June 6, 2012
June 6, 2012
June 6, 2012
THE EFFECT OF Hanoi is cerebral. What the Vietnamese capital catches in freeze-frame is the process of history itself—not merely as some fatalistic, geographically determined drumroll of dynasties and depredations but as the summation of brave individual acts and nerve-racking calculations. In the city’s History Museum, maps, dioramas, and massive gray stelae commemorate anxious Vietnamese resistances against the Chinese Song, Ming, and Qing empires in the 11th, 15th, and 18th centuries. Although Vietnam was integrated into China until the 10th century, its political identity separate from the Middle Kingdom ever since has been something of a miracle—one that no theory of the past can adequately explain.
In fact, the Vietnamese historical imagination has a particular intensity about it. The depth and clutter of the Ngoc Son Temple (which commemorates the 13th-century defeat of the Yuan Chinese), its copper-faced Buddha embraced by incense, gold leaf, and crimson wood and surrounded by the pea soup–green Hoan Kiem Lake and its leafy shores, constitute spiritual preparation for the more austere mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh himself. Ho, one of the great minor men of the 20th century, fused Marxism, Confucianism, and nationalism into a weapon against the Chinese, the French, and the Americans, laying the groundwork for Vietnam’s successful resistances against three world empires. His mausoleum gives onto distempered, century-old European buildings and churches in what was once the nerve center of French Indochina—an iffy enterprise that Paris tenaciously tried to prolong after World War II, forcing a war with the Vietnamese that culminated in France’s signal humiliation at the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
Beyond these edifices come the city’s latest epic struggles against fate: its screaming, pulsating business district, with hordes of motorbikes—the drivers texting on cellphones in traffic jams—and cutting-edge facades that invade an otherwise cruddy-drab jumble of storefronts. This is pre–chain store capitalism, with cafés everywhere, each different in mood and design, offering some of the best coffee in the world, and no sign of Starbucks. Despite all the history, Hanoi is no outdoor museum like the great cities of Europe. It is still in the ungainly process of becoming—closer to the disheveled chaos of India than to the alienating sterility of Singapore.
Vietnamese are now prying their way into the developed world—for the sake of themselves and their families, obviously, but also to preserve their independence against an equally dynamic China. And as it has been since antiquity, Hanoi remains a city of nervous political calculations, the price of being a potential middle-level power—the 13th-most-populous nation in the world—with a long coastline at the crossroads of major maritime routes and close to immense offshore energy deposits. On my visit there last year, I found a country seized not only with the imperative of economic development but also with the challenge of finding a modus vivendi with its age-old neighbor and hegemon—a challenge that it increasingly looks to the United States, its onetime adversary, to help meet.
That may demand that Americans, at least, shift their historical perspective and try to see the world through Vietnamese eyes. Ngo Quang Xuan, the vice chairman of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs Committee, tells me that the critical year for contemporary Vietnam was not 1975, when South Vietnam was overrun by the Communist North, but 1995, when relations were normalized with the United States, and Vietnam joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and signed a “framework” agreement with the European Union. “We joined the world, in other words,” Xuan says, admitting that before making these decisions, “we had many hard discussions among ourselves.” For the truth is that despite their successive victories over the French and the Americans, the Vietnamese Communists, as their officials explained to me in a series of conversations over several weeks, felt continually humbled by events thereafter.
Consider: Vietnam had invaded Cambodia in 1978, liberating that country from the genocidal madness of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. Though the invasion was an act of cold-blooded realism to blunt the strategic threat posed by the pro-Chinese Khmer Rouge, it had a vast and profoundly positive humanitarian effect. Nevertheless, for this pivotal act of mercy, pro-Soviet Vietnam was embargoed by a pro-Chinese coalition that included the United States, which, ever since President Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, had tilted toward Beijing. In 1979, China itself invaded Vietnam, to keep Vietnam from marching through Cambodia to Thailand. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union never came to the aid of its client state. Vietnam was now diplomatically isolated, stuck in a quagmire in Cambodia and burdened by back-breaking poverty, largely as a result of its own militarism. The Vietnamese leaders of the 1970s, wrote Singapore’s then prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, in his 2000 memoir, were “insufferable,” priding themselves as the “Prussians of Southeast Asia.” But the arrogance, as Vietnamese leaders have told me, didn’t last. Severe food shortages and the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989–91 forced Vietnam to pull its troops out of Cambodia. Vietnam was now utterly friendless, its triumph over the Americans a distant memory. “The feeling of victory in that war was always muted,” a Vietnamese diplomat tells me, “because there was never a peace dividend.”
“The Vietnamese don’t have amnesia regarding the war against the United States in the 1960s and 1970s,” a Western diplomat explains. “Rather, a certain generation of Americans is stuck in a time warp.” The Vietnamese have not forgotten that 20 percent of their country is uninhabitable because of unexploded American ordnance; or that, because of the defoliant Agent Orange, nothing will ever grow again on significant parts of the landscape. But three-quarters of all Vietnamese were born after the “American War,” as they call it to distinguish it from all the others they have fought before and since, and an even larger percentage have no memory of it. The students and young officials I meet at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, an arm of the Foreign Ministry, are further removed chronologically from the American War than Baby Boomers are from World War II.
Another reason Vietnamese harbor relatively few sensitivities about the American War is that they won it. In a town hall–style meeting with me at the Diplomatic Academy, with a bust of Ho in the room, students and officials tell me that they have been, in fact, critical at times of the United States, but for reasons having nothing to do with the war. They’d been upset that America had not intervened against China in the 1990s, when Beijing challenged the Philippines’ ownership of Mischief Reef, part of the Spratly Island Group in the South China Sea. One student summarizes, “U.S. power is necessary for the security of the world.” Indeed, one after another, students and officials at the Diplomatic Academy use the term balancing power to describe the United States vis-à-vis China. “The Chinese are too strong, too assertive,” one female analyst says. “That is why a Pax Sinica is very threatening to us.”…
We sit by and watch the Barbarian. We tolerate him. In the long stretches of peace, we are not afraid. We are tickled by his reverence, his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creeds refreshes us: we laugh. But as we laugh, we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond. And on these faces, there is no smile.
—Hilaire Belloc on the ruins of Timgad
If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
—Tancredi, in Lampedusa’s The Leopard
The simple process of preserving our present civilization is supremely complex, and demands incalculably subtle powers.
—José Ortega y Gasset
The lessons of culture: What are they? One of the leitmotifs threading its way through the essays that compose “Future Tense” is the recognition that we are living in the midst of one of those “plastic moments” that Karl Marx talked about. Future tense: not just subsequent, but also fraught. To revise an old song: Will there always be an England? That “will there always be . . .” is everywhere on our lips, in our hearts. And it’s not just England we worry about. The law; the economy; the political prospects; changes in our intellectual habits wrought by changes in our technology; the destiny that is demography: America, the West, indeed the entire world in the early years of the twenty-first century, seems curiously unsettled. Things we had taken for granted seem suddenly up for grabs in some fundamental if still-difficult-to-grasp way. Fissures open among the confidences we had always assumed—in “the market,” in national identity, in the basics of social order and cultural value. Future tense: the always hazardous art of cultural prognostication seems brittler now, more uneasy, more tentative.
Granted, the parochial assumption of present disruption is a hardy perennial. As Gibbon observed in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify the evils, of the present times.” But we know from history (including the history that Gibbon gave us) that there are times when that natural propensity has colluded seamlessly with the actual facts. In Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, Burke (as usual) got it exactly right:
To complain of the age we live in, to murmur at the present possessors of power, to lament the past, to conceive extravagant hopes of the future, are the common dispositions of the greatest part of mankind; indeed the necessary effects of the ignorance and levity of the vulgar. Such complaints and humours have existed in all times; yet as all times have not been alike, true political sagacity manifests itself, in distinguishing that complaint which only characterizes the general infirmity of human nature, from those which are symptoms of the particular distemperature of our own air and season.A book called Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents will always be pertinent. Burke’s point is that whereas some discontents are part of the human condition, others are part of the conditions humans forge for themselves. It is the latter, and the pressure or intrusion of the former upon the latter, we have sought to highlight in this series of essays.
Is there something unique, or at least distinctively different, about the economic crisis that began in 2008, was supposed to have evaporated by now, but that is lingering on if not getting worse? Has the ideology of transnational progressivism made such inroads among political elites that it threatens American self-determination and individual liberty? (I think of Burke again: “It was soon discovered, that the forms of a free, and the ends of an arbitrary Government, were things not altogether incompatible.”) Is America on the brink (or even beyond the brink) of a “fourth revolution”—following on the original revolution of American Independence, the Civil War, and the revolution wrought by FDR’s New Deal—are we, another eighty years on, facing a new revolution that will fundamentally reshape political and cultural life in this country? These are among the questions we have conjured with in “Future Tense.” Last month, Charles Murray asked whether “a major stream of artistic accomplishment can be produced by a society that is geriatric [as ours, increasingly, is]? By a society that is secular? By an advanced welfare state?” We do not know the answers to those questions, Mr. Murray observed, because “we are facing unprecedented situations.”
We have never observed a great civilization with a population as old as the United States will have in the twenty-first century; we have never observed a great civilization that is as secular as we are apparently going to become; and we have had only half a century of experience with advanced welfare states.Which leaves us—where? In 1911, the poet-philosopher T. E. Hulme observed that “there must be one word in the language spelt in capital letters. For a long time, and still for sane people, the word was God. Then one became bored with the letter ‘G,’ and went on to ‘R,’ and for a hundred years it was Reason, and now all the best people take off their hats and lower their voices when they speak of Life.” I think Hulme was on to something, both in his observation about the inveterate habit of reverence and the choice that sanity dictates. I wonder, though, whether we as a culture haven’t shifted our attention from “L” for “Life” to “E” for “Egalitarianism” or “P” for “Political Correctness.”
It is noteworthy, in any event, to what extent certain key words live in a state of existential diminishment. Consider the word “Gentleman.” It was not so long ago that it named a critical moral-social-cultural aspiration. What happened to the phenomenon it named? Or think of the word “respectable.” It too has become what the philosopher David Stove called a “smile word,” that is, a word that names a forgotten or neglected or out-of-fashion social virtue that we might remember but no longer publicly practice. The wordstill exists, but the reality has been ironized out of serious discussion. It is hard to use straight. Just as it would be difficult to call someone “respectable” today without silently adding a dollop of irony, so it is with the word “gentleman.”
Leo Strauss made the witty observation that the word “virtue,” which once referred to the manliness of a man, had come to refer primarily to the chastity of a woman. We’ve moved on from that, of course. Chastity was for centuries a prime theme of Western dramatic art even as it was an obsession of Western culture. Who can even pronounce the word these days without a knowing smile? And as for manliness, well, the philosopher Harvey Mansfield wrote an entire book diagnosing (and lamenting) its mutation into ironized irrelevance…
June 6, 2012
Nation building has cost the United States trillions of dollars in the last decade. Beyond the well-known cases of Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington has continued dispatching funds to a number of places around the world that aren’t in the headlines every day. A dysfunctional Bosnian state is propped up by the largesse of the Euro-Atlantic powers, while in Somalia, Western funds pay the bills for the ineffectual transitional government and the African Union troops sent to protect it in Mogadishu.
A few weeks ago, at a session of the Asan Plenum held in Seoul on “Leadership and the Legacies of the Arab Spring,” political-science professor Michael Hudson made the argument for reconsidering the whole idea of nation building. Perhaps it is time to recognize that outside intervening powers cannot “build” a state or nation, certainly not in a matter of weeks or months.
As someone who himself has often used the term “nation building,” Hudson’s critique is compelling. When we speak of nation building, we fall into an engineering mindset. After all, one successfully constructs a building by following steps in sequence (pouring a foundation, raising a superstructure, installing the plumbing and electrical systems, putting in the roofs and floors, and so on)—as each step is marked complete on the checklist, one moves on to the next one. Significantly, one can even lay out a schedule for when the project will be completed—and one can accelerate that schedule to meet the demands of the calendar.
We have seen this engineering template transferred into how policy is conducted. The checklist and accompanying calendar were features of the mission in Iraq, with its emphasis on setting proper foundations (e.g., a new constitution) and moving ahead to fill out the skeleton of the building (the training of security forces, the holding of elections and so on). As each step was (in theory) accomplished, Iraq should have been closer to enjoying fully functioning institutions that would permit an American handover. We have seen a similar approach in Afghanistan—the creation of a timetable for a handover of responsibilities guided by a checklist of steps that represent “progress” toward a successful outcome. This is the basis for strategies like “clear-hold-build-transfer.”
President Barack Obama’s recent address from Afghanistan reflects this type of thinking. In keeping with a nation-building paradigm, the president’s speechwriters followed the template of seeing nation building as a linear process. Obama noted that Americans and other coalition partners “will shift into a support role as Afghans step forward. . . . We’re building an enduring partnership. . . . It establishes the basis for our cooperation over the next decade, including shared commitments to combat terrorism and strengthen democratic institutions.” To some extent, it echoes George W. Bush’s assertions that as Iraqis “stood up,” the United States could “stand down.”
There are, of course, a plenitude of assumptions in this strategy, beginning with the belief that Afghans are prepared to step forward to embrace a shared vision with the United States of combatting terrorism and building Western-style democracy. And this is the problem: thinking about nation building as an architectural exercise creates false expectations of success. After all, a building arises if sufficient funds and equipment have been assigned to the project. Likewise, any signs of failure in a nation-building mission are usually explained in terms of insufficient budgets or a lack of personnel. This creates the impetus for “surges”—sending in increased numbers of people and/or money to get the project back on schedule.
A Paradigm Shift
But what would happen if we changed terminology and no longer spoke of “nation building” but of “nation cultivating”? Cultivation fosters a different mindset. One can do everything “right” in cultivation and still the seedling can perish; there is no expectation that following the planned checklist guarantees success. Despite the best intentions of the cultivator, bad weather or poor soil can lead to catastrophic failure.
Nation building is an inherently revolutionary proposition that believes it is both possible and desirable to sweep away the past and install new institutions by fiat. Nation cultivation, in contrast, rests on the observations of Edmund Burke that sustainable, evolutionary change is possible only by working within the existing frameworks bequeathed by tradition and experience…