Monday, March 24, 2014

The Limits of Globalization

Russia's seizure of Crimea reminds us that globalization isn't all it's cracked up to be.  The fall of the Soviet Union led to self-satisfied proclamations in the West about the triumph of capitalism and history ending in a glowing halo of liberal democracies.  Economic globalization would supposedly lead to worldwide reallocation of capital and resources to ever more efficient applications, with the result that economic tides would rise everywhere and prosperity would simmer in every pot. Nations and peoples worldwide would become increasingly interdependent and interlinked, making mutual tolerance in everyone's pecuniary interest.  Pots would melt around the world, diversity would be embraced, and preschoolers everywhere would learn the lyrics of Kumbaya.

Russia is interlinked with the rest of the world today:  economically in the energy markets and the financial markets, and securitywise with America and Western Europe in terms of dealing with Islamic radicals.  But none of that made a difference when Ukraine moved toward closer links with the West.  The centuries old Russian imperial imperative--that the Eurasian heartland be controlled from Moscow--howled.  Russia endeavored to maintain strategic geographic advantage by snatching control of Crimea's ports and naval bases, securing military and trade access to warm water.  Political machinations inside Ukraine have increased, in an effort to impede its Westward shift.  Russian troops in large numbers coincidentally gather for exercises within spitting distance of Ukraine's borders.  The economic sanctions imposed and threatened by the West have had no discernible impact on Russian policy. 

Globalization was an illusion fancied by people who fancied themselves elites.  This fancy illusion could be maintained as long as one cultivated ignorance of history.  But globalization is nothing new.  Europe in 1913 had extensive cross-border economic and financial relationships.  The European elites of the day were multilingual, cosmopolitan and cultured.  Somehow, none of that prevented the ignition of World War I over . . . well, nothing.  The most ridiculous war ever fought, World War I resulted in 20 million dead and peace terms imposed on Germany that were so harsh they practically guaranteed another war.  And that war--the Second World War--would require only 21 years before exploding in a frenzy of land grabs disturbing similar to what Vladimir Putin is doing now.  Whatever economic, financial, cultural and other ties are fostered by globalization, they don't trump the tribalism that characterizes almost all peoples in Europe, Asia and Africa.

Tribalism is difficult for Americans to grasp.  Having built a remarkably successful, diverse nation, Americans struggle with the idea that narrow concepts of group, based on cultural and historical ties, could somehow be so important as to justify conquering and killing.  Surrounded by the enormous economic benefits of the Melting Pot, Americans don't understand why other peoples can't embrace tolerance when tolerance will allow them bigger shopping sprees at the mall. But history tells us that you have to understand and deal with other peoples' irrationalities.  War, after all, is essentially always irrational.  But there are plenty of wars, all the time.  A smart foreign policy incorporates the need to consider and address other peoples' motivations, whatever they may be.

Economic sanctions have a role in America's and Europe's response to Russia.  But it would be a mistake to think they will be enough.  The sheer exertion of power will also have a place.  This doesn't mean triggers need to be pulled.  Strengthening NATO would get through to Putin, whose attention you get only if you exert power.  A pragmatic alliance with China should be sought (recall that Russia and China fought brief shooting wars in 1929, 1934, 1937 and 1969, so the Chinese have no illusions about Russian intentions).  The Japanese, who fought two wars with Russia in the 20th Century, should get a fist bump and more.  Unavoidably, America's Cold War coalition will have to be rebuilt.  And that's okay.  What's not okay is to believe that reason, plus maybe a few trade deals, will bring Putin around.

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