Quotable (#223)


The idea that European political fragmentation, despite its evident costs, also brought great benefits, enjoys a distinguished lineage. In the closing chapter of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1789), Edward Gibbon wrote: ‘Europe is now divided into 12 powerful, though unequal, kingdoms.’ Three of them he called ‘respectable commonwealths’, the rest ‘a variety of smaller, though independent, states’. The ‘abuses of tyranny are restrained by the mutual influence of fear and shame’, Gibbon wrote, adding that ‘republics have acquired order and stability; monarchies have imbibed the principles of freedom, or, at least, of moderation; and some sense of honour and justice is introduced into the most defective constitutions by the general manners of the times.’ […] In other words, the rivalries between the states, and their examples to one another, also meliorated some of the worst possibilities of political authoritarianism. Gibbon added that ‘in peace, the progress of knowledge and industry is accelerated by the emulation of so many active rivals’. Other Enlightenment writers, David Hume and Immanuel Kant for example, saw it the same way. From the early 18th-century reforms of Russia’s Peter the Great, to the United States’ panicked technological mobilisation in response to the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik, interstate competition was a powerful economic mover. More important, perhaps, the ‘states system’ constrained the ability of political and religious authorities to control intellectual innovation. If conservative rulers clamped down on heretical and subversive (that is, original and creative) thought, their smartest citizens would just go elsewhere (as many of them, indeed, did).

Political disintegration combined with cultural-market integration was the key.

In 18th-century Europe, the interplay between pure science and the work of engineers and mechanics became progressively stronger. This interaction of propositional knowledge (knowledge of ‘what’) and prescriptive knowledge (knowledge of ‘how’) constituted a positive feedback or autocatalytic model. In such systems, once the process gets underway, it can become self-propelled. In that sense, knowledge-based growth is one of the most persistent of all historical phenomena – though the conditions of its persistence are complex and require above all a competitive and open market for ideas.

Quotable (#183)

Kevin Rudd in The Guardian:

The slow, but steady decline of the UN, and the wider multilateral system which has the UN as its foundation, would be catastrophic for an increasingly unstable world. The peoples of the world, in one way or another, are increasingly asking the question: “Is anybody in control anymore?” when they see growing disagreement among the great powers, the re-emergence of old inter-state conflicts, terrorists on their streets, chaos in their markets, and jobs disappearing with nothing to replace them. People are questioning whether we are beginning to see the beginning of a deeper crisis in the foundations of the overall post-war order itself.

[Sarcastically derisive editorial comment deleted]

Geopolitics > Ideology

George Friedman places recent US-Vietnam engagement within the history of balance-of-power diplomacy going back to the 1960s, in order to make a simple but compelling point. US relations with the USSR, China, and Vietnam have been only trivially inflected by ideological differences:

… look at the whole story and see how little ideology matters. The entire story is one of three Marxist regimes hostile to each other, and a Western capitalist regime using that hostility to balance the power. […] From the point of view of geopolitical analysis, the unimportance of ideology in all that happened is clear. The importance of the nation-state, regardless of its official ideology is equally clear. None of these four nations behaved as their ideology demanded. All behaved as their national interest did. […] This is why I find geopolitics an enormously more important method for understanding the world than beliefs and principles. These may matter in personal life. But the Marxism that defined Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong and Leonid Brezhnev – and they were very much believers – could not resist geopolitical imperatives. And therefore, the president of the United States went to a Marxist country and set the stage for arming it. This should not surprise us.

RIP Neoconservatism

Max Fisher, at Vox:

Neoconservatives can threaten to quit the Republican Party, or warn that the party is diverging from their values, but it looks increasingly like they may have it backward: that it is the Republican Party, as constituted by its voters and their policy preferences, that is rejecting neoconservatives. […] That might seem surprising. But when you look at the brief history of neoconservative reign over the Republican Party, it seems inevitable. If anything, it is surprising that it took this long.

There probably aren’t enough supporters remaining for a boisterous funeral, at this point.

Neoconservatism had a complex genesis, but it matured into right-wing Jacobinism. The policy program with which it will forever be centrally associated is democracy promotion by the sword. Too aggressive in its civilizational (and especially American) self-confidence for the Left, and too saturated in universalistic Utopianism for the Right, its demise in the second decade of the 21st century can surprise few.

It looks as if robust realism will supplant it. Dewy-eyed foreign policy is done, at least for a while.