Zakaria’s take on Leibniz

 blog post 1

I’ve come across an interesting article by Fareed Zakaria, a reiteration of an argument he has made some years ago in his “Global Public Square”. Zakaria, whose personal political beliefs are notoriously difficult to pin down, is a master of argumentation. By all standards, he is a first-class thinker, but the unflattering company of his fellow talk-show hosts boosts his credibility. It is not difficult to see how a scholar of international political economy, who heavily relies on empirical evidence and backs his claims in a responsible and dispassionate way, shines when placed against Bill O’Riley, John Hannity, Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews.

The main point of this article is that, for all media sensationalism and war-zone frenzy, the contemporary World is less belligerent, safer and more prosperous than it has been at any recent point in time. Yes, war and conflict are still present, but breaking news reports of bombings and military attacks mention dozens and hundreds of casualties – not tens of thousands. More broadly speaking, the Fukuyamesque notion of continuous and irreversible progress towards liberal democratic peace is still alive, despite being declared dead, time and again, by every other pundit at the wake of each recession and global crisis. 

If Zakaria is right, there indeed are several important questions one should pose:

Does the discrepancy between the actual and the perceived course of global events suggest that the media sensationalism and their tactics of instilling marketable public panic has gone too far?

If the problem is on the demand side, rather than with the supply of media products, have we set our standards of global peace and security too high? Or, perhaps more importantly, as globalization increased the interdependence of political and economic states of affairs in different parts of the world, have we merely increased our sensitivity to the bearing global conflicts can have on our own society? This latter question is a tricky one, because the sheer number of casualties in, say, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian struggle can hardly measure the consequences it can have on international peace and security or, more concretely, on the price of oil in the USA. So, the world doesn’t necessarily need to be as objectively messy as during the days of the Yom Kippur war for Western European and American producers and consumers to be as concerned as they were in 1973. In this sense, Zakaria misses the fact that the perception of “global turmoil” is as much a matter of prediction of future events as it is of observation of the present state of affairs.

Still, Zakaria’s point is worth of reflection because it shares a quality present in many of his works: it puts things in perspective. Unlike most other writers on current issues that I have had the chance to read, he has always been able to do that particular thing exceptionally well. In terms of policy recommendations that we can infer (if such inference is not too big of a stretch), Zakaria does implicitly argue for preserving a status quo in contemporary political thought on international relations. The World today is as good as it has ever gotten, and all systematic criticism of the international political system come from an maximalist standpoint. In the past century, several competing “World Orders” have been attempted (the Hegemonic Stability Theory gives one convincing account of these changing global political orders), and the present one is apparently giving the best results. This is brings me to what Leibniz called “the best of all possible worlds” – his solution to the problem of evil. Leibniz did not try to explain the presence of evil in a World made by a supremely benevolent God – he merely accepted it. That evil makes the World imperfect is true, he argued, but the fact that God has created the World in this way – among an infinite number of alternatives – suggests that this World (with its present share of evil) was the most perfect choice, a sort of “pareto optimal” alternative. Thus, one needs not pose the “problem” of evil as if it was some sort of imperfection that ideally shouldn’t exist. Zakaria’s argument (although empirical, not theological) has a similar ring to it – we live in the better-than-all-preceding-worlds and we should at least take that into account when assuming our expectations. Milton Friedman made a very similar argument to Zakaria in his book “Capitalism and Freedom”. Friedman said that people are, generally, very keen to develop a sense of entitlement soon after the society experiences a growth in the standard of living. This propensity to take things for granted lowers the bar for what we perceive as “economic turmoil” or, simply put, we tend to whine too much. Perhaps this is what happens with global security – the absence of a World War with millions of civilian deaths raises our standards for the success of a global system of international security.

And because the “system” under scrutiny is not, as it was for Leibniz, a work of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and supremely benevolent deity, but a man-made system of international relations, Zakaria’s claim is comparatively stronger.

Here’s Zakaria’s Washington Post article:

The world seems very messy these days, which might be an occasion to examine the broad forces producing the turmoil. But in Washington, of course, it becomes one more opportunity for partisanship. “I do believe that the things we’re seeing in the world today, [which is] in greater turmoil than at any time in my lifetime, [are] a direct result of an absence of American leadership,” said Sen. John McCain last weekend on CNN.

Really? McCain has had a long and distinguished life and I’m sure he remembers what happened in, say, 1973, the year he and 590 others were released from imprisonment in Vietnam. That year, in Vietnam alone, several hundred thousand people died as a result of the war.

And that doesn’t include the tens of thousands who died in the Yom Kippur War, also in 1973. The effect of that war was that, in retaliation for America’s involvement, the major oil-producing countries announced an oil embargo against the United States and its closest allies. Within a year the price of oil had quadrupled and the industrialized world was plunged into deep economic crisis, forever losing its access to cheap energy from the Middle East.

All this happened under the shadow of a potential nuclear war. The superpowers had almost 45,000 atomic weapons aimed at each other. During the Yom Kippur War, U.S. forces were put on high alert — DEFCON 3. The only time they had been placed at a more serious state of readiness,DEFCON 2, was during the Cuban missile crisis.

I could have picked 1956, the year the Soviet Union brutally suppressed a Hungarian uprising, France’s control of Vietnam collapsed, the French, British and Israelis mounted a failed invasion of Egypt, and Sino-American tensions over Taiwan continued to simmer, tensions that a few years earlier had Washington contemplating the use of nuclear weapons.

Today’s world is unpredictable, but it doesn’t compare with the kinds of geopolitical dangers that existed for decades during the Cold War, not to mention before that period. Still, it’s worth understanding what is producing this instability today.

In Eastern Europe, the key driver is that the Ukrainian people have decided that they do not want to live under the Kremlin’s thumb. That has produced tensions, but it is because people are demanding genuine independence from an old imperial system. That’s a positive development, however much it complicates life.

In East Asia, we are witnessing one of the oldest stories in history, the rise of a new great power. Is it really so surprising that China, the world’s second-largest economy, is seeking more political influence in its region?

In both these cases, the Obama administration has handled the challenges reasonably well, pushing back in a careful but determined manner, coordinating policy with allies and ensuring that the tensions do not get out of hand or spill over into active conflict.

It has been less successful dealing with the larger Middle East, the area of greatest turmoil. As the Yom Kippur War reminds us, this is not a new phenomenon. Zbigniew Brzezinski spoke of an “arc of instability” during the 1970s that looks remarkably similar to the area of unrest today. TheIran-Iraq war produced more than a million casualties in the 1980s. And then there were the two U.S.-led wars against Iraq, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, two intifadas and so on.

The forces creating the present instability are deeper than ever before. The old order of the Middle East rested on two related facts — superpower support and repressive dictatorships. Both have weakened and, as a result, long-suppressed forces — of Islam, ethnicity and democracy — are bubbling up. The notion that Washington can stabilize this situation easily is foolish, as its long, costly experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan surely demonstrate.

For all the problems, let’s keep in mind that we live today in a world with considerably fewer dangers. Nuclear war is unimaginable. The Russian-American nuclear arsenals are down to one-fifth their size in 1973 and at a much lower level of readiness. In 1973, Freedom House published its first annual account of political rights around the world. At the time, countries listed as “not free” outnumbered “free” countries. Today that is inverted, with the number of “free” countries having doubled. Open markets, trade and travel have boomed, allowing hundreds of millions to escape poverty and live better lives. 

Of course there are crises, problems and tensions around the world. But no one with any sense of history would want to go back in time in search of less turmoil.

And here’s the original link to Fareed Zakaria’s article for the Washington Post


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