Thursday, March 15, 2012

America: An Empire?

I participated in a very lively debate yesterday during my Introduction to World Politics course about the question of whether the United States can be characterized as an empire or not; the alternative being a hegemonic power. Several students took either position, citing examples as far reaching as the war in Iraq to McDonald's in East Asia to bolster their positions. The consensus settled on by the class, which coincides with my personal opinion, is that America cannot be described as an empire in the classical sense of the word but nevertheless acts with imperialistic tendencies in its foreign policy.

In order to truly break down the debate on both sides, one must first define what is meant by the term empire. In the traditional usage of the word, empire implies certain criteria that set it apart from other similar political systems. First and foremost, an empire has a spatial component to it: a territorial empire must span a conquered geographic area in which certain territories are peripheral to a core geographic area where political and economic power reside. Secondly, an empire explicitly wields political and economic power over the territories which it governs.

Colonial empires such as the British or Ottoman all had explicitly territorial ambitions. These were formal political systems in which several nations submitted to the political rule of another, more powerful nation; most often in pursuit of economic benefit. In September 2004, then U.S. Secretary of Defense stated that the United States was not imperialistic and never had been. I believe that the majority of US citizens would agree that the United States is not an empire and does not seek to become a territorial power. Being the undisputed hegemon of the world, the US does have to answer whether its activities have imperial overtones, and whether in fact the US is a new kind of empire.

Borders: What are they and why do they matter?

The whole rational of a nation-state is traditionally defined territorial. The borders of nation-states are not etched into the earth nor are they immutable. These borders are the process of several centuries of war, negotiation, and migration. 

Nations are a specific population of people, irrespective of geographic location, who share common historical, cultural, and linguistic traits. Nations, therefore, are defined as people and not the space they occupy. For example, any talk of the Romanian nation must by definition include the large diaspora of Romanians scattered throughout Europe regardless of where they reside. 

States are defined as the entity with a certain territorial boundary that exercises sovereignty over that specific geographic area. Therefore, the concept of a state is very much bound to the element of physical space, where as a nation is not. In order to define which nation exercises legitimacy over a geographic area, the concept of boundaries is indispensable. 

The question is, how is the physical space a certain group of people can claim right to govern allocated amongst nations and how much of this is a political process? It is my view that boundaries between states represents a monopoly of violence by the states themselves. The very concept of a boundary implies separation between two self-distinguished groups of people who cannot occupy the same space under the same set of laws. In carving out these boundaries, it is necessary for a state to use violence to maintain its right to rule the land it sees as its own.

Borders are made to keep others out and to keep some in. Any attempt to breach this nearly universally recognized right is met with detention, prosecution, and often physical violence. Borders serve to delineate the difference between "us" and "them". Any cross border action, even should it be beneficial and compassionate, can only take place with the consent of the states. It is possible, therefore, for a state to perpetrate extreme crimes against humanity within its own borders and legitimately claim that other states have no right to intervene. 

In the realist narrative, nation-states are the fundamental building blocks of the international system. What happens within the borders of a state is its own affair according to Westphalian theory. In a liberal institutionalist point of view, however, the state itself is not as important as the nation(s) within it and the political legitimacy the state has to rule them. Liberal institutionalists are much more likely to support transnational and supranational entities that in some aspects partially deconstruct state borders.

Not all borders are created equal, and the openness of borders shows the exact degree to which people who inhabit one region are considered to be irreconcilable with those living in another. For example, the US-Canadian border is extremely porous, while the US-Mexico border is heavily militarized. The clearly shows the mentality that an American and a Canadian are much closer in identity that an American and a Mexican. Any attempt by a Mexican to cross into a the US unsanctioned will be met with violence. In this way, the state legitimately claims a monopoly on violence and a right to use it against human beings who live just a few miles beyond its borders.

Another example is that of Europe. The so-called Schengen zone, which consists of most countries within the eurozone, is made up of borders that are practically non-existant. One can freely travel between states with absolutely no violence involved in the process. The boundary between Europe and Africa, however, is very heavily guarded against penetration. 

Clearly, there is a political aspect to the demarcation of boundaries between nation-states and the right of individuals to move themselves into certain physical locations. Many people in the world are free to move as they wish to all corners of the globe with no fear of violence in the process. Others are not able to move even outside of their cities without fear of persecution. Boundaries exist to maintain a status quo between nations politically, economically, and socially. In order to build a truly progressive global society, the nation-state must become less relevant and boundaries must be at least partially dissolved. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Why the US must not go to War with Iran

Today, Prime Minister Cameron announced he would stand with the Obama administration in urging Israel not to launch a military strike on Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu responded by declaring that the possibility of an Israeli offensive against Iran is currently very low. All nations, however, remain committed to deterring Iran from enriching it's nuclear program and gaining access to nuclear weapons.

The rhetoric surrounding this issue has been quite alarming in recent weeks. The US currently imposes heavy sanctions against Iran in an attempt to halt it's nuclear programs. The strict limitations against investing in Iranian industries and trading with Iranian companies has severely damaged the economy of Iran at the level of its working class but has done little to change the position of the regime.

The threat of the hated West ganging up with their archnemesis Israel is creating all the more incentive for Iran to plow ahead with its nuclear initiative in order to acquire a nuclear bomb. Nuclear nations are seen as global strategic players in the modern era of international security, and Iran no doubt seeks to use this leverage to push the West out of its affairs. Already, the country is surrounded by Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey (all staunch US allies) and US troops stationed in Afghanistan.

This is a defining moment for the Middle East as the Arab Spring continues to cut its bloody course through the Fertile Crescent. As Iran sees regimes toppling left and right around it, it will start to feel more and more vulnerable to threats. It already has a shaky history with the US, who opposed the Ayatollah regime in the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980's.

The Israeli push for a military strike against Iran could potentially result in a war that would claim thousands of lives on both sides and end up exacerbating the already fragile state of the Middle East. There is even a potential for nuclear war should ethnic and religious tensions come to a boiling point. This is one instance where the US needs far-sighted political leadership and not a blind support of Jerusalem in order to help maintain stability in a volatile region. It will be detrimental for all parties involved if US politicians stir up a war just to win an election cycle.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

It's time for a new policy on North Korea

The recent death of Kim Jong Il, dictator of North Korea since the death of his own father Kim Il Sung, sees the transition of political power into the hands of his son, Kim Jong Un. In the months leading up to the death of North Korea's "Dear Leader", Un had been slowly handed over the reigns of government through a series of small military promotions. Consistent with his family legacy, very little is known about Kim Jong Un. Even the year of his birth remains a mystery to outside governments, whose few insights into the pariah that is North Korea comes from either heavily skewed state reports or a handful of political defectors who manage to cross the 38th parallel into South Korea.

There is unlikely to be much of a change in the way the country operates under it's new leader. One of the most isolated nations in the world, North Korea has practiced it's ideology of juch'e, or self-reliance, ever since the communist regime took control of the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. The result has been one of the worst humanitarian crises of the modern era. What little subsistence the North Korean people rely on is trickled down from foreign aid. The average NK child is 5 inches shorter than his Southern cousins. Illegal trade and black market operations make up a substantial part of the economy. The rest is handled by a corrupt government concerned only with it's own survival.

And yet, through all this, the North Korean people hold nothing but the utmost adoration for their Dear Leader. Jong was credited with keeping the nation protected from the dangerous influnences of foreign nations and with preserving the North Korean way of life. The most isolated nation in the world, North Koreans do not have access to information about the outside world. For them, North Korea is an oasis in a world of chaos.

Historically, this is a nation that has come from a a desperate situation. The people of the Korean peninsula have been exploited throughout their history by both the Chinese dynasties and the incredibly powerful Japanese empire. When the Japanese lost control of the peninsula after the Second World War, the people were divided into two parts along the 38th parallel. The South fell under then protection of the United States; the North into the Soviet sphere. When the Cold War turned hot on the peninsula during the 1950's, it was permanently established that the South would remain under the influence of the liberal Western democracies and the North under the supervision of China and the Soviet Union. The two cultures, though one ethnicity, were split entirely in two.

Despite their corruption and brutality, the North Korean leaders are very skilled politicians. They have made themselves impossible to ignore on the global stage with their acquisition of nuclear arms (though limited in number) and their aggressive maneuvers against the Japanese and South Koreans. The bombing of the Yongoyong Islands in late 2010, in which several South Koreans lost their lives, shows the lengths to which the North will go in it's game of political brinkmanship to secure it's demands from Western powers. Unwilling to provoke China and conscious of the terrible cost of outright war on the North Korea people, the US has had no choice but to talk tough and do very little.

The Kim regime, though boisterous, is still very young and relatively weak. As China rises on the global stage, it will come to see North Korea as more of a burden than a protectorate. As the inevitable trickle of outside media comes to the nation, the inexperienced Un regime may find itself with a "Korean Spring" on it's hands. China may come to it's aid as a fellow authoritarian power, or it may allow the regime to collapse from within. In order to affect China's decisions (as they will surely be worried about the influx of refugees into their northern territories), the US should cooperate with China on opening a dialogue about Korean issues. The Six Party Talks, in which China was allowed to take the lead in negotiation, was a step in the right direction towards a US-China agreed Korean policy. By allowing China maneuverability while simultaneously strengthening our commitment to Japan and South Korea, the US may be able to cut off all aid from North Korea and allow the regime to collapse from within. When this happens, a partnership of Asian nations, along with the US, will be able to assist the North Koreans in a transition to a representative government and stabilizing a very dangerous part of the world.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Societal Imperative for LGBT Rights

When people talk about LGBT rights around the world they have a tendency to frame the debate in emotional, moral, or religious terms. However, think of society as a large multi-functioning organism where each of us is an individual cell.

If 5% percent of the population is not allowed to function as a fully accepted part of society its just bad for the system as a whole. Anti-gay violence and homophobic rhetoric is keeping intelligent, productive members of society from functioning at full capacity and contributing to the progress of the human species for no reason other than personal prejudice. Anti-gay bullying in schools is causing low grades and high rates of depression among intelligent young people. And in many extreme cases, LGBT young people are kicked out of their houses for coming out to their parents.

Homophobia is like a cancer on our society in the most literal sense of the word. It marginalizes people who are fully capable of becoming smart, productive members of our society. It also dismisses the multifaceted nature of every human being and discounts variety of the human experience across every spectrum. There are homosexual people in our society, and it is a phenomena that is not going to disappear. Homosexuals are simply another genetic variety of the human species; one that is fully capable of adapting, surviving, producing, and reproducing. If homophobia is allowed to rage unfettered in human society we will lose a large pool of brilliant, capable people from which to draw.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What America could learn from China

The rise of China is a controversial issue in the United States, often played upon by American politicians for their own political gains. What is often ignored in all the China fear-mongering, however, is the lessons that the relatively young government of the United States could learn from the resilience of the over 2000 year old Chinese civilization.

What is it exactly that makes America so strong? A popular answer to this question is that America's system of democratic republicanism is inherently so legitimate that it is inevitable that it will lead to a great and powerful nation. A number of factors, however, have allowed America to grow and develop in a way almost completely protected from the woes that plague the rest of the world.

America is protected on both sides by two large oceans. Its closest neighbors are the relatively weak states of Canada and Mexico, both of whose economies depend on continued trade with the United States. There are very few natural barriers to population growth in the continental United States. Most of the country is vast, fertile plains and river valleys; by far the most inhabitable region of North America.
Culturally, America is dominated by a single language and ethnic group. There is little resistance from the lower classes of society because of the incentive of democracy and the promise of the American dream.

China, on the other hand, is surrounded by powerful enemies on all sides. It borders Russia to the north (once the powerful Soviet Union), India to the southwest, the steppes of Mongolia to the west, and most importantly the most powerful Asian empire in history, Japan, by only a small strait to the east. For all of its long history, China has been troubled by ethnic strife and intense regional conflict.

Surprisingly though, China has not only endured for all of these centuries but thrived. Of all civilizations that existed in ancient times (Egypt, Rome, Babylon), China is the only one that remains in modernity. All of this is because of one simple fact: China is one of the most dynamic civilizations in the world. Repeatedly, the Chinese have demonstrated that when a regime does not work to create an ideal society for them, it is overthrown and replaced. Chinese civilizations is undergoing constant renewal and adaptation to the needs of its current situation.

In 1915, Chinese rebels overthrew the corrupt Qing Dynasty. Four decades later, they replaced the Kuomintang government with the Communist Party. And when the doctrine of Mao no longer suited the needs of the people, Deng Xiaopeng instituted a large number of reforms that moved China towards a more capitalistic society. Now, China is set to come back from nearly a century of underperformance to retake its position as one of the most powerful countries in the world.

America is a relatively young nation but is already seeing signs of decline relative to other nations. If America is to survive movements like Occupy Wall Street and the overextension of its military through almost 4 wars in the last decade, it needs to learn to be dynamic and listen to the will of its people. Democracy will only be considered legitimate in the United States as long as it continues to produce results for the majority of the population instead of simply supporting the wellbeing of the very most elite. If the American government does not learn to be dynamic in response to the needs of its citizens, it may very well follow the path of the Qing Dynasty and be written off as merely a footnote in the long record of human history.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Who's missing at Occupy Wall Street?

The protests occurring in the Wall Street financial district have received a surprising amount of media coverage and have undoubtabley left a mark on the political and social psyche of the United States with their outcry against what they see as the excess of the richest one percent of America. The question that is not on the mind of most Americans, however, is who is missing from these protests.

The images brought to mind of those suffering from the financial collapses of the last few years are mostly blue-collar and middle class American workers who saw their savings and mortgages go up in smoke. This view, however, ignores the hundreds of millions around the world who have lost multiple times what middle class America has had to give up at the hands of wall street greed.

The global financial institutions of the world have, since their inception, failed to meet the needs of developing countries who have just begun to be exposed to the raging wave of globalization. Many of these institutions ( the IMF, WTO, and World Bank being the most prominent) are made up of the same people now sitting in Wall Street offices. These men and women have ripped open emerging markets through removal of tariffs, destroyed the livelihood of millions through unfair trade of artificially cheap subsidized foreign imports, and destroyed infrastructure through a series of preconditioned loans that halt development of roads and schools in favor of industrial production.

Only the nascent super-economies of East Asia have been able to escape the cycle through their aggressive refusal of Western interference in internal affairs. The rest of the world, however, has fallen into a sort of pseudo-imperialism in which the richest elements of Western society are profiting exponentially off the unimaginable poverty of millions. Given it's history of colonial exploitation and the continuing way in which foreign interests are manipulating internal affairs, the chaos in Africa should not come as a surprise so much as a cautionary tale against the dangers of extreme excess in advanced industrial nations.

The missing faces amongst the protesters on Wall Street are the impoverished Sri Lankan factory workers, the poor and repressed of Eastern Europe, and the children dying of AIDS in Uganda. In order to understand the revolutionary fervor that has swept the world thirty years after the process of globalization started accelerating, we need to understand the impact that the one percent have had not only on our own countr, but in every corner of the globe.