Kaplan on Order

Continuing on, adding some thoughts here about “The Tragic Mind” by Robert D. Kaplan, the issue of order continues to weigh on me. When I was a fellow at the George W. Bush Institute, and before, I was part of an ideological movement that believed that the fundamental drive of every human on the plant was the desire to be free. Democracy, we were told, gave us the greatest approximation to complete freedom, because it was the system under which its participants had the greatest opportunity to do exactly as they chose; and married with ‘imperial capitalism’ allowed them also the widest amount of choices. It was called the “Freedom Agenda”, and I participated enthusiastically.

Now, it’s not that I no longer believe in those ideas. The issue, however, is more complicated. Occam’s Razor applied to geopolitics has gotten the world in a mess; that being, “Everybody should do what they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else” (or my favorite, “My freedom ends where yours begins”) – the libertarian mantra, the gold standard to which democracy (devoid of virtue and restraint, as liberalism became un-moored from its guiding principles) has aimed.

Libertarianism, libertinism, is anarchic. It is unruly and disorderly. The classical economic principles of spontaneous order and the denial of scarcity only apply to the powerful, who are able to use their economic, political and military might to live while not only having their own cake and eating it too, but having other people’s cake, and finishing up with the cake of their children and their children’s children.

Modern geopolitics has re-discovered scarcity.

But it’s the issue of order which is most prominent in Kaplan’s most recent book. “The Coming Anarchy”, which he wrote 30 years ago, is still my favorite. Because it announces the arrival of disorder. Like it or not, the Cold War period was a period of relative order in the world. It was into that order (sure, paid for by the slavery of hundreds of millions of people) that the west built their utopian democracies, giving the breathing room to several generations of people who now have no life experience as it relates to real disorder. Most Americans (and modern Europeans) consider disorder to be a thing of the past, and the worst thing that can happen is the internet glitches for a few minutes. And cue the chaos.

The problem is, we have built an extremely complicated world. A world with “a million moving parts” all of them lined up and needing to work in tandem. Grids; laws; ‘rights’ protecting each random opinion of each fringe group; thin digital signatures attached to electronic bank accounts – rules and orders and registrations, it is befuddling. No longer is 12 years of education enough, how we need 16 or 20. And that is at the center; in the peripheries where we peddle our fragile systems in the name of “Democracy” and the “Freedom Agenda”, there is no the rock-solid Anglo-Saxon (that is old English, its not a racial thing but a cultural one) commitment to what we call “rule of law”. Which is why constitutions, judicial training programs, anti-corruption workshops don’t work in Africa. The African experience with order is a different one altogether than ours.

The West’s fundamental misunderstanding in what people are asking for; answer the pleas of the desperate and vulnerable for “order” with an anarchic libertarian “democracy” was a poison pill, a ghost in the machine that has been unleashed on the world. I just finished a book about Africa called “The Fate of Africa”. It read like a horror novel – but not a good one. It read like the most sadistic prose of the most bent novelist imaginable; if it had been fiction I would have put it down and written a complaint letter to the publisher. But it was not fiction, it was fact – well researched fact – a tale of 60 years during which the African people cried out for order and were answered a utopian panacea from well-meaning, ignorant diplomats and aid workers and World Bankers and the like. “Oh, Africa’s birthing has been messy,” they might joke, over expensive Champaign around a pool in a compound with 15 foot-high walls guarded by security teams. But the reality is it is our fault – my fault, I spent 10 years peddling this stuff too.

Our world disorder is accelerating. Nowadays elections aren’t even about ideology, they are explanations by ‘populist’ candidates about who can more easily manage the massive apparatuses of the state for the benefit of those who are most vulnerable to the disorder. Rule of law means nothing if you can’t control the gangs. Our governments are slow and clunky, compared to criminal entities that can move money from here to there in the blink of an eye. When Nigerian hackers can steal Colorado COVID relief money in the billions, and there’s not anything anybody can do.

“The Tragic Mind” encourages policymakers to see that things can go really wrong; that if you fund ‘gain of function’ research in a dirty Chinese lab you might release a pandemic that kills 30,000,000 people. That if you push NATO further and further east you just might freak out an aging tyrant who has been reading Russian history books at night. That if you encourage “freedom” in Egypt, you just might end up with a crazy Islamist president that you will have to overthrow. It encourages those with deep pockets and access to powerful people to think humbly about what their naïve idealism might do in countries they know nothing about and to people whose suffering they don’t have to witness.

These are all hard lessons to learn. Kaplan was distressed because Bill Clinton read “Balkan Ghosts” and was so depressed he did not engage sooner to stop a genocide; and he was also distressed because he advocated for a war in Iraq that went badly. Neither were his fault – Balkan Ghosts is a brilliant read; and Saddam Hussein was evil. I understand well Kaplan’s desire to help, to do good, to get things right. In Mali I supported an election that brought to power IBK who organized Dogon death squads against the Fulani. I encouraged an Armenian president who became hubristic and caused a war with Azerbaijan. But you do good things too. Kaplan has inspired a generation of diplomats and foreign policy workers – people like me – to think better about America’s oversized role in the world and how we manage it with more restraint and delicacy. I helped end a war in Uganda that gave Acholi an unprecedented 14 years of peace – a whole generation. We do good things, and we do bad things, and motivations are not enough and neither is pedigree. It is only with experience and humility that, sometimes, we get things right.

Kaplan’s warning in “The Tragic Mind” left me a little cold, regarding the stumbling approach to how to respond to Putin’s war. And he’s not wrong – the same people who so badly misjudged what was happening in Afghanistan and gave us our worst national military embarrassment in history (it was much worse than Vietnam) are now facing off with a nuclear armed Putin. Did their Afghanistan debacle give them restraint, or humility? It doesn’t appear so. Yet the fate of the world balances right now on a knife’s edge, more so than at any time since maybe the Cuban Missile Crisis. These are times of tremendous disorder, Dionysus is right behind the door, and knocking hard.

How will we answer her knocks?

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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