A Sense of Survivor’s Guilt

It always feels weird to share my thoughts, news, and even silly memes about life-shattering events happening worldwide. Folks who are alive and real as me or my loved ones are suffering to a degree I literally can’t imagine, simply because I won the birth lottery. I have the luxury of casually discussing and debating the cold hard historical and geopolitical facts behind events that kill, or have killed, millions. It is a weird feeling.

It is easy to feel powerless in the face of these global tragedies, which are so far removed from us both politically and geographically—after all, we could barely stop our own government from its deadly adventurism abroad, much less autocrats around the world like Putin. All I can do is laugh, learn, and spread the word, I suppose.

So, to some extent, I think it’s a coping mechanism: Many times, I find myself being weighed down by the state of the world or my society. All of a sudden, the reality of the human condition will seize me, and I’ll start to feel bad about both the suffering itself and my powerless to do anything about it.

Yet, years of consuming so much history and news has left me with some level cognitive dissonance towards the pain and suffering that are the norm for the vast majority of humans who ever lived. I read about wars, genocides, and brave but doomed rebellions—past and present—with detachment: I know these things happened—and continue to happen—to real people, but it feels more like I am reading a story rather than events that happened to people like me.

What was very real to the soldiers sent off to die for their leaders’ wars, and for the civilians caught in the middle, is just interesting bedtime reading or a quick and easy social media post. It’s all in some sense unreal, whether it’s acute crises like Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Ukraine (to name just a few), or banal day-to-day tragedies like thousands of kids dying from a first-world inconvenience like diarrhea.

To some extent this can’t be helped: Psychological phenomena like “psychic numbing” and the “identifiable victim effect” make us more inclined to care about people who look like us, are related to us, or form part of a small community. This makes sense given that we’ve been tens of thousands of years living in small, interrelated clans, on which we depended to survive.

By contrast, feeling an emotional connection and moral obligation to an ever-larger, more diverse set of strangers—from tribe to city to country and now the world—happened gradually over just the last few centuries (and accelerated only two hundred years ago), which is a blip in our 200,000-year history.

The idea that I should feel sad for millions of Americans I know thing about—let alone Yemenis, Afghans, Ukrainians, etc.—would have been alien not that long ago. Who are these people to me? Why should their suffering matter? It’s a mark of progress in our species that more and more people take into account the wellbeing of total strangers they will never meet or know (though we clearly still have a long way to go).

I think feeling disconnected from a world of billions of strangers remains a reasonable survival mechanism: Imagine what it would be like to truly feel the pain and sadness of billions of people as saliently as we do our own or our loved ones. How would we function in the face of nonstop exposure to human suffering and tragedy, which has never been more frequent, tangible, and personal, thanks to social media, smartphones, and widespread Internet access? (And to think the world is actually less violent than at any point in human history—imagine social media in the Middle Ages or World War II?

Over two centuries ago, Adam Smith posed an illustrative example of this phenomenon: If someone in his native Britain learned that a world away, millions of Chinese died from an earthquake, their response would be something like, “Wow, that’s awful” and then go about their day; if that same person learned their pinky was going to be amputated, it would haunt them for the rest of the day and well after.

Smith’s point is more salient than ever. Throughout any given day, I’ll get news notifications about all sorts of horrible things happening around the world, and I’ll recognize it for what it is—tragic and awful—but immediately move on with my life, and even laugh at the funny meme or text message that follows. It speaks to my sheer good luck that I am that small fraction of humanity for which this level of suffering is merely a meme, notification, or interesting historical reading.

I guess all we can do is try and make more and more people be as lucky as we are to not know starvation, war, abject poverty, and oppression. I don’t know how we do that; but expanding our circle of moral concern and compassion is definitely a start.

The Sadly Prescient Warnings of the United Nations

The United Nations warned about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan for years, and just three months ago published a report with tragically accurate warnings about the repercussions of a hasty withdrawal. It is a grim reminder that we should pay more attention to international institutions like the U.N., since they benefit from having a large pool of resources from different countries, and are given access that most governments are denied.

The U.N. report stated the Taliban was trying to demoralize the government, intimidate the populace, and put “major pressure” on near the capital, “massing forces around key provincial capitals and district centers, enabling them to remain poised to launch attacks”—which we saw play out in barely two weeks.

U.N. observers believed the Taliban were planning their operations around the withdrawal date announced by Trump and Biden when foreign troops would “no longer [be] able to effectively respond”. It cautioned that the Afghan military was “in decline” and that our departure “will challenge Afghan Forces by limiting aerial operation with fewer drones and radar and surveillance capabilities, less logistical support and artillery, as well as a disruption in training”—again, all this explained why the government melted away so soon.

The U.N. also predicted that the Taliban would target departing foreign troops to “score propaganda points” and believed the group is “closely aligned” with al-Qaeda, with “no indication of breaking ties” despite trying to mask their connections. To make matters worse, the U.N. believes Islamic State may position itself in Afghanistan, which recent news reports suggest is already happening.

While it remains to be seen whether some of the pending predictions come true, the U.N.’s overall conclusion was sadly spot on: “The Afghan Taliban poses a major threat to the survival of the Afghan government, which is likely to substantially grow with the full withdrawal of U.S. forces”.

[Literally one day after I shared the U.N. report on social media, Kabul’s airport was attacked by an Islamic State affiliate, killing over a dozen Americans and scores of Afghans desperately trying to flee. The report had warned of other extremist groups that are or will grow more powerful, often with tacit Taliban support, and that the Taliban would take full advantage of our withdrawal and target departing foreign troops to “score propaganda points”. Sadly, it was once again not too far off the mark.]

I am not sure how many more disasters and tragedies it will take for us to learn to listen to our international partners, many of whom have intelligence networks and resources we lack. One does not have to be a “globalist” to recognize that — the writing was almost literally on the wall.

Globalism and American Interests

With respect to Jim Mattis’ resignation letter (transcribed here): It is noteworthy that he devotes his longest paragraph, and the first one of substance, to a “globalist” vision of America’s relationship with the world:

One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies. Like you, I have said from the beginning that the armed forces of the United States should not be the policeman of the world. Instead, we must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense, including providing effective leadership to our alliances. NATO’s 29 democracies demonstrated that strength in their commitment to fighting alongside us following the 9/11 attack on America. The Defeat-ISIS coalition of 74 nations is further proof.

Setting aside the usual idealism about America’s role as a guarantor of freedom, the pragmatism underpinning this argument is unsurprising to anyone that knows U.S. history.

Even before this country was born, its foreign policy proved pivotal to its success and survival. It was the alliance with France—the first country to recognize our independence, and the only one that could challenge Great Britain—that was most decisive in securing victory in the Revolutionary War. Nearly all the Founders recognized the importance of international trade, commerce, and recognition, which provided economic growth as well as legitimacy. Hence the Constitution places great importance on international agreements (the Treaty Clause), elevates ratified treaties to the same binding force as domestic law (the Supremacy Clause), and has language apparently obligating America to enforce the “law of nations” (the Offenses Clause).

Contrary to popular belief, the top brass has always recognized this: Far from being jingoistic, many of them are well versed in international relations and world history. Some of the most noteworthy military leaders today—Mattis himself, David Petraeus, James Stavridis—studied international affairs, foreign policy, and other internationalist “soft” sciences.

Like it or not, our highly globalized world does not permit us to disregard alliances and cooperation. The people most involved in our national security recognize that.

The Great American-Iranian Social Media War

What a time to be alive: the President of the United States and one of Iran’s top military leaders are taking jabs at each other with Game of Thrones-style social media posts. (And HBO weighed in by tweeting “what is trademark misuse in Dothraki?)

I look forward to all our foreign policy pronouncements being conveyed social media through pop culture references.

Of course, Russian state media is more than happy to report the absurdity of this.

America’s Role in the Migrant Crisis

As the Honduran migrant caravan makes its way through Mexico towards the United States–prompting widespread public acrimony and various threats by the administration–it is important to keep in mind the historical context fueling this seemingly sudden exodus. As Jericho explains: Continue reading

The Cop Who Threw Himself at a Suicide Bomber

Afghanistan’s reputation as a lawless, war-torn place is perhaps surpassed only by its reputation for rampant corruption (which doubtless accounts for the intractability of many of its other problems). Yet millions of Afghans risk their lives everyday in the hopes of creating a better society for themselves and their children, and tens of thousands more have died toward that noble and seemingly distant end.

One of them was 25-year-old Afghan Police Lieutenant Sayed Basam Pacha. He was a hardworking and ambitious cop who despised corruption and the widespread distrust of the country’s security services. He even dreamed of being a high ranking police officer or government minister so as to do more good for his country. He ultimately gave his life in accordance with his noble and virtuous goals.  Continue reading

My Thoughts on Bucking the Paris Agreement

For what it is worth, it seems to me that most opposition to the Paris Agreement is predicated on mere ignorance to its contents and a visceral, categorical rejection of anything multilateral or international in nature, regardless of the details and benefits. (And given the considerable support for it by a broad range of stakeholders – from national security figures to big corporations, including major energy companies – the usual argument that such policies are inherently anti-business, or favor only idealistic environmentalists, simply do not wash.) It is anti-globalism for anti-globalism’s sake.

If folks actually read the Agreement – which most people had never heard of or had forgotten about until recently – they would find that it is explicitly nonbinding and hands-off with regards to how nations can go about mitigating climate change. In fact, it stipulates “nationally determined contributions” whereby every nation individually sets their own goals and how to reach them, whether through the free market, government programs, etc. Unlike its predecessors, the Paris Agreement furthermore places emphasis on “bottom up” solutions that favor working with private sector and civil society groups, something that opponents ostensibly favor. Ironically, these provisions were included in part to win over skeptics like the U.S. who criticized the binding nature of prior agreements such as the Kyoto Protocols.

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Don’t Mess With Mexico

Following the now-official proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — and to force Mexico to pay for it — Foreign Policy reminds us not to undervalue our relationship with our southern neighbor.

Among other considerations, Mexico’s economy is the 11th or 15th largest in the world, depending on the metric. It is our third largest trading partner, accounting for 6 million U.S. jobs and $1.5 billion worth of commerce daily, and anywhere between 2-4 percent of U.S. GDP. More American citizens live in Mexico than anywhere else in the world, and it is the most popular tourist destination.

Perhaps most importantly, Mexico contributes 80 percent of avocados consumed in the U.S. (I am being facetious of course, although the fruit’s popularity here is no joke.)

To save some time, I’ll also reiterate my own post from 2015 about Mexico’s probable was a major economic power in its own right:

Mexico is actually doing far better than most people realize, despite its many pressing social and political problems. Following the recession, the Mexican economy has grown twice as fast as America’s, and was among the fastest growing in the world in some years (albeit from a much lower base) … [It] is predicted by groups like Goldman Sachs and the World Bank to become the fifth to seventh largest economy by 2050 – around the level that France, Germany, and the U.K. are at today.

A few analysts have gone even further by suggesting that Mexico could become an influential global power in its own right. This is not as far fetched as it may initially sound: in many areas, such as infrastructure and business climate, the country is at least comparable, if superior, to Brazil, China, India, Russia, and other identified emerging powers; it has even earned coveted classification as one of several economic powerhouses to look out for — see the MINT group or the Next Eleven.

These accolades are well deserved. Since the mid-1990s, the majority of Mexicans have joined a rapidly growing middle-class, warranting the county’s official classification as a newly industrialized nation (NIC), a distinction only a handful of developing countries have achieved. Mexico’s average life expectancy and poverty rate is comparable to the U.S. (thanks in part to its universal healthcare system), while one-third of Mexican states have a violent crime rate equal to or even less than that of many U.S. states.

Mexico does of course have its problems, and its power dynamic with the U.S. makes it by far the junior partner in this bilateral relationship. But contrary to popular perception (at least among Americans) Mexico is far from a failed state. In spite of all its struggles, it has managed to become one of the world’s most robust economies, and has the potential to be a significant player in international affairs.

While the U.S. can still do a lot of damage to the country (far more than the other way around, to be sure) it is still insensible — not to mention immoral — to disrupt our relations with one of only two neighbors, a country whose interests and people are deeply intertwined with our own. As it is, the proposed 20 percent tax on Mexican imports to fund the border wall (since Mexico stands firmly opposed to funding it) will only end up transferring the costs onto American consumers — to the tune of $15 billion.

 

Germany, The World’s Moral Leader

The Economist observes how the refugee crisis has highlighted the German nation’s exemplary moral leadership, starting with this poignant statistic:

Whereas most nations struggle to accept even a handful of refugees, the Germans seem broadly enthusiastic about the idea, owing in part to their history. Continue reading