Thursday, January 19, 2017

America Cares

It demoralizes these people all over the world, and it leads people to conclude this, which is damaging, and it hurt us during the Cold War, and that is this: America cares about democracy and freedom as long—as long as it’s not being violated by someone that they need for something else.

That cannot be who we are in the 21st century.
Senator Marco Rubio
To which my response is: "Why not? That's who we've been from the 18th through the 20th centuries."

The quote "Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests." has been attributed to Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, and while I have no idea if he actually said it, it strikes me as a fairly accurate understanding of how international politics works. And, as near as I can tell, "democracy and freedom" are not numbered among the permanent interests of the United States. Diplomatic language tends to remind me of the old Soviet joke "the authorities pretend they are paying wages, workers pretend they are working," in that it often comes across as one diplomat pretends to be speaking plainly and other diplomats pretend to believe them. In this sense, it strikes me as naïve, at best, to believe that the United States genuinely cares about democracy and freedom in other parts of the world, especially when other concerns (notably security) are on the table.

Affluence tends to bring with it an understanding of what one has to lose, and therefore a certain level of risk aversion. And the practice of freedom and democracy in one nations has its risks for other nations, because people may pursue their own interests at the expense of people outside their borders. And, for many people the world over, this is precisely the modus operandi of the United States - and that includes any number of people within the United States. The idea that America will screw over anyone it has to in order to maintain access to oil supplies is a common trope. And while there are many people who disagree with the idea that the United States would go to extremes, such as genocide, in pursuit of energy, getting the best deal for itself, even if that means injuring the locals is more or less expected.

And perhaps, at the end of the day, that become the issue. The support of democracy and freedom in other parts of the world has noticeable costs, and political systems that rely on the popularity of individuals and parties to fill public offices tend to lead to a downplaying of expenses.
Celebrity means the ability to surround yourself with people whose short-term finances depend on pleasing you. There's nothing about fame that encourages dissent or hard truths.
Ta-Nehisi Coates "Thoughts on the Rihanna-Chris Brown Collaboration" the Atlantic, Wednesday, 22 February, 2012.
And while politics isn't exactly like celebrity, politicians, like a celebrity's entourage, have to make sure that they're keeping the people who elected them happy. And that's often why politicians offer up "hard truths" that are generally hard only on people who aren't in the audience or their broader constituencies. Maintaining a regime of constantly, and effectively, supporting "those 1,400 people in jail in China, those dissidents in Cuba, the girls that want to drive and go to school" that Senator Rubio mentioned in his words, along with "people that are suffering and they’re hurting" around the world would not be free. And it wouldn't be cheap. It would, in the end, ask a lot of people in the United States. Because the United States is not in a position where it asks nothing of the rest of the world. And ratcheting up the costs for China, Cuba or the Islamic world to get what they want from us means that they would ratchet up the price that we would pay to get what we want from them. Sure, we we're able to cut Cuba off, without too much harm to ourselves. But Cuba is tiny in the grand scheme of things. Bigger countries are bigger deals in that regard.

A commitment to democracy and freedom when grilling a potential Secretary of State is cheap. It plays well for the people back home, precisely because it doesn't ask them to pay anything. But actually walking the walk on the world stage is another matter entirely. And political posturing is a poor substitute for what it will actually take.

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