The Long View 2002-02-07: The Irrelevance of Peace

This entry of John's blog is pretty short, and pretty pithy, so I'm just going to copy the whole thing here.

John Derbyshire, unlike John Reilly, is rather a pessimist; John Reilly described himself as an inveterate optimist, and the mission of his blog was to view everything in the best possible light. Twelve years on, it is pretty clear the Reilly was more right about this little snippet than Derbyshire, Israel just keeps getting stronger. Lots of people hate the Jews, but the Jews seem pretty good at looking out for their own interests, and their immediate enemies seem feckless.

The rather more interesting part of this entry is the purported weakness of capitalist democracies. In his book review of A Republic not an Empire, John pointed out that a likely consequence of a German victory in WWI would have been to discredit the idea of capitalist democracies like Great Britain and the United States. In fact, that is not what happened, although we have no good reason to think it inevitable. Post-Cold War, it looks like Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama were on to something. All of the other theories of how to organize a state have been tried and found wanting. I think this is true even though China is currently surging in wealth and power. [you can blame John for my pessimism on China too.]

Democracies, when it really comes down to it, can be truly terrible opponents. Athens destoyed Melos for refusing to submit to their suzerainty. My own county is the only country to have ever used a nuclear weapon in anger. And then we used another one, to make sure both designs worked. And we firebombed the civilian populations of our enemies long before we had nuclear weapons, resulting in far more deaths. Jerry Pournelle calls this WARRE, "war to the knife, war to victory, fire bombs, nuclear weapons, death and destruction." Democracies, when threatened, respond the same way a mother does when you threaten her children: all rules are forgotten, and only victory matters. Kill them all and let God sort them out.

Finally, John touches on how South Africa avoided the fate of Rhodesia. Nelson Mandela certainly helped, although maybe not in the way you think. The collapse of the USSR was a bigger factor, as this allowed the Afrikaners to negotiate their way out instead of being lynched. Instead, we now have a slow-motion ethnic cleansing, as more and more Afrikaners are leaving South Africa, as they feel increasingly insecure and unwelcome. Neill Blomkamp keeps trying to make this point, but nobody is interested in listening.

The Irrelevance of Peace

John Derbyshire's column of January 31 in National Review Online [NB. I changed the link to point to Derbyshire's site, since the original link is broken], Israel's Future has this depressing assessment:

"I had better step out front and center here and admit that I am a pessimist…I think Israel will go down. The reason I think this is that I am British, and have been watching all my life, occasionally at very close quarters, the long struggle between the two constitutional nations of the British Isles and the terrorists of Sin Fein/IRA…The IRA now has offices in the House of Commons!"

The IRA, says John Derbyshire, graduated from terrorist to lobbyist through a combination of relentlessness, ruthlessness, and the fact that they do have a plausible case. Their argument for Irish unity may not be ultimately persuasive, but the mere existence of an argument can have a lethally debilitating effect on a democratic political system.

There is something to this. It seems to me that we are often inhibited from using decisive force against terrorists because of a category mistake about the principle, "violence never solves anything." It is true that violence does not answer questions of fact or logic; you cannot determine whether pi is greater than 3 by fighting a duel. On the other hand, violence can indeed determine whether people achieve their desires or not. Sophisticated terrorists purport to be interested in answering questions, but actually they are simply asserting themselves.

That said, though, I take exception to Derbyshire's premise. It is not true that capitalist democracies are particularly gullible, much less fragile.

Ever since such societies began to appear, their critics and enemies (groups that do not always overlap) have characterized democracies as weak and decadent. Democracies are supposed to be incapable of fighting wars. Supposedly they cannot maintain ordinary domestic peace, much less combat foreign subversion. Furthermore, they create the seeds of their own destruction. Every crisis is potentially lethal; it is only a matter of time before a crisis is actually fatal.

As General Norman Schwartzkopf said in that famous news conference at the conclusion of the Gulf War of 1991, "Ha!" The fact is that capitalist democracies are the most resilient societies that exist; maybe the most resilient that can exist. They have destroyed or eroded to dust all the great totalitarian monoliths that sought to supplant them. Sometimes democracies did this by direct assault, sometimes by patience. They can endure through economic hardships that shatter the most fearsome dictatorships. Democracies are mortal, of course, and they are not self-legitimizing: simply establishing a democracy does not mean that it will strike root. Nonetheless, even troubled democracies have an excellent record of fighting off deadly threats, terrorists included.

So why is a lobbyist from the IRA buttonholing MPs? The short answer is that the game of terrorism was no longer worth the candle. Elements of the IRA used to have all kinds of Khmer Rouge ambitions for the Ireland they hoped to create. By the 1990s, however, it was clear that all that remained to fight about was which province of the European Union that Ulster would belong to. Borders just don't mean that much in Europe anymore, including the one between the North and the Republic of Ireland. The IRA still has crank notions, but they see little point in blowing up perfectly good pubs to achieve them.

Possibly the greatest example of peace-through-irrelevance was the end of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Since the 1950s, it was obvious that the shrinking white minority could not continue to rule the country indefinitely. Nonetheless, the government did everything it could to exacerbate the situation. Meanwhile, the radicals of the world licked their lips when they contemplated The Day, when the revolution would arrive in Johannesburg and the mass executions could begin. In the event, though, reason broke out in both the government and the African National Conference at the end of the 1980s, and they negotiated a frictionless transition.

Western human-rights activists like to take credit for the South African government's change of heart, much to the annoyance of activists in South Africa, militant and otherwise. The fact is, though, that Apartheid was able to die because the Cold War ended. The government understood that the Soviet Union would not subsidize the creation of a new communist state, like the one it helped create in Ethiopia. The ANC understood that, if their new regime hoped to get any support at all, it would have to come from the West. The stakes became manageably small.

There are occasions in history when disputes are settled by what Toynbee called a "knockout blow." Sometimes a state or class so completely annihilates another that later archeologists have to search very carefully to find any trace of the defeated. At least as common, however, are cases where the issues and even the desires that engaged the protagonists just don't mean much anymore. With the decline of national sovereignty, this kind of resolution becomes easier and easier. It is hard to see how this could happen in the Middle East, but don't write the possibility off.