Mirrors has responded to Micheal with “A Possibly Crazy Answer” (which is cross-posted to Winds of Change and has engendered a vigorous discussion there). Here’s the kernel of Callimachus’s reaction:

This is not the time to turn over the reigns to a global committee. Though it might be wise to start erecting one, on principles of democracy, freedom, and human rights, because unchallenged American power won’t last forever. But while it does last, it ought to accomplish what can only happen at such rare moments in history.

Here we stand, a virtual empire in which an evangelical desire to do good abstractly forms a significant motive force in our national life, and out self-interest, as we perceive it, includes an aim to see all the world’s people more free, more secure, more healthy, and more materially successful.

True to his roots and his inclination as a serious student of history I sense both Jacksonian and Jeffersonian sensibilities in Callimachus’s reactions.

Let me add my own neo-Jeffersonian observations. One of the great virtues of our pessimism in our interactions with other nations is that we never receive an unhappy surprise. We expect very little good from other cultures and when something good inevitably arrives we find it felicitous.

America is very different from the rest of the world—even the putative democracies. Our expectations of the proper roles of government and the individual and our notions in the area of freedom of expression and property are quite different from those of even those cultures which resemble ours the most. Regardless of the acrimony between them, our liberals and conservatives continue to resemble each other in their views more closely than they do their corresponding numbers in other countries (much to the confusion and dismay of foreign observers).

Government requires consensus and the nations of the world still differ too much on basic issues for world government to be practical today.

So my advice is stick to our knitting, become the best, most optimistic, most prosperous, and freedom-loving Americans we can be, trade with other countries energetically (being careful to, as in the adage, “use a long spoon”) and welcome those who share our values to our shores. The world will need us.

*Jacksonians = populist nationalists
Wilsonians = internationalist optimists
Hamiltonians = economic nationalists
Jeffersonians = isolationists
See my post here for more.

8 comments… add one
  • kreiz Link

    Mike Reynolds is a favorite of mine, always willing to take a risk and float something out there that’s controversial. It’s one of several reasons I’m a regular reader of his blog. This analysis, however, nails it cold (as does Callimachus’s). Very well put, Dave.

  • kreiz Link

    Very often, you get things so right. In this post, I particularly enjoyed this observation because it’s so true.

    “Regardless of the acrimony between them, our liberals and conservatives continue to resemble each other in their views more closely than they do their corresponding numbers in other countries (much to the confusion and dismay of foreign observers).”

    It’s a “forest for the trees” thought- but we lose sight of it so often.

  • On of the reasons that I know this to be true, kreiz, is that I’ve lived in Germany and visited France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Mexico (the first three of the others work-related).

  • Oh, that is definitely true. There is said to be no bigger gulf in the U.S. as that between Rednecks and inner-city black “gangsta” types, but, in the immediate aftermath of 9.11 the music videos on both CMT and BET both had songs up with martial lyrics and waving American flags.

    And, for God’s sakes, will somebody please tell Mr. Reynolds that the name of the country he is thinking of is COLOMBIA.

    Columbia is a university in Manhattan.

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