Monday, April 17, 2017

Reality of Realities



Sometimes — oftentimes — we can get caught into the vortex of virtual realities. These are not virtual realities like technological experiences one has wearing those wrap-around goggles in which you can fly through the air like a bird or ride a mountain bike over a cliff. I am talking about the realities we gorge ourselves on as we consume worldly information from all-you-can-never-eat virtual buffets. Experiencing the world near us, the world around us, and the world before us is an important part of growing. We develop understanding; we confirm preconceptions; we reject biases. However, we have to be very mindful that the vicarious experience is a sensory one, not necessarily a thoughtful one.

Thus, we must alert our cognitive senses to the thought vacuum that the vortex of news and Twitter, and Facebook and talk shows and podcasts and gossip portend as reality. This week is a good one for spring cleaning. Use it to clean out the clutter — including the clutter of the mind. Set aside a handful of minutes to escape the back-and-forth exchanges between a smorgasbord of similarly different viewpoints that stoke the senses, and instead, think about a heated debate that occurred almost 900 years ago.

This week, we should consider one of the ultimate divides between one set of realities and another. Here is a fascinating conversation between the Mongol Khans and European Christians that took place in the mid-thirteenth century. There are several things to notice in their back-and-forth exchanges. First, notice their sincerity, as each side tries to portray to the other side how correct their point of view was. Second, see if you can pick up on the passion each side represents. The Mongol Khans and the European emissaries, representing Pope Innocent IV, believed — they believed deeply in their respective correctness, in their respective authority, and in their respective rightness of interpreting the world. These realities, were argued, in a virtual sense, over the course of several years as each side exchanged letters — and other forms of pressure — to spread their messages.

These were loud and cacophonous virtual exchanges — through letters — between one continent and another, between one set of ideologies and another, between one base of power and another. Finally, notice the seriousness of their intellectual impasse. Both sides view of reality were equally real. They both believe they were both right, and they were both wrong at the same time. What would have happened had one party given in to their understanding of the world, their preconceptions, and their biases? Therefore, consider this...how do we think about which realities are really real?

   Voegelin_MongolOrders by Joe Royo on Scribd


Monday, April 10, 2017

The War to Begin All Remaining Wars



The War to End all Wars may have actually been the war to begin all remaining wars. In fact, we still feel the impacts of World War I today. Geopolitical relationships; economic inter-dependencies; state powers; balances of power; political structures; sovereign boundaries; normative values; ethno-national identities, technological advance, revolutions in war fighting… These momentums, which had already been in motion by the turn of the century, were realized throughout the war. They began to be codified at the end of it as the idea of political organization in principle and in practice transformed to a wholly new era. We live today with the consequences of the shape of those new norms. Consider this, then. What if a war to end all wars actually set up an international structure whereupon all future wars would emerge? What if the War to End All Wars was actually the war to begin all remaining wars?
  
To help think about this is a fascinating essay from an intellectual giant. He was a former Secretary of War and statesman who had a strong influence on foreign policy in the early decades of the Twenty-first Century. One of the issues the United States faced was their isolation from the rest of international affairs. Frankly, they did not know what was going on in the world because they were separated from the world, and they were not really interested in it. The U.S. participated in the world in so much as global engagements offered investment opportunities. Remember that the U.S. was not really a considerable world power in 1914. Foreign affairs was the business of other world powers. That changed in a fundamental way by 1918, when the war ended.

In 1922, Elihu Root made the following critical observation about the future of a global system restructured around democratic ideals. This was the leading essay that kicked off the first edition of Foreign Affairs Journal, which was reprinted in 1937 after his death. He says:

When foreign affairs were ruled by autocracies or oligarchs the danger of war was in sinister purpose. When foreign affairs are ruled by democracies the danger of war will be in mistaken beliefs. The world will be the gainer by the change, for, while there is no human way to prevent a king from having a bad heart, there is a human way to prevent people from having erroneous opinion.[1]

Thomas Friedman posits the thesis that “No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other.”[2] It has been an attractive, but potentially seductive argument. The idea is that McDonald’s represents a manifestation of democratic values. Is that really true? We should always be self-critical because tensions can arise and reveal themselves in war when human motivations clash. Again, leaning on Root’s observations in 1922, we should be mindful of what is at the core of the “Big Mac” theory of international relations.

[Two] democracies will not fight unless they believe themselves to be right. They may have been brought to their belief by misrepresentation as to facts, by a misunderstanding of rules of right conduct, or through having the blank of ignorance filled by racial or national prejudice and passion to the exclusion of inquiry and thought; but they will fight not because they mean to do wrong but because they think they are doing right.[3]

Incidentally, there is a fantastic series underway right now on PBS entitled, The Great War.  I strongly encourage checking out the second and third episode later this week. Go back and watch the first episode too. This is just too important a story to forget. It is too important, because we still are dealing with the repercussions of it. Someone asked me today, how does this story end? They asked it in a rhetorical way, because we know who won it. But, really, how did that story end? Has it ended? Will it end?



[1] Root , E. (1922 reprinted 1937). A Requisite for the Success of Popular Diplomacy. Foreign Affairs, 405-412.
[2] Friedman, T. (1996, December 8). Foreign Affairs Big Mac I. Retrieved from New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/1996/12/08/opinion/foreign-affairs-big-mac-i.html
[3] Root , E. (1922 reprinted 1937). A Requisite for the Success of Popular Diplomacy. Foreign Affairs, p. 407. Emphasis added.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Parity Problem



Sometimes a dose of Churchill can cleanse the cognitive cobwebs, if for nothing else, than to enjoy the profundity of precise pontificating. Churchill could read aloud a phonebook and it would sound powerful. That is in part why his portrayal of the War to End all Wars, The Great War, is on many levels…powerful. Read for instance his several sentence summary of the entire war on page 558, around the middle of the page. Consider the problem of parity that essentially entangled both sides of the war, as they struggled against each other — more importantly as they struggled against themselves. In many respects, the parity problem was a function of concepts, not capabilities. They struggled with their own selves trying to figure out how many of the new means of warfare could be used to effect and for advantage. Both sides had plenty of capability; what they lacked was a concept to put those capabilities to use. In the process, both sides literally went to ground as they could gain little more than feet and yards at a time against each other. Should we consider a similar problem today as the ubiquity of information, communication, and connected data technology are transforming the means of waging warfare? Are there virtual trenches from which we may one day find ourselves fighting as we struggle with one another, trying to break through the latest breakthroughs? Consider instead how “Craft, foresight, deep comprehension of the verities, not only local but general; strategems, devices, manoevres…” might instead form the basis for how we find potential in the parity problem.[1]





[1] See Winton Churchill in the The WorldCrisis (abridged), Scribner, 1992, p. 573.