Thursday, 27 October 2016

Valuing America

There's a lot of anti-Americanism around. Some of it is justified, but a lot of it is a knee-jerk reaction that is unjustified and dangerous. It's especially dangerous when it takes the form of false equivalence: "sure, Russia/China/North Korea/Iran/Saudi Arabia is bad, but the USA is bad too". That position is wrong, whether it's taken by left-wing activists or Donald Trump.

In the former countries (and many others), if you're a popular opponent of the government you are very likely to end up in prison or dead. To a first approximation, countries that look more like America in their economic systems and institutions deliver more freedom and less poverty to their citizens. (China's history is a great validating experiment.) It is no accident that Western Europe turned out better than Eastern Europe, or that former Soviet satellite states would rather be part of NATO and Europe than in the Russian orbit, or that South Korea and North Korea turned out very differently, or that Taiwan and Hong Kong turned out better than mainland China. I think it's telling that "peace activists" in New Zealand reliably protest all sorts of US military action but don't bother about Russia slaughtering civilians in Syria, for example; they unwittingly show their respect for the USA by holding it to a higher standard.

That false equivalence creates various problems. It undermines support for sanctions and other action against the more problematic countries. Worse, it encourages the idea that it would be good for US global power to be substantially curtailed. To me, that seems like a very bad idea: I am very concerned about existential threats, especially nuclear weapons proliferation, and without strong US leadership that will more quickly become a free-for-all with disastrous consequences for humanity. It would be excellent if other great powers, like China or the EU, decided to take these responsibilities seriously, but that doesn't seem to be happening. Indeed, Russia and China recklessly enable Iran, North Korea and others for their own short-term ends. They (and much of the West) privately expect the USA to be the world's policeman and clean up the mess, while publicly berating it whenever that goes wrong.

The opposite error would be to uncritically accept US systems and actions as good. Most people in New Zealand and elsewhere are pretty far away from that error (except when they cherry-pick evidence to support their arguments). Personally I think New Zealand, for example, gets a lot of things more right than the USA does. That does not make the USA dispensable.


  1. "It undermines support for sanctions and other action against the more problematic countries."

    In general, I think sanctions are counterproductive. They punish the more vulnerable parts of the population (the poor), but actually increase the power of the elite by giving them an external scapegoat to blame for all of their country's problems, exacerbating nationalist feelings and providing a convenient Enemy.

    Maybe it's possible to sometimes use sanctions to achieve policy goals, but I think historically (and currently) we've been pretty bad at that.

    1. That's fair, and that's a pretty good article you link to. I think that sanctions have sometimes been effective when the alternatives would have been a lot worse. E.g. my understanding is that sanctions helped change course in South Africa.

    2. Also it seems to me sanctions actually worked in Iraq w.r.t. WMDs (and then the USA stuffed it up by invading anyway, which gets to the point of your linked article).

  2. I don't really know much about the sanctions in South Africa, but the first search result for them seems to claim they were not that effective. Maybe there's arguments the other way, too.

    With Iraq, I think it was less that the sanctions worked than it was the fact that we had already invaded the country once before. I.e., there was an end-game beyond the sanctions that actually mattered, and the sanctions themselves were just a signal of how close we were to doing it again.

    Unfortunately, when we did do it again, we produced a terrible, terrible moral hazard. It became clear that Iraq didn't have nukes and wasn't seriously trying to acquire them, which is why it was safe to invade them. Actually cooperating with the things we said we wanted (allowing UN inspectors) didn't help them. Neither Iran nor North Korea got invaded, though, despite either either having or making significant progress towards developing nuclear weapons. The lesson any rational despot would take away is, "If you want to keep the US from invading you, better increase the budget for your nuclear program."

    Sadly, when you ask the question of why someone would advocate for sanctions when we know they don't help achieve policy goals, and actually reinforce the power of those we wish to punish, there's only one rational answer that makes sense to me. And that is that they don't want them to work.

  3. Yes, I agree about the moral hazard there.

    At the time of the Iraq invasion my position was that the US should not invade Iraq but should invade North Korea, or at least spend the political capital to try to move in that direction. It was a lonely position but I still think I was right.

    1. Having toured the Korean War Memorial in Seoul yesterday, I'm inclined to think that would have done very bad things to our relationship with China.

    2. The purpose of spending that political capital would have been to try to make a deal separating China from North Korea or at least having it acquiesce to the regime falling. An actual invasion might not have then been necessary; if China just changed its policy to trans-ship all escaping NKs directly to SK instead of sending them back to NK for torture and execution, the resulting flood of escapees might have brought down the regime.

      I haven't seen that war memorial but I did tour the DMZ. I hope you got to do that, it's thoroughly fascinating and odd.