A Reason for Optimism

About four years ago, I wrote a post called “The Reckoning.” In it, I put forward the idea that unsustainable economic trends in the United States would lead to the emergence of populist politics and demagogues.

In the conclusion, I suggested that this incipient “reckoning” was symptomatic of a cleavage between different generations’ perceptions of the world. Basically, (1) that the generation that grew up in the post-World War II era — which by definition is responsible for the state of the union — would be incapable of adapting to a world without American primacy; and, (2) that the generation coming of age in a period of entropy and uncertainty would be willing to take on the shibboleths that have impeded political progress.

I closed with the following: (more…)

The Lies of Vietnam

Source: National Archives and Records Administration.
President Lyndon B. Johnson in Vietnam: With General William Westmoreland, Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Thieu, Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky (South Vietnam). Source: National Archives and Records Administration.

Rarely have accomplishments turned out so totally at variance with intended objectives. The war did not save South Vietnam, it did not deter future aggression, it did not enhance the credibility of United States commitments elsewhere in the world, it did not prevent recriminations at home …

The American defeat there grew out of assumptions derived quite logically from th[e] strategy [of “flexible response”]: that the defense of Southeast Asia was crucial to the maintenance of world order; that force could be applied in Vietnam with precision and discrimination; that the means existed to evaluate performance accurately; and that success would enhance American power, prestige, and credibility in the world. These assumptions in turn reflected a curiously myopic preoccupation with process—a disproportionate fascination with means at the expense of ends—so that a strategy designed to produce a precise correspondence between intentions and accomplishments in fact produced just the opposite.1

But there is an even profounder understanding of history … [that] recognizes that injustice flows from the same source from which justice comes … This indictment may be regarded not only as a shrewd expression of the moral ambiguity of all government, as both an instrument of, and a peril to justice; it is, more profoundly considered, a recognition of the basic paradox of history. It recognizes that the creative and destructive possibilities of human history are inextricably intermingled. The very power which organizes human society and establishes justice, also generates injustice by its preponderance of power.2

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War is extraordinary.

The immersive, 18-hour documentary captures the complexities, consequences, and emotions of the war, while placing today’s societal divisions in historical context. It mercilessly lays bare the unconscionable lies of U.S. statesmen and generals, and their betrayal of the country’s citizens, values, and decency.

You should watch it. (more…)

Favorite Books of 2015

The holiday season is upon us, so I thought I’d take to the blog once more to share some of the best books I read during the year.  Following fortuitous retweets from Marc Andreessen and Conor Sen last year, these annual posts have become the most frequently visited pages on the blog, with the 2014 and 2013 iterations attracting nearly one in five views.  So thanks!  I hope you find one or more of the books listed below to be an enriching read. (more…)

Verisimilitude

The following motion picture is based on first hand accounts of actual events.

In the opening scene to Zero Dark Thirty, the quote listed above fades, and recordings of actual 911 calls from September 11th play to a black screen. It’s unsettling—some might say unethical—and it sets the stage to say: this is how history went down.

When I saw the movie a few years ago, I left the theater uneasy about the blending of fact with fiction in what would ostensibly come to be viewed as the “true story” about the hunt for Bin Laden.  Of course, as we know, it’s not how it went down.

But that opening scene encapsulates a feature that seems to be appearing with more frequency—at least in the handful of shows and movies I’ve watched recently: verisimilitude. (more…)

Henry Kissinger’s World Order and the Question of Universal Values

In our time, the quest for world order will require relating the perceptions of societies whose realities have largely been self-contained.  The mystery to be overcome is one all peoples share—how divergent historic experiences and values can be shaped into a common order.1

Two weeks into the year and I’ve already found a finalist for my “Best Books of 2015” entry: Henry Kissinger’s World Order.  The book is a richly written, thought-provoking meditation on the structure of the international system from the world’s preeminent scholar-statesman.  You won’t find a critique of it here.

I touched upon Kissinger’s thinking in my post on Adda Bozeman’s Politics and Culture in International History, so I won’t retread it; but reading the book prompted me to contemplate once more whether U.S. actions have played a role in the fraying of world order, and if so, whether the issue of “universal” values might be to blame. (more…)

Politics and Culture in International History

Politics and Culture in International History

The concept of order that has underpinned the modern era is in crisis. The search for world order has long been defined almost exclusively by the concepts of Western societies … But vast regions of the world have never shared and only acquiesced in the Western concept of order … [The United States must think] on two seemingly contradictory levels. The celebration of universal principles needs to be paired with recognition of the reality of other regions’ histories, cultures and views of their security.1

Henry Kissinger is not enthused.  The extant world order is fraying, and the United States has neither a coherent strategy for coiling it back together, nor the bearing for promulgating a new one.  This blog’s exploration of entropy as the defining characteristic of international affairs covers some similar territory as Kissinger’s essay, so it shall be shamelessly plugged in this paragraph.

But the richness of Kissinger’s essay lies beyond the exigencies capturing headlines today, for it raises the idea that the cacophony of crises is not amenable to tactical policy prescriptions.  Rather, the perturbations may be symptomatic of a larger, more intractable issue: the imposition of rules and norms on cultures and societies that—by dint of their own historical experience—don’t necessarily share the West’s values.2 (more…)