Monday, March 2, 2009

Beyond the Vantage Point of Western Civilization

The essay is entitled "Economically Fueled Upheaval." The author is Michael T. Klare, defense correspondent for The Nation and Professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College. The basic thesis may actually be best captured in testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on February 12 given by Admiral Dennis C. Blair, Director of National Intelligence, whom Klare quoted as follows:

The primary near-term security concern of the United States is the global economic crisis and its geopolitical implications. Statistical modeling shows that economic crises increase the risk of regime-threatening instability if they persist over a one to two year period.

Klare has provided a graphic illustration of Blair's conclusion:

As people lose confidence in the ability of markets and governments to solve the global crisis, they are likely to erupt into violent protests or to assault others they deem responsible for their plight, including government officials, plant managers, landlords, immigrants and ethnic minorities. (The list could, in the future, prove long and unnerving.) If the present economic disaster turns into what President Obama has referred to as a "lost decade," the result could be a global landscape filled with economically fueled upheavals.

Indeed, if you want to be grimly impressed, hang a world map on your wall and start inserting red pins where violent episodes have already occurred. Athens (Greece), Longnan (China), Port-au-Prince (Haiti), Riga (Latvia), Santa Cruz (Bolivia), Sofia (Bulgaria), Vilnius (Lithuania) and Vladivostok (Russia) would be a start. Many other cities from Reykjavik, Paris, Rome and Zaragoza to Moscow and Dublin have witnessed huge protests over rising unemployment and falling wages that remained orderly thanks in part to the presence of vast numbers of riot police. If you inserted orange pins at these locations--none as yet in the United States--your map would already look aflame with activity. And if you're a gambling man or woman, it's a safe bet that this map will soon be far better populated with red and orange pins.

For the most part, such upheavals, even when violent, are likely to remain localized in nature, and disorganized enough that government forces will be able to bring them under control within days or weeks, even if--as with Athens for six days last December--urban paralysis sets in due to rioting, tear gas and police cordons. That, at least, has been the case so far. It is entirely possible, however, that, as the economic crisis worsens, some of these incidents will metastasize into far more intense and long-lasting events: armed rebellions, military takeovers, civil conflicts, even economically fueled wars between states.

I do not dispute either the data Klare has summoned or the approach he has taken in presenting it. However, I am struck by the absence of any part of the Muslim world in that presentation. It seems to me that the biggest flaw in the reasoning (if we can call it that) of George W. Bush regarding our "progress" in dealing with organizations like al-Qaeda and the Taliban was his refusal to acknowledge the international nature of Muslim culture and the geopolitical implications of that nature. The Taliban has thrived on supporting those who have been neglected (if not abused) by Western-supported governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and it has refined a strategy that couples supporting bodies with food, clothing, and shelter with supporting souls through their particular brand of fundamentalism. At the same time we have observed al-Qaeda extend this kind of influence (primarily from a secular stance) from a local to a global scale that Klare has chosen to ignore in examining examples that "are likely to remain localized in nature."

This is not to deny either Blair's thesis or where Klare has chosen to take that thesis. Rather, it is to remind us that both Blair and Klare still live in an ethnocentric world that views social progress in terms of the advance of "Western civilization." Until we recognize that there are other "civilizations" with a "global reach" and recognize those civilizations as equals, rather than as "developing," we shall be as vulnerable as we were on September 10, 2001, back in those dark ages when we thought we were economically secure.

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