America’s Novice Approach to World Affairs

Although the United States remains the world’s sole superpower, this preeminent status is beginning to count for a lot less than it used to, as other nations — rivals and allies alike — begin to quickly catch up.

Our recent (though far from unprecedented) embrace of nationalism and populism is only hastening this relative decline, as Mark R. Kennedy argues in Foreign Policy. In a globalized world, even the greatest powers still need friends and allies, and our increasingly blustering attitude towards the rest of the world risks weakening the foreign ties on which we depend for economic and national security. Continue reading

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A Detailed Report of US Mass Shootings From 1982 to 2013

This sobering Google spreadsheet provides a record of all mass and spree shootings that have occurred in the US over the last 30 years. Aside from the usual stats — such as the name of the perpetrator, location, number of fatalities — it also includes a summary of the crime, any known motive of the killer, and whether or not they had a confirmed history of mental illness.

It’s well-sourced and updated five minutes, having unfortunately grown quite a bit over the last couple of years (coinciding with other reports that have found a decline in mass shootings despite an overall drop in crime). Needless to say, it’s a somber read, and an awful reminder of the unusually high incidence of gun massacres in this country — reasons that will be explored for another day. 

Declassified CIA Files Confirm US Support of Saddam in Gasing Iran

Note that this has been widely-known that the US supported Iraq in various ways during the bloody eight-year Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s;  these recently declassified files merely confirming it further. As Foreign Policy notes:

In 1988, during the waning days of Iraq’s war with Iran, the United States learned through satellite imagery that Iran was about to gain a major strategic advantage by exploiting a hole in Iraqi defenses. U.S. intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent.

The intelligence included imagery and maps about Iranian troop movements, as well as the locations of Iranian logistics facilities and details about Iranian air defenses. The Iraqis used mustard gas and sarin prior to four major offensives in early 1988 that relied on U.S. satellite imagery, maps, and other intelligence. These attacks helped to tilt the war in Iraq’s favor and bring Iran to the negotiating table, and they ensured that the Reagan administration’s long-standing policy of securing an Iraqi victory would succeed. But they were also the last in a series of chemical strikes stretching back several years that the Reagan administration knew about and didn’t disclose.

U.S. officials have long denied acquiescing to Iraqi chemical attacks, insisting that Hussein’s government never announced he was going to use the weapons. But retired Air Force Col. Rick Francona, who was a military attaché in Baghdad during the 1988 strikes, paints a different picture.

“The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn’t have to. We already knew,” he told Foreign Policy.

And here is the most chilling part for me:

But the CIA documents, which sat almost entirely unnoticed in a trove of declassified material at the National Archives in College Park, Md., combined with exclusive interviews with former intelligence officials, reveal new details about the depth of the United States’ knowledge of how and when Iraq employed the deadly agents. They show that senior U.S. officials were being regularly informed about the scale of the nerve gas attacks. They are tantamount to an official American admission of complicity in some of the most gruesome chemical weapons attacks ever launched.

Needless to say, I’m pretty sure this is one reason the Iranians haven’t been very cooperative, in addition to the US-backed coup against their democratically-elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1953, and our subsequent installment and support up of the authoritarian Shah thereafter. Given that many other Western government and firms also supported Iraq in its war, Iran’s cynical and isolationist foreign policy isn’t surprising.

This isn’t to leave its authoritarian government off the hook either, however; this  merely allows them to find more legitimacy for their refusal to work with the US, a feeling that has in any case been mutual.

Number 1 Gun Runner

In constant 1990 U.S. dollars. Source: 2012 SIPRI Arms Transfers Database.

In a recent report for International Studies Quarterly, political scientists Paul Midford and Indra de Soysa looked at U.S. and Chinese arms transfers to Africa from 1989 to 2006, using data collected by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. They found no statistical correlation between China and the types of regimes it supplied with weapons, while U.S. arms shipments were slightly negatively correlated with democracy. In plain English, China actually turned out to be less likely to sell weapons to dictators than America was.

“It isn’t that China is there to do good; they’re pursuing their national interest,” Midford says. “But we didn’t find any evidence that they’re trying to spread a ‘Beijing consensus’ or promote regimes that are specifically autocratic.”

The report focuses on Africa, but similar human rights concerns have been raised about U.S. weapons transfers to Persian Gulf autocracies such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, which collectively helped drive a more than 300 percent jump in U.S. arms sales in 2011 amid rising tensions with Iran.

Midford emphasizes that the report is not meant to suggest the United States prefers to sell weapons to dictators. “The U.S. is choosing to support autocrats based on a geopolitical rationale,” Midford says, “as is China.”

Source: Joshua Keating, Foreign Policy.

The War of 1812: A Canadian Perspective

Most Americans don’t know much about the War of 1812, other than the date of course (the unique obviousness of which is a source of many jokes in history class and pop culture). That’s partly why so few people noticed that a few days ago, on February 18, was the 200th anniversary of the conflict’s end.

What little most people learn is that it was a pretty pointless conflict that didn’t change much, though it does have the distinction of being the only conflict in which the independent United States was invaded and occupied. Oh, and the White House, along with much of the capital, was burned to the ground.

But our neighbors to the north have a very different perspective. The war remains a significant event in their nation’s history, to the extent that it is sometimes considered akin to a war of independence – the creator of a distinct Canadian identity. That’s right – we had fought a war with Canada, albeit before it was a full country.

Nowadays, it’s odd to imagine our two nations having anything more than a diplomatic spat (if even that), much less a full-blown war – aside from the lighthearted jabs against each other’s culture. For as long as anyone in North America can remember, relations between Canada and the US have always been markedly peaceful and productive – for example, we’re one another’s most important trading partners.

But each country’s early history was tenuous. Today’s famously open border wasn’t so welcoming, and the war of 1812 was in many ways a continuation of hostilities from the Revolutionary War. Some historians consider the war to have been a test of American independence too, given how close we came to defeat. The conflict was a lot more significant than most people realize.

In any case, there’s a great article from The Walrus, a Canadian general interest publication, that provides an insightful perspective on the war from the other side of the border. It’s a pretty long read, and a bit nationalistic, but it’s well worth it, whether you’re a history buff or someone who wants to understand another point of view (to me, both are one in the same).

Like most people, Canadians are hardly monolithic in their views. I welcome any readers from the Great White North to share their own viewpoint (not to the exclusion of non-Canadians of course).

Human Experimentation by the US Government

This is but a brief list of some of the major acts of unethical malfeasance undertaken by the US government – click here to view. I knew of most of these before hand, but there were quite a few surprising ones. I highly encourage you all do further research on these, assuming you don’t have a weak constitution. The cruelty and injustice of these acts sickened me as much as their often horrific results.

I find it interesting that these horrific acts – a betrayal of public trust as much as human decency – are now widely available in great detail (though how many people actually know of these things if a different matter). Granted, most of them are now decades old, and most of the perpetrators – to our knowledge – are dead. But it’s remarkable, if belated, that we can speak openly about them despite their disturbing implications.

How do we know the government isn’t still doing these sorts of thing? How do we know that decades from now, we won’t uncover monstrous secret government acts that were being done in the present day? I’m no conspiracy theorist, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to wonder about these things, given the disturbing historical precedent. We can’t know for sure either way – not yet at least – but the record doesn’t seem encouraging.

The Problem of Power

Lately, Americans seem very torn about the role of the United States in the world. While isolationism has gained much public support, we still seem to pine for a time of unilateralism, diplomatic aggression, and taking charge in the world. Witness the contradictory response to our Libyan intervention: the public was skeptical and largely opposed to the endeavor from the start, viewing it cynically – and understandably – as yet another potential quagmire in the Middle-East. Yet when the Obama administration passed responsibility over to NATO (namely the UK and France) there was a sense that we neutered ourselves, and that our behavior was unbecoming of the world’s sole superpower.

Ultimately, I think our society has found itself in a familiar and quite common conundrum: we want to feel the pride and prestige of being on top of the world without dealing with the burdens and consequences that such a role inevitably entails. Power is a wonderful feeling, whether one wields it personally or experiences it collectively as part of a prominent society. Power gives us purpose, security, stability, and identity. Psychologically, it makes us feel good for reasons we cannot yet fully explains.

Yet power brings a lot of problems, not the least of which being an obsession with staying powerful. Being powerful is an exercise in being insecure, and the more power one has, the more worried one becomes about losing such power. Individuals and societies alike can respond to this by either obsessively (and often destructively) trying to maintain and expand power, or by accepting the inevitability of it’s expiration and trying to ease into a peaceful, managed decline.

Furthermore, having power means having more responsibility. You have so much potential to do things that you find yourself trying to tackle too many objectives at once. You become a hostage to the ambitions that power allows you to fulfill, and despite the resentment and envy of your less powerful peers, you’re expected – begrudgingly or otherwise – to continue to respond to any crises or obstacle that emerges, even if it isn’t necessarily your own.

I know I’ve digressed into a more individualized and philosophical take on the problem of power, but I think everything I’ve stated applies as much to a collective entity as it does to a single one. The United States is a powerful country, and arguably the most powerful in human history. It wields unparalleled influence not only diplomatically, economically, and militarily, but culturally, ideologically, and socially as well. Simply consider the ubiquity of American goods, media, values, and even cultural memes across even the most isolated parts of the world. But all this influence has taken it’s toll on our society, and led to consequences we’ve all come to know to well.

We’re entrenched in too many parts of the world, with a global military and intelligence apparatus that is becoming increasingly too expensive to maintain in the face of our vast fiscal crisis. We’re gripped by so many domestic concerns that the world has simply become too big and complex to continue to attract our attention and investment, much less that of our public officials (who we’d prefer, not unreasonably, to focus on problems at home). Isolationism and protectionism has always been a feature of American society and political culture, yet it becomes far more prominent in moment of social anxiety and low public-confidence. Consider our behavior in the world following the Great Depression, and compare it to our presence in the world following our high moment at the end of World War II; a comparison between American retraction and reflection following the Vietnam War, and it’s resurgence and confidence after the First Gulf War provides a similar, if not understated, example.

Despite all this, we’ve often maintained an internationalist and even outright jingoistic streak as well. America history is largely a timeline of expansion and some would argue quasi-imperialism (especially following the development of the Monroe Doctrine, which asserted our interests and influence throughout the entire Western Hemisphere). The ideas of Manifest Destiny and Exceptionalism are as ingrained into American culture, history, and psyche as the values of liberty and freedom which we often purport to promote and export throughout the world. We certainly have good reason to hold our ideals and accomplishments as a polity in high regard, and to desire that others share in their fruits. But unfortunately, this has often given way to either well-intentioned but foolish moralizing missions, or cynical manipulations of higher ideals for the sake of strategic and economic gain (often times, it’s a bit of both).

Ultimately, this is the paradox and problem of power. We want to project it insofar as it suits our interests (be they idealistic or self-interested) but quickly become cynical and impatient at the expense and sacrifice required. We want to keep the world safe and friendly to our interests, yet grow tired of being “the world’s policeman.” We want the world to go our way, to respect our ideals, our sovereignty, and our wishes, yet we’re unwilling to be assertive about it any longer, nor to deal with the consequences – some would say the ingratitude – of our commitment to shaping the global economic and diplomatic paradigm.

The fact is, Americans are understandably tired and anxious about the repercussions of being a superpower, yet don’t want to let go of the prestige and pride of it. We’ve always been an important and influential country, and a lot of people have a hard time seeing us go into peaceful decline the likes of Europe. But unless we’re willing to sort through all the contradictions, difficulties, and sacrifices that befall powerful nations – and powerful people too for that matter – we’ll always find ourselves unsatisfactorily gripped by the problem and paradox of power.

The way I see it, power is a naturally finite thing, and it’s expiration is a matter of when not if. We need to come to grips with this inevitability, and given our unique position to look back at the long history of declining great powers and learn from, and given our advantageous position in still remaining quite influential, we should continue this dialogue and make the most of this rare period of reflection.

Will Americentrism Be Our Undoing?

Perhaps the title was a bit melodramatic, as most headlines tend to be, but my point is a sincere one: is our sense of importance and superiority – what is known as American exceptionalism – contributing to the many woes afflicting this country? To take it a step further, could our relative isolationism from the rest of the world eventually lead us into the decline that some see as inevitable, if not already ongoing?

I began dwelling on this after reading an article in Foreign Policy that touched on the fact that most Americans failed to scrutinize the flaws in their own economic system, or to question the established notion of the superiority of free markets – all except for mostly foreign-born American citizens, such as George Soros, Nouriel Roubini, Raghuram Rajan, and Mohamed El-Erian. The author goes on to suggest that the “outside” experiences and values of these thinkers is what allowed them a more clear-eyed perspective on what was really going on in this country.

To be sure, there were non-foreign Americans who also called out the flaws in finance, mortgage lending, and the notion of laissez-faire capitalism as well. And United States continues to be an incubator for many innovative ideas and concepts, attracting the best and brightest from across the world.

However, I am beginning to detect a sense of complacency in this country, a sense that despite all that has gone wrong – and is continuing to go wrong – the American way of doing things remains unquestioningly the best way.

Worse still, anyone who questions this – who raises doubts about our economic or political system, society and it’s values – is not only dead wrong but “un-American.” We’ve developed an informal social policy of shunning and demonizing those who criticize this country, stifling the sort of critical thinking and public debate that could better allow us to adapt to these changing and challenging times.

Look at how those who opposed the Iraq War were framed as traitors, or how those who questioned the abuse of civil liberties or the treatment of terrorist suspects were seen as “soft” on national security. Heaven forbid that one makes any critique of American-style capitalism, which earns you the viscerally applied label of an immoral socialist or communist.

Hell, why should being those things even be so intrinsically evil? Can’t good and well-meaning people, however misguided you may think them to be, think socialism and communism are okay, without having their morality and ethics automatically doubted? Can’t we at least debate these things on their own terms, rather than essentially censoring people from even bringing it up in anyway? I don’t doubt that even writing this is enough for some readers to think I’m some sort of communist pinko.

In any case, I’m somewhat digressing. Going back to my original point, I think we’ve become too entrenched in this chauvinistic notion that the “American way” is the be all, end all, the rest of the world be damned. We’re so convinced that other cultures, countries, political practices, and economic systems are inferior to our own, that we scarcely bother with trying to understand them, let alone attempt to find any merits to them. The average American seems to think that the world outside our borders is decadent, violent, backward, and otherwise inferior to our own.

Granted, in a lot of ways, we Americans do have a lot of wonderful ideas and practices. After all, we wouldn’t be one of the richest, most powerful, most innovative countries in the world for all these decades if we didn’t get something right. And as I’ve argued many times before, the doom-saying about this country’s history  is often quite exaggerated or misplaced. But with all that said, the events of the last decades have shown that this inflated sense of exceptionalism is starting to unwind.

We’re still on top by quite a margin, but we’re teetering. Our economy is sclerotic, with a hollowed out manufacturing base, a relative slowdown in innovation, and a job market mostly resting on relatively low-paying “service sector” occupations. Our healthcare system is not only uniquely “un-universal,” but it still somehow manages to be among the most inefficient and expensive in the world. Our income inequality puts us on par with Russia and Turkey, and is still worsening, while our society continues to become fatter, more indebted, and more educationally stagnant.

In other words, even though things aren’t as bad as a lot of cynics would have it, this country’s accomplishments still remain fragile. Yet despite this, we refuse to question conventional wisdom, or dare to look abroad and study the success of other nations. Ironically, a lot the countries cited as rising powers – China, Brazil, India, Turkey, and so on – credit a lot of their success, in part, to American ideas or to leaders with educated in American universities. These countries saw their domestic problems, and simply looked around for solutions to fix them.

I’m not saying we need to emulate the entire world without question, or give up everything we have and start from scratch. But we need to follow their example of open-minded pragmatism, borrowing or adopting the ideas floating around the larger world beyond our borders; at the very least, we should do more to study them, instead of treating any such “internationalist” outlook as being in conflict with American values.

In a globalized world such as ours, ideas – and even the thinkers and institutions that produce them – transcend nationality or culture. We must make the most of what’s out there, and stop staking our collective egos on believing that doing so is somehow weak or even damaging. After all, what is America today but a historical melting pot of values, inventions, ideas, and people from all across the world?  Why abandon the formula for success that has, in part, made us what we are?

Perhaps the title was a bit melodramatic, as most headlines tend to be, but my point is a sincere one: is our sense of importance and superiority – what is known as American exceptionalism – contributing to the many woes afflicting this country? To take it a step further, could our relative isolationism from the rest of the world eventually lead us into the decline that some see as inevitable, if not already ongoing?