Lessons From 50 Years Covering Foreign Policy

Above Photo: Shutterstock.

After half a century studying the issue, here’s lesson number one: Wars are bad and empire is folly.

For over 50 years I have been writing about foreign policy — mostly America’s, but those of other nations as well. I think I have a pretty good grasp of places like Turkey, China, India, Russia, and the European Union. I regret that I am less than sure-footed in Africa and Latin America.

During this time I have also learned a fair amount about military matters and various weapons systems, because they cost enormous amounts of money that could be put to much better use than killing and maiming people. But also because it’s hard to resist the absurd: the high performance US F-35 fighter jet — at $1.7 trillion, the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history — that costs $36,000 an hour to fly, shoots itself, and can decapitate pilots who attempt to bail out. There are, as well, the $640 toilet seats, the $7,622 coffee maker, and the fact that the Department of Defense cannot account for $6.5 trillion in spending.

I have also become fairly conversant with the major nuclear arms agreements, and I know what Article VI of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty says (more on this later).

This is a farewell column, so I ask for your indulgence.

Having (hopefully) beaten back cancer, I have decided to spend more time with my grandkids and maybe return to my three novels (I have at least one more in my head). But I would like a last hurrah about what I have learned about the world and politics over that last half century, so bear with me.

Wars Are Bad And Empire Is Delusional

First, wars are really a bad idea, and not just for the obvious reason that they cause enormous misery and pain. They don’t work, at least in the sense that they accomplish some political end.

The United States is finally withdrawing from Afghanistan and contemplating getting out of Iraq. Both were disasters of the catastrophic variety. If anyone in the Oval Office or the Pentagon had bothered to read Ruyard Kipling on Afghanistan (Arithmetic on the Frontier comes to mind) and DH Lawrence on Iraq (the Algebra of Occupation is worthwhile) they would have known better.

But the illusions of empire are stubborn. The U.S. still thinks it can control the world, when every experience of the past 50 years or more — Vietnam, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq — suggests it can’t. Indeed, the last war we “won” was Grenada, where the competition was not exactly world class.

Americans are not alone in the delusion of confusing the present for the past. The British are sending the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and a destroyer to the South China Sea — to do what? The days when Charles “Chinese” Gordon could scatter the locals with a few gun boats is long gone. What the People’s Republic will make of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s nostalgia for Lord Nelson and Trafalgar is anyone’s guess, but Beijing is more likely to be amused than intimidated by a mid-size flat top and a tin can.

Same Goes For Cold Wars

China is not out to conquer the world. It wants to be the planet’s biggest economy and to sell everyone lots of stuff. In short, exactly what Britain wanted in the 19th century and the U.S. wanted in the 20th. The Chinese do insist on military control of their local seas, in much the same way that the U.S. controls its east, west, and southern coasts. Imagine how Washington would react to Chinese warships regularly exercising off Pearl Harbor, San Diego, Newport News, or the Gulf of Mexico.

Are the Chinese heavy handed about this? Yes, indeed, and they have unnecessarily alienated a number of nations in the region, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Japan. Demilitarizing the East and South China seas would reduce tensions and remove the rationale for Beijing’s illegal seizure of small islands, reefs and shoals in the area. China will have to realize that it can’t unilaterally violate international law through its claims over most of the South China Sea, and the U.S. will have to accept that the Pacific Ocean is no longer an American lake.

Meanwhile, the Russians are coming! The Russians are coming! Actually, no they are not, and it is time to stop the silliness about Russian hordes massing on the border ready to overrun the Ukraine or the Baltic states. What those troops were doing late last spring was responding to a plan by NATO for a huge military exercise, “Steadfast Defender.” Russia is not trying to recreate the Soviet Union. Its economy is about the size of Italy’s, and the current problems stem from the profoundly stupid decision to move NATO eastwards. The Russians are sensitive about their borders, with good reason.

We can thank presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush for disinterring this particular aspect of the Cold War. Both presidents expanded NATO, and Bush unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) and began deploying anti-missile systems in Poland and Romania. NATO claims the ABMs are aimed at Iran, but Iran doesn’t have missiles that can reach Europe and it doesn’t possess nuclear weapons. The Russians would be foolish to draw any other conclusion but that those ABMs are targeting Moscow’s missiles.

NATO has become a zombie alliance, staggering from one disaster to another: first Afghanistan, then Libya, and now the U.S. is pressing NATO to confront China in Asia (which is unlikely — Europeans view China as an invaluable market, not a threat).

NATO should go the way of the Warsaw Pact, and the U.S. should rejoin the anti-ballistic missile agreement. Removing the ABM missiles might, in turn, lead to re-establishing the Intermediate Nuclear Force Agreement, an extremely important treaty from which the U.S. also unilaterally withdrew.

Apartheid Can’t Last Forever

Elsewhere, Israel needs to study some Irish history. In 1609, the native population of what became Northern Ireland was forcibly removed to Connaught in the island’s west, and replaced by 20,000 Protestant tenants. Yet now, centuries later, the upcoming census is almost certain to show that Catholics once again constitute a majority in Northern Ireland.

The moral? Walls and fences and apartheid policies will not make the Palestinians go away or cause them to forget that much of their land was stolen.

In the short run, the right-wing settlers may get their way, just as the Protestant settlers did more than 400 years ago. But history is long, and the Palestinains are no more likely to disappear than the native Irish did. It would save a lot of bloodshed and communal hate if the Israelis removed the West Bank and Golan settlers, shared Jerusalem, and let the Palestinians have their own viable state. The alternative? A one-state, one-person, one-vote democracy.

The U.S. should also end Israel’s “special status.” Why are we not as outraged with apartheid in Israel as we were with apartheid in South Africa? Why do we ignore the fact that Israel has nuclear weapons? When Americans lecture other countries about maintaining a “rules based” world, can you blame them if they roll their eyes? Why is it “illegal” for Iran to acquire nukes when Tel Aviv gets a pass?

We Should Really Deal With Existential Threats More Often

The Biden administration is fond of using the term “existential” in reference to climate change, and the term is not an exaggeration.

Our species is at a crossroads, and the time for action is distressingly short. By 2050, some 600 million Indians will have inadequate access to water. Vanishing glaciers are systematically draining the water reserves of the Himalayasians, the Hindu Kush, the Andes, and the Rockies. While much of the world will face water shortages, some will experience the opposite, as Germans and Chinese recently discovered. Water is a worldwide crisis and there are few blueprints about how to deal with it, although the 1960 Indus Valley water treaty between India and Pakistan could serve as a template.

There is simply no way that the world can tackle climate change and still continue to spend — according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute — almost $2 trillion a year on weapons. Nor can the U.S. afford to support its empire of bases — some 800 worldwide, the same number as Britain had in 1885.

However, climate change is not the only “existential” threat to our species. Somehow nuclear weapons have dropped off the radar as a global threat, but currently there are major nuclear arms races underway involving China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Russia, and NATO. The U.S. is spending upwards of $1 trillion modernizing its nuclear triad of aircraft, ships, and missiles.

Sanctions Don’t Work

Sanctions, as journalist Patrick Cockburn argues, are war crimes, and no country in the world applies them as widely and with such vigor as the United States.

Our sanctions have impoverished North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, and Syria, and inflict unnecessary pain on Cuba. They raise tensions with Russia and China. And why do we apply them? Because countries do things we don’t like or insist on economic and political systems that we don’t agree with.

Washington can do it because we control the de facto world currency, the dollar, and countries that cross us can lose their ability to engage in international banking. The French bank BNP Paribas was forced to pay $9 billion in fines for bypassing sanctions on Iran.

Yet sanctions have almost always failed to achieve their political objectives.

Self-Determination Is Good

Dear Spanish government: Let the Catalans vote in peace and accept the results if they decide they want to go their own way. Ditto for the Scots, the people of Kashmir, and, sometime in the future, the Northern Irish. You can’t force people to be part of your country if they don’t want to be, and trying to make them is like teaching a pig to whistle: It can’t be done and annoys the pig.

If You Displace People, Offer Them Refuge (Then Stop Displacing People)

The U.S. and NATO cannot destabilize countries like Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya and then pull up the drawbridge when people flee the chaos those wars have generated.

Similarly, the colonial countries that exploited and held back the development of countries in Africa and Latin America cannot wash their hands of the problems of post-colonialism. And the industrial countries that destabilized the climate can’t avoid their responsibility for tens of millions of global warming refugees.

In any case, the U.S., Europe, and Japan need those immigrants, because the depressed birth rates in developed countries mean they are heading for serious demographic trouble.

Hypocrisy Is Bad

The world rightfully condemns the assassination of political opponents by Russia and Saudi Arabia, but it should be equally outraged when the Israelis systematically kill Iranian scientists, or when the U.S. takes out Iranian leaders with a drone attack.

You don’t have the right to kill someone just because you don’t like what they stand for. How do you think Americans would react to Iran assassinating U.S. Gen. Mark Milley, the head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff?

Less Exceptionalism. More Diplomacy.

The world desperately needs an international health treaty to confront future pandemics and must guarantee that it includes the poorest countries on the globe. This is not mere altruism. If countries can’t provide healthcare for their residents, that should be a responsibility for the international community, because untreated populations give rise to mutations like the Delta variant. Ask not for whom the bells tolls. It tolls for us all.

American exceptionalism is an albatross around our necks, blocking us from seeing that other countries and other systems may do things better than we do. No other country accepts that Americans are superior, especially after four years of Donald Trump, the pandemic debacle and the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington. Who would want the level of economic inequality in this country, or our prison population, the highest in the world? Is being 44th on the World Press Freedom Index, or 18th on the Social Progress Index something we should take pride in? What we can take pride in is our diversity. Therein lies the country’s real potential.

Finally, to Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiation in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” Amen.

Two And Two And 50 Make A Million

Pie in the sky? An old man’s wish list? Well, the one thing I have learned in these past 50-plus years is that things happen if enough people decide they should. So to quote that rather clunky line from Pete Seeger’s “One Man’s Hands,” sung widely during the ‘60s peace movement: “If two and two and 50 make a million, we’ll see that day come ‘round.” And that’s all folks (for now).