Tag Archives: Foreign Policy

I Was Wrong…

…the American Civil War was not about states’ rights, but about the South’s desire to keep slaves.

As you may be aware, I take a bit of pride in my knowledge of U.S. history, especially in knowing more than most ‘real’ Americans.  Getting a perfect score on my AP US History exam in high school, and my Mother teaching me thirty or so American songs like the Caisson Song, Goober Peas, and all 6 verses of When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, guaranteed me deep insight and a place in respectable society.

Seriously, before a week ago I thought that the Civil War is more aptly called the War of Northern Aggression and that, instead of slavery, it was really about states’ rights.  My Uncle, a retired Virginia State trooper, explains that throughout our history, the United States has generally encouraged the liberation of peoples rebelling in favor of self-rule, but only when they rebel in other countries.  Good point.  And, after all, as my friends and old neighbors in Atlanta, Georgia might point out, the South did not invade the North; they would have been happy to leave the North alone.  The North were invaders and then occupiers.  They could not stomach peaceful secession.

Also, I thought that slavery, rather than being the reason for war, was merely the catalyst for it; it could have been any number of other issues that would have challenged the Constitution’s lack of clarity on whether or not a state was allowed to secede from the Union.  The incidental issue of abolition, though morally upright, happened to be what the North was trying to ram down southern throats.

So I have held my nose up at those simple-minded people who read today’s morality into the motivation of the North—who don’t really know history.  Most Unionists were as racist as most Southerners, and still are.  Yet, while I still think there is good reason to call the Civil War “the War of Northern Aggression,” I no longer think the war was really about states’ rights for three reasons.

First, in the compromise of 1850, the North sought and passed a provision guaranteeing that the North would help return slaves discovered in its territories.  This amounted to free states, that had passed laws banning slavery, who thought slavery was wrong, being forced to abide by the rules of another State that they strongly disagreed with.

(This also had the effect of generating a backlash of anti-slavery sentiment among Northerners who, though racist and quite willing to allow the institution of slavery to exist if out of sight, were not comfortable with the immorality that was being paraded in front of them.  I see striking similarities to the spread of pro-LGBT laws in America, which could cause a backlash if imposed on populations not yet ready it.)

Secondly, the South was unwilling to allow new states to decide for themselves, when entering the Union, whether they would be slave or free.  Because of the even balance of power in the Senate, slave states pushed the United States to mandate some territories to become slave states, even if they did not necessarily want to be.  At the time, the South argued that this did not violate states’ rights because a territory is not yet a state, but that is misguided for two reasons.  First, after a territory becomes a state, it would then need to acquire the rights of a state, which should include the power to decide whether it wants to change to a slave or free state.  Secondly, at the core of the ideology of states’ rights is the principle of self-rule—it should not matter if the area is a territory or a state, they still should have the right to self-determination.  This was violated in many ways.

In the Missouri Compromise, all land below the 36°30’ parallel (southern border of Missouri) was guaranteed to become slave states.  Because of this, efforts were made to annex foreign land and make them slave states.  Unsuccessful plans included annexing Cuba & Nicaragua.  Successful plans include the Mexican War, which was fought in large part by James K. Polk as a land-grab, not just for the United States, but for the slave-holding South.  Finally, the South wanted Kansas, when it joined the Union, to become a slave state, though in main its people did not want slavery.  Eventually it would become a free-state, but only after wrangling in Congress, bloodshed (150 killed or injured), and a raft of Missourians coming over the state line to vote illegally for pro-slavery constitutions.  Of course, this also broke the South’s compromise with the North: Kansas was above the 36° 30’ parallel.

What drives this point home for me, that the South was not really interested in States’ Rights, is that the Democrats, the only truly national political party at the time, with deep roots in the South and pro-slavery policies, tried desperately to hold together a national coalition by appealing to self-determinination: a middle ground which guaranteed the rights of states and territories to decide for themselves.  Stephen A. Douglas, the Democratic nominee in 1860, was fighting for states’ rights.  But the South would not have it.  So, while 14 out of 15 slave states had voted Democrat in 1856, Douglas only got one in 1860.  Instead, Southerners opted for John C. Breckenridge, a pro-slavery candidate, who won 11 out of 15 slave states.  But Lincoln swept the North and became president.

The final reason why the Civil War was not really about states’ rights has to do with the South’s reaction to Lincoln’s victory.  What must be understood is that, since George Washington, only moderate and pro-slavery presidents had been elected. In fact, of the 15 presidents before Lincoln, five did not own slaves and 10 did, most of them Virginians and southerners.  Of those 10, eight owned slaves while they served as president.  Of the five who never owned slaves, two were John Adams, a practical moderate, and his son, John Quincy, who was powerless.  The other three directly preceded Lincoln: Buchanan (Dem), Fillmore (Dem), and Pierce (Whig).  They were picked in large part because of their acceptance of slavery.  (Source cited by factcheck.org is here.)

In other words, for years, abolitionists had been losing elections and accepting them anyway.  This, after all, is the essence of democracy.  But, when the abolitionists had won, the South could not accept the outcome.  They did not wait for their cherished states’ rights to actually get trampled on.  Seven states seceded before Lincoln even took office.

Ironically, Lincoln was a clear-eyed pragmatist who would have probably been quite reasonable and measured in his policies.  His Emancipation Proclamation is rightly understood as a war measure, meant to weaken the economy of states that were in rebellion, and to muzzle any possibility of France or England, both having already abolished slavery, coming to the aid of the confederacy.  Also, the Proclamation did not free slaves in Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware, and specifically excluded numerous counties in some other states.  Lincoln did this so as to not push border states to join the Confederate cause.  As a result, some of these states did not ban slavery until they ratified the 13th amendment over three years later—6 months after the war was over.  This points to the likelihood that while Abraham would have certainly applied pressure with an aim to end slavery, he was not prone towards ideological or drastic measures.  But the south took their marbles and went home, before their states’ rights were even infringed on, but after it was clear that their power in the federal government to protect the institution of slavery was waning.

After listening to about 30 lectures detailing the first 80 years of American History (6 part Heritage Series), it is difficult for me to see this era as being dominated by a burgeoning crisis of states’ rights—of the majority of states forcing their will on the few.  Rather, we are witnessing, primarily in the South, increased racism, increased dependence on slavery, and increased fear that necessitated the preservation of their power so that they could continue and spread the institution of slavery.

But of course, “the American Civil War was about the South’s desire to keep slaves” is a sweeping historical statement.  There were many other factors involved, economic and otherwise.  In the end, it is probably only mostly true—I’d say about three fifths.


Outliers (2008), Guns, Germs and Steel (1999), and Michele Bachmann–Part 2 of 2

Outliers made me realize that lots of people are talented, work hard, and succeed (10,000 hour rule), but the bridge between success and wild success is built exclusively on fortune.  Because of this I cannot help but surmise that much of the wealth of the wildly wealthy belongs, in a way, to all of us.  Guns, Germs, and Steel took this line of thinking further: the “us” is larger than one country.  In other words, much of the wealth of wildly wealthy countries belongs to the world.

By 12,000 years ago, every continent and major area had been settled.  People were everywhere.  In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond asks this question: why did some societies develop faster than others?  In other words, why did the Spanish conquer the Aztecs instead of the Aztecs sailing to Spain and conquering the Spanish.  He notes, quite correctly I think, that if you do not have an explanation for this, it is difficult to uproot racism–even one’s own.  How could a couple hundred Conquistadors conquer millions of Aztecs?  Our minds immediately go to the first distinction: one group is Spanish, the other is Aztec.   To combat this, Diamond explains in detail why societies developed the way they did.  I want to point out just a handful of his observations.

In the long term, enormous benefits come to those who stop being hunter-gatherers and turn to food production.  I’ll mention three.  Because hunter-gatherers support population densities of 10-100 times less per acre than food producers, 1) food producers have more warriors and 2), and this cannot be overstated, high population density breeds diseases and disease-tolerant populations.  3) Also, food production will eventually allow some people to do something besides agriculture.  Food production allows for food supluses which can support an artisan class, a key to starting the process of rapidly ‘making stuff better.‘  Artisanship leads to specialization, expertise, academia, and ultimately to some form of scientific inquiry and space shuttles.

But these benefits are long term.  In the short term, the switch from hunter-gathering to food production can be very unattractive for at least these two reasons.

  1. In general, food producers have to work harder than hunter-gatherers, sometimes even twice as many hours in a day.
  2. The first food producers had, compared to what we had today, pretty shitty crops.   Have you seen a wild tomato?  They are tiny pathetic albeit beautiful things.  It would take a while for those to develop into something big enough to be worthwhile.  Likewise, after controlling the breeding of domesticated animals for thousands of years, we have developed chickens that create lots of eggs and lots of meat.  Sheep have more wool.  Cows have more milk.  All of these gains would be nearly non-existent when they first started.

Of course, hunter-gatherers did not switch to food production because they foresaw its benefits for distant descendants.  Indeed, because making the switch was so unattractive, food production only developed independently in 4 separate places around the globe.  The cultrual, and specifically agricultural, descendants of these areas would come to dominate the others.  For example, it is estimated that Spanish disease wiped out between 85-97% of the Aztecs in first 130 years of exposure to Conquistadors.  This incredible advantage was due directly to population density made possible by the switch to food production.

Switching to food production doesn’t really make sense until you have a package.  A food production package includes a number of different domesticable crops along with animals to eat, to use for muscle and for manure.  Why weren’t all aborigines able to develop a food production package from local flora and fauna?

Jared Daimond tells this story: He was hiking in the jungle of Papua New Guinea with a few aborigines and ran out of food.  They stopped for the night, and one of the men slipped off into the falling light.  He came back with arms full of mushrooms and starts preparing them.  “We can’t eat these,” Jared protests, “people get sick from mushrooms all the time.  Even scientists who study it their whole lives can collect the wrong mushrooms and die.”  The aboriginees turned to him, scolded him like a child, and then commenced to describe, by memory, the 87 different varieties of mushrooms that could be found in that area, how they could be recognized, where they grew, which parts were edible, what sort of sicknesses were caused by ingesting the wrong parts, etc.

It is reasonable to believe that 12,000 years ago everyone would have been just as familiar with the local flora and fauna as the aborignees in Daimond’s story.  Ok, so why did food production develop in some places but not others?  In short, some places, like the fertile crescent, had enormous local benefits.  Others, like Australia, had very little benefits.  What are these benefits?  Edible plants that were the easiest to domesticate, the “low hanging fruit,” were nearly all native to areas in which food production developed independently (e.g., wheat was native to the fertile crescent and was by far the best candidate for domestication).  Even more striking is that worldwide there are only 14 possible domesticable animals.  Of these, 7 were native to the fertile crescent.  None were native to Australia.

What facilitated the spread of food production across Eurasia is another thing that Eurasians cannot take credit for: their continent’s long east/west axis.  Crops and animals had a hard time spreading over North and South America.  The tropical jungle, the Isthmus of the Panama, as well as the vast climate differences associated with different latitudes, made the spread of food-producing crops and livestock very unlikely.  After all, a llama is not suitable to live in the Amazon.  Not until the present age were Llamas raised in North America where, it turns out, there has been appropriate environments for thousands of years.  In contrast, the crops originally developed in the fertile crescent, and the animals domesticated there, could be used everywhere from Spain to east asia (although east asia was blessed with rice varieties and water buffalo, upon which they developed their own agricultural package).  So why wasn’t there domesticable animals in places like North America?

The truth is, and I did not know this before I read Diamond’s book, there was.  Archeological evidence suggests that there were various animals that might have been docile, herd-like, sufficiently safe, etc.–that would have had all the qualities necessary for being a candidates for domestication.  Millions of these creatures covered North and South America, but they had a weakness.

Remember the Dodo bird?  It had developed without humans, and so had no fear of them.  Hungry explorers would literally walk up to them, grab their heads, wring them off, and make supper.  Such an easy food quickly went extinct when they were exposed to humans.  Now, unlike Eurasia and Africa, the flora and fauna of the American continents developed, like the Dodo bird, with no human contact.  But, 20,000 years ago, when humans crossed the Bering Strait, that isolation ended, and animals that might have done nicely as plow-pulling, milk-producing, manure-making, yummy beasts were killed and eaten.  Little did these newly arrived peoples know that they were killing their own descendant’s chances of food production and opening themselves up to Spanish conquest 20,000 odd years down the road.

In two recent Republican presidential debates, this question has been posed to Michelle Bachman: for every dollar that I make, how much do I deserve to keep?  She responded without hesitation: “All of it.  You earned it.  Of course you deserve it.”

Among hunter gatherers, without division of labor, there is in fact a surprising amount of equality, and decisions that the strong-man makes are generally arrived at by consensus.  Combine that with the previously-mentioned intimate knowledge hunter-gatherers had of their environment and this scene comes to mind:

Everyone had noticed: the mighty herds were gone.  A good many of the tribe were thinking that restraint might be necessary.  They were hoping that their strong-man would make a decree.  Others, no doubt, were indignant.  “How dare you tell me how to live my own life!”   This group despised any attempt at others to coerce them, which of course nobody wanted to do.  The tribe had grown large with the easy abundance of food, but now great swaths of land had to be combed over in an attempt to locate these animals, and some large families were already on the verge of starvation.  How could people be expected to limit consumption now?

So I imagine the opportunistic prehistoric politician/priestess, jumping around a fire in garments made of animal fur, preaching earnestly to her people.  “You killed it.  You dragged it back to camp.  You cooked it.  Of course you deserve it.”

“Therefore Joy,” OutliersGuns, Germs and Steel, and my study of economics–and I would even say the Bible too–puts me in a different place.  For every dollar we earn, we probably deserve very little of it, and even less as one becomes more wealthy.  Nearly everything we are able to accomplish we owe to others, some living, most not, and all of us in one way or another owe God/fortune.

However, God and most people, past, present, and future, aren’t idiots; if individuals do not get enough gain from their labor, they will not work.  And so God and society are generally wise to approve of individuals and individual countries keeping a disproportionate amount of their profit.  But we must never think that anyone is entitled to cheap oil or tasty, slow-moving creatures.  Instead, all should be thankful for the gifts and advantages they have been given.

I imagine the global non-temporal society, which we are connected to in a weird and beautiful way,

  • from those who first switched from hunter-gathering to food production
  • to modern day Australian aborigines who never had a viable food-producing package
  • to our children’s children’s children who will live out the consequences of our actions,

…is genuinely thrilled to see us productive and rewarded for our work.  After all, present day production and innovation, though often dependent on the exploitation of natural or human resources, may ultimately do the most good.  But I also imagine this global non-temporal society beseeching us to be thankful and do our best to look out for their interests too.  Jesus might call it “loving your neighbor.”

These days, I might call it being a conservative Democrat.

My Last (and longest) Post on the Middle East

I just finished Professor Yaqub’s 24 lectures on the history of the Middle East 1915-9/11.  I found it very interesting, and remarkably depressing.  Alicia is going through the same thing right now as she is studying the history of development practice.  It feels like a history of dashed hopes.  This, I think, is true of all history, but this type of history especially.

At the end of the lecture series, Yaqub categorized what amounts to two camps, with most people falling somewhere in between, with responses to the question of why Middle Eastern-US relations are so bad.  One camp points to specific modern day grievances, such as American support of Israeli oppression, the iraqi sanctions that led to roughly 500,000 iraqi deaths, and the presence of American infidel troops on holy Islamic soil on the Arabian peninsula.  Another camp points to specific ancient cultural and civilizational differences that make bad relations in many ways inevitable no matter what happens.  He mentions Bernard Lewis and Huntington as the big names in this second camp.

A few weeks ago, I finished Bernard Lewis’ “What went Wrong: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East.”  I had just gotten the book from the library, having no idea that it was an important work in the field, and by an important thinker, who was often invited by GWB to the White House to advise on Middle East policy. (Lewis was also the guy who said that Middle Easterners respect power and a firm-hand.  “Staying the course” was then the wisest strategy in nearly any tussle with them.)

Lewis’s basic idea is fairly straightforward: what went wrong? Christianity was initially the political and religious rival of an emerging Islam.  But, for years and years, this rivalry was not taken seriously because it was painfully obvious to anyone who travelled to medieval Europe and medieval Arabia that the Arab world was way way WAY ahead of them in virtually everything: the arts, human rights, literature, mathematics, architecture….every standard of civilizational progress.  (Interesting fact: for centuries, oppressed peoples fled Europe for shelter in the more tolerant and peaceful Arab world.)  Eventual domination of Christianity and the west by Islam and the Arabs seemed inevitable.

As we all know, however, the moors were kicked out of Spain.  The Ottomans were stopped twice at Vienna.  And the tide slowly started to turn.  For years, middle easterners had not even been looking at the west, assuming that they were barbarians and generally pathetic.  Suddenly, they were being forced to adopt western ways of doing things just to keep up, especially ways of conducting warfare, but also things like clocks and standard measurements of weights.  Not only was it necessary to adopt western ways of fighting, they had to have westerners come and teach them how to create effective armies, a huge blow to civilizational pride.  The knock out punch, if you could call it that, was Napoleon’s escapade in Egypt, in which a relatively small force of 30,000 Europeans captured what I believe was the most populous Muslim state at the time.  Lewis thinks that this “clash of civilizations,” a phrase he coined, led to  an underlying resentment and hatred which permeates and undermines western-middle eastern relations today.

While I was initially compelled by this theory, I have come to believe that it is not very relevant.  America was widely liked at the beginning of the 20th century.  A benign power not yet tested, most American interest in the region was philanthropic, and middle easterner greatly preferred America to France or England.

I think two factors did more to erode the American position in the Middle East than anything else: our willingness to do almost anything to contain the Soviets and our continual support for Israel.

Why does American values stop so quickly at the water’s edge?  Anyone who knows me knows that I very selfishly desire meaning over money.  In the same way, I wish America was a little more philanthropic in its foreign policy; we would all feel better about ourselves.

Will Airhart, in a comment to an earlier post, mentioned that when we have intervened, it  has not worked out.  I want it to be clear that I am not advocating interventionism at this time.  I am simply advocating not helping governments suppress it citizens.  In the Middle East, we have generally acted as if we were France in 1780, but instead of coming to aid America, we provided arms to England in order to suppress the American revolution.

This sort of thing we keep doing, even now that the Soviet Union is gone.

I love the Kurds.  The Kurds in Turkey and Iraq have been oppressed for years.  The reason why they have not been allowed to form their own country seems to be that Turkey is an ally of the US, a NATO member.  This pushes the US to not allow the Kurds in Iraq to form their own state either, because empowered Turkish Kurds might threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey.

I love America for the Marshall Plan, for our overall restraint post WWII, for our continual  evolving government, for our constitution, for many things.  But I hate America for how its treated the people of the Middle East.

Ok.  I want to talk about more fun things now.  My next book is Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict the XVI.

We Missed Our Chance!

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, I think we missed our chance.  Up til that point, nearly all of our foreign policy objectives had been subsumed by the main objective: containing the Soviets.  Fostering democracy and human rights took a back seat.  In numerous countries especially in the middle east (“especially” only because I happen to be studying the middle east right now), we supported vicious tyrannical regimes against revolutionary forces simply because they had potential to go communist (though of course, sometimes there were already communist).  We kept military bases around the world.  We supported bad guys because we needed air bases.  We supported bad guys because we needed oil.  We embraced the status quo because we were trying to stop change for the worse.   We made selfish trade decisions, because we needed to keep ourselves strong to deter the Soviet threat to the whole world.

Regardless of what one might think of the Soviet Union, and whether or not it was worth deterring (I think it was), when we look at our foreign policy history, containing that threat was our main reason for pretty much everything we did, good or bad.  You would think that the Soviet collapse should have changed more than it did.

Our policies should have changed internally as well.  Reagan’s enormous defense spending spree was based on the Soviet threat.  In 1991, we should have gotten our house in order, and Clinton did balance the budget in fact, and we should not have allowed something as relatively insignificant as Islamic fundamentalism (compared to the Cold War and WWII) to balloon the debt and the culture of fear.

Instead, I wish Clinton, not because he was a democrat, but just because he was President at that time, would have made a speech in which he would have apologized to the world, even to specific countries, for how we had meddled in their affairs and how we had not stood for democracy, human rights, and economic fairness.  He should have promised to revisit our approach to every single country and region based on human rights, economic equity, and democratic ideals.  And he should have asked forgiveness by explaining how what we did we did out of a fear of the Soviet Union.

His speech could have ended,

“As the world’s only remaining superpower, we will not make it our goal to remain on top.  All great powers eventually fall and we will too.  When our time is up, when we slide below others in measurements of literacy, GDP, life expectancy, population, land controlled, and military capabilities, we want to have done so without making enemies and without creating more war-inspiring hatred and prejudice.  In other words, our greatness will not be determined by how strong we were for how long, but how much better the world became while we were strong.  Only this better world can ensure America’s long term security

‘In this world, tyrannical regimes are not welcome.  In fact, totalitarian regimes, you should know now, we will treat with you, we will accept your diplomats, but we will not respect them as legitimate representatives of your country if your country’s government is not a legitimate representative of your people.  We must get away from having policies for individual dictators or kings.  Instead, we are on the side of the people.  We may not always know what that means, but we will make the assumption that the people want, at least, these four things: 1) a say in how their government is run 2) the ability to make a decent living 3) the freedom to choose their own religion 4) the desire for their government to deal peacefully with disagreement both domestic and foreign.

‘Creating this new world will not be easy, but it is the only way to ensure our collective and long term security and prosperity.  Thank you.”

We missed our chance and it makes me sad.

(I have been listening to a lecture course by Dr. Salim Yaqub, University of Chicago called “The United States and the Middle East 1914-9/11.”  Professor Yaqub got his PhD at Yale and he currently teaches at UC Santa Barbara where he heads the Center for Cold War Studies and International History.  I find the lecture series fascinating, but I think he tends to denigrate the United States a little bit and leans left generally.)