Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A World on the Brink? Some Essential Questions for Serious People in Very Serious Times

by Nomad


With the US elections months away, and problems around the world causing many to wonder and worry, it's time we asked a few crucial questions about where we are headed.

The other day, the UK Guardian had a not-so-cheerful op-ed piece that is worth noting. 
In the piece, entitled Is The World Drifting Towards Disaster? Maybe, writer Michael White expresses a gloomy fear that things seem to be headed towards something as dark as anything we have yet seen
A lot of bad things are coalescing all over the place and no one seems to be in charge. A combination of opportunist ambition, of myriad weaknesses, systemic and personal, and of profound global power shifts put us all in danger.
We have been here before.
You must have read with alarm, or watched flickering black and white newsreels, how imperial Europe, rich and complacent, drifted towards fatal civil war in 1914. Schoolchildren are taught how 25 years later it all happened again, this time after self-deluding efforts to duck unpleasant realities ended in Hitler’s war.
“How could they be so blind?” we wonder as we read the latest history book or watch those TV documentaries.
Yet look at us.
A perfunctory tour of our troubled world backs up White's observation. 

The Flammability Factors

From East to West, there's very little cause for celebration about the dawn of a new age. It's no wonder so many people. like White, feel a sense of foreboding. This planet is becoming a very volatile place.

The Europe Union- usually the source of some degree of world stability- has lately been under tremendous existential pressure and its cohesion has been rattled first by the economic problems of some of its member nations, and then by hundred of thousands of refugees flowing in from the Middle East, through Turkey.
Next year, this mass migration out of the war zones is expected to be even higher than last year.

NATO member Turkey is now giving ultimatums both to Russia (about flying over its territory) and to the US for its support of Kurdish fighters.
In that part of the world at the moment, ultimatums are flying every place you look.
Russia gave one to Turkey and reportedly threatened to go to war over the Turkish president's alleged support of ISIS. Iraq issued one to the Turks about violations of its territory.
Eventually, somebody at some point will have to back up their threats with real action.

That's only part of the problem.
Once the subject of Western fantasies about a model for Islamic democracies, the Turkish Republic, under the command of President (former Prime Minister) Erdogan, has essentially devolved into an autocratic state. That's hardly in keeping with NATO's single most important requirement for membership: adhering to democratic principles and maintaining a representative government.
That's not what we are seeing at all. We see a nation forsaking all pretense of democracy.

And yet, given the situation in Syria and Iraq, and Ukraine, the West has few options with Turkey, but to smile politely as professors are arrested and journalists are imprisoned for life, simply for doing their jobs. 
At the moment, all protests- even small ones- are considered acts of terror and dealt with water cannons and tear gas.
(Incidentally, yesterday a man sued his wife, accusing of her insulting President Erdogan.)

Saudi Arabia
Further to the east, Saudi Arabia - like many petroleum-producing nations- is facing the uncertain days due to the unforeseen collapse of oil prices.

According to one analysis, the kingdom could go bankrupt as early as of 2018. There, much of the stability is bought with government jobs and generous public spending and with falling oil prices, so any decision to cut government spending is expected to come at the cost of the Saudi hold on power.
If that should happen, nobody is willing to predict what happens next? To make matters worse, the kingdom is now locked in a contest of wills with Iran, fresh from its lifting of sanctions. 

Regardless of the delicate situation in the Middle East, doesn't global leadership require us to ask: how much can be overlooked in our ally before the diplomatic relationship becomes merely a stamp of approval?
Will the next US president be willing to go to war to protect that alliance, even when the allied nation is an ally in name only?

This country or that country might be a key part of a defensive alliance but unless there is some kind of minimum standard, these kinds of alliances can backfire very easily.
The framework that has kept the relative peace- an interlocking system of alliances- is being tested and any one of the links come with an implicit promise of defense. This, history tells us, could serve as a flashpoint to a wider clash. 

The Danger of a Runaway Reaction

Just as in the prelude to World War I, the defensive alliances of great powers today have become so complex that all the world needs is one spark to set in motion some very nasty and unstoppable reactions.
We have been fortune lately.
Just look at the shooting down of an airliner over Ukraine and later the shooting down of a Russia bomber at the Syrian-Turkey border. Think how easily it could have led to a disastrous miscalculation.

There is, at least, one group who wouldn't mind if the world blew up. Waiting with a box of matches is the terror group, ISIL. A modern age anomaly with an insatiable blood lust, the ability to brainwash the innocent and a potential network of sleeper cells scattered across Europe and the world.  

Europe 1917

A hundred years ago, all it took to destroy the artifice of civilization was a single miscalculation: the murder of a rather obscure archduke of Austria and his wife on the streets of Sarajevo.
The chief assassin, Gavrilo Princip was part of a nationalist terror organization, the Black Hand.
In surprising haste, one smaller nation declared war another smaller nation and the rest of the world found itself pulled into the conflict like a massive black hole of war.

The edifice of international stability- alliances that were once designed to prevent war- became the catalyst for a World War The cost in terms of lives? 20,000,000 lives.
One estimate (using 1913 US dollars) is that the Allies spent $147 billion on the war and the Central Powers only $61 billion. Among the Allies, Britain and its Empire spent $47 billion and the U.S. $27 billion; among the Central Powers Germany spent $45 billion.
Still worse, that war also laid the groundwork for an even great tumult less than twenty years later.
Should war erupt today, with the possibility of a nuclear, chemical or biological assault, things are very likely to be much much worse.

So, I suppose, the question becomes: 
With so much at risk, and with the benefit of hindsight, why are we allowing the same situation to re-occur in our times?

Russia Putin

Russia's Failed Reform 

To the North and East, Russia is looking more and more like the Old Soviet Union without the pretense of Communist ideology as an excuse. 

The capitalist experience in Russia was a boon for the oligarchs but for the average Russia, it might be easy to be bitter about the results.
We too in the West were sold a false narrative: that a capitalist Russia would bring about a reformed Russia, a democratic Russia, and a welcome partner with a new perspective.
Instead, we got first a jolly drunken bear followed by Putin, former KGB officer, and Communist Party hack. 

It's all very disappointing for the ever-hopeful progressive. The world had such high hopes for Russian democracy back in the early 1990s. We mistakenly assumed that a new age of cooperation would transform the world.
Today we must ask:
Has Russia turned its back completely about its 1990s commitment to democracy and liberalization and to joining the rest of the world?
Or has it simply re-branded the former Soviet empire?

Like other oil-producing nations, Russia, which relies on oil and natural gas for almost half its fiscal revenue, is being squeezed by cheap oil. Russian leaders. It was reported last month, that this year's budget was initially planned around oil averaging $50 a barrel. At present, the price is at a high of around $32.

Putin's overreach in Ukraine and Syria have turned out to be costly military adventures. Attempting to prop up corrupt leadership when his people revolt generally is.

Today, Vladimir Putin has somehow persuaded the world that defending a Syrian tyrant, responsible for the mass slaughter of his own people as well as the destruction of his own nation, is a right and noble cause.
He has tricked most of the world into believing it isn't about Russia holding onto to a bit of power in the Middle East. In Putin's contrived logic, defending Assad's government is a moral imperative.
After all, it's all in the name of defeating an Islamic terror group straight out of the Dark Ages. Unfortunately, the encroachment of this darkness doesn't stop at the US borders.

Something Amiss in the Superpower Psyche

Anybody from the outside eavesdropping on the present situation in American politics would have every reason to be perplexed and a little frightened. Listening to the far right candidates, there's plenty of cause to ask whether the every person from sea to shining sea has absolutely lost their minds.

The last remaining superpower- if that term means anything- appears to be on the verge of possibly selecting a person like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz to be the destroyer-in-chief.
But why?
Awhile back, The Atlantic Monthly made an ad-hoc list of the reasons Trump's supporters gave for voting for the candidate. It makes sobering reading.

Trump rally

Here are some of the more disturbing comments.
  • “Like the joker from The Dark Knight, I just want to see the world burn.”
  • “I will vote for Donald Trump (and to a lesser extent Bernie Sanders) because he represents hope… And how much damage can he really do?”
  • “I'm a young guy who is immature, a bit antisocial, and with no plans for kids or a wife ever. At some level, I don’t really care how things go with America as long as it’s fun to watch.”
  • “Many are right; it’s not about trusting Trump; it's a collective middle finger to the establishment… Trump isn't stupid, he gets it. He knows the more outrageous, the better.”
  • “I am of the belief that he is conceited and arrogant enough to avoid failing in front of the world at all cost.”
  • “I’d vote for the candidate purely for the comedic value.”
2016 election

Somehow businessman Donald Trump, the frontrunner of one-half of a two-party political system has been taken over by a man without any prior experience in politics, without any clear (or sensible) policy on anything, Mr. Trump has somehow taken hold of the imaginations of millions of voters.

We are told that behind the scenes the Republican establishment is in a panic about Trump. The Washington Post quoted a strategist who worried:
We’re potentially careening down this road of nominating somebody who frankly isn’t fit to be president in terms of the basic ability and temperament to do the job.… It’s not just that it could be somebody Hillary could destroy electorally, but what if Hillary hits a banana peel and this person becomes president?”
Wow, could we ever imagine a time when the GOP would fear winning an election?  But that admission came back in November before Trump had won three primaries.
Instead of panicking or making excuses, the leaders of the party rally ought to be apologizing for having created the conditions for the rise of a person like Trump in the first place.

That's not what Trump thinks, of course. According to his own estimation, Trump is the best choice because he is well-loved and because he is very rich. Cruz, on the other hand, thinks he is a better choice because God chose him. He seems- presumably as part of his divine mandate- very willing to convert the US into a theocratic state, Constitution be damned.

Why hasn't the Republican Party been held responsible for this fiasco? Don't they believe Americans might not deserve a little better than this? 

The fact that candidates have of this caliber have gotten even this far should be a cause for concern and dread for American citizens and America's allies. It suggests that there is something is wrong in the American psyche.
Can a nation willing to elect a man like Donald Trump really be trusted?  

The question the allies must be asking themselves is a reasonable one:
Have Americans learned nothing about the consequences of electing unfit leaders and giving them more or less absolute power and a blank check?

Apparently, we will have to wait until November to see. 

Planned Parenthood

Things Can Always Get Worse

If ever there was a time the world needs sound and thoughtful leaders, this is it. The times require sane leadership with experience and a deep understanding of the dynamics and complexities of world politics.

Not an egomaniacal blusterer with a flair for tough guy talk nor a religious charlatan in a cheap suit who ambition overshadows any vestige of decency or conscience.
Even perhaps the least of the GOP choices, Marco Rubio seems entirely ill-prepared to take on the thankless and soul-crushing role of US President. (The only thing that makes him desirable to Republicans is not who he is, but who he isn't.)

One thing is clear. If Rubio, Trump or Cruz ever became president, no matter how bad things are in the world at the moment, you can be sure things would quickly become much worse. 
Instead of mature leadership, what the Republican Party is offering the electorate is merely two or three evils and none of them are lesser.
And the far-right voters are super-okay with that. No big deal. It'll be.. fun to watch. It'll be outrageous and huge.
Like a great big bonfire into which everything and everybody gets thrown.

For decades now, they have been gorged on reality-TV and the blurred lines between fact and fiction. This election year, that effect has on into overdrive with the false narratives of Fox News. As Media Matters points out:
Fox has a long history of guiding the Republican party on policy positions and influencing the GOP primary process, and several of the candidates' debate remarks were conspicuously similar to narratives that have originated on or been promoted by the Fox News Channel.
Instead of respectable conservative leadership, we now witness third-rate right-wing demagogues tempting the public to violence by stirring up raw emotions and resentment.

At the same time, we have witnessed elected members of the Republican-led Congress neglect their well-paid responsibilities simply because they didn't like the color of the president's skin. They have chosen to obstruct and deflect and make excuses. They would rather close the entire government down in a childish act of petulance than to get on with doing their part in managing the country.

None of this came about overnight.
For years, we have heard the lies about rewarding the job suppliers and how the 1% deserve to pay less than their fair share. We have listened to rousing speeches about God and nation while the very same people are engineering the destruction of basic American values like fairness, due process, and a chance
to make your children's lives better.

How do they get away with it? Why would the American people allow it to happen?

Public Demand for Insanity 

Only a landslide election would send a sign that thoughtful American voters have survived the Bush years.
Will that happen? Probably not.
Even though the GOP candidates have howled about being treated unfairly, the mainstream media continues to be "fair and balanced" even when comparing sanity to insanity in this election. Instead of explaining the risks to the Republic, they are giving voters the message that these Republican candidates are not that bad.
No, Really. Seriously.

Meanwhile, at every rally in the primary states, Trump and Cruz and Rubio have chosen to vindicate the ideas of the mob. Of course, that's what candidates generally do in a quest to be universally loved.
In this case, however, what that entails is saying the most outrageous misrepresentations and. frankly, stupid comments from the playground. Only four years those same remarks would have been campaign killers.
The reason they are so popular is the fundamental principle of sales. Tell the consumers what they want to hear, no matter how outlandish, ignorant or backward.

Apathy RepublicansThat's not at all an unfair description of this strange but pervasive mentality.
These are people who cannot accept the fact that affordable health care is a human right nor that, in civilized nations, it is government's responsibility to ensure that every citizen has access to medical care. 

These are voters who refuse to accept that some people may have a different perspective on marriage. They cannot accept that minorities should be treated equally.

They believe that the politically-correct police are out to rob them of being as noisy and intolerant as they want to be. They cannot seem to accept that a woman should have a right to her own body and should be able to make decisions according to her conscience. 

They seem to think climate change is conspiratorial nonsense and that America is a Christian Nation, and every other religion should expect to be merely tolerated. If you are Muslim, that right-wing tolerance is in very short supply. 

In short, they haven't any clue about science or Christian tolerance or any of the things that America has long stood for. Even if they did, would not give a damn about those "details."
Science isn't Christian. And everybody knows that experts tell lies. Tolerance? That's another word for liberal PC policing. Free speech means I can carry my gun wherever I damn well please.

They've never grasped principles of the American republic. And understand the basic tenets of  Christian faith even less.  
In their frustration and ignorance, these voters seem fully prepared- even eager- to throw everything down the toilet. 

In that spiral and splash goes humanity's best hopes, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Human Rights, the march of scientific progress and a host of great ideas which changed the world for the better.

Those ideas are not merely an American heirloom or a product of Western philosophy but a revolution of enlightenment for the whole world.
These Trumpeters and Cruisers are fully prepared to sit back and watch as a second Dark Age gently puts the world into a deep sleep.
Future generations- if any survive- may close their history textbooks with abject disgust and ask themselves 
"How on Earth could these seemingly intelligent have been so blind? How could they have just sat back and let it all happen?"