Saturday, October 22, 2011

End of an era

In 2003, Qaddafi dismantled Libya’s nuclear arms program in exchange for better relations with the West. At the time, it seemed like a great idea ...

Let me summarize my last series of posts.

We are nearing the end of relative global peace, specifically the peace that has reigned since the Korean armistice was signed back in 1953. This era is ending because of changes to the international system over the past two decades and to the nature of global peace itself.

First, a balance of terror no longer exists to contain regional conflicts and thus keep them from going global. Military alliances have become less specific in their aims and reciprocal responsibilities. In the East, this has happened through the replacement of the Warsaw Pact by the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). In the West, this has happened through a broadening of NATO to include new members and new aims, as well as through a general weakening of commitment among older members.

Second, global peace no longer maintains an acceptable status quo. Previously, states merely pushed the envelope of peace here and there to see what they could get away with. There was also terrorist action by dispossessed groups that had nothing to gain from the status quo. But such groups, by definition, were geopolitically marginal. Peace was acceptable to those who had the power to destroy it.

This view has radically changed in the case of North Korea. Previously, Pyongyang saw the conquest of South Korea as an almost hypothetical goal that could be pushed indefinitely into the future. The status quo was wrong but bearable. Today, it’s no longer bearable. The other Korea has created a new dynamic by embracing post-nationalism, multiculturalism, and large-scale immigration.

This might not matter if the North had followed the same ideological evolution as the South. But it hasn’t. The North has been frozen in time. It still sees itself as a vehicle for preserving and perpetuating the Korean people. It still adheres to values that were normal throughout the world only a half-century ago. Thus, North Korea can no longer accept the “status quo” even as a temporary expediency. It now sees an invasion of the South as something that must happen soon—before the demographic changes become irreversible.

Elsewhere, the status quo has likewise taken on a new dynamic. With the end of the Cold War, it increasingly means American military interventions that would have been unthinkable previously. There is now an “imbalance of terror”—the United States is free to overthrow one unfriendly regime after another without triggering a major war. This trend has not gone unnoticed, particularly by the North Koreans:

North Korea’s official news agency carried comments this week from a Foreign Ministry official criticizing the air assault on Libyan government forces and suggesting that Libya had been duped in 2003 when it abandoned its nuclear program in exchange for promises of aid and improved relations with the West.

Calling the West’s bargain with Libya “an invasion tactic to disarm the country,” the official said it amounted to a bait and switch approach. “The Libyan crisis is teaching the international community a grave lesson,” the official was quoted as saying Tuesday, proclaiming that North Korea’s “songun” ideology of a powerful military was “proper in a thousand ways” and the only guarantor of peace on the Korean Peninsula.
(McDonald, 2011)

There has indeed been an arms buildup in countries that fear eventual U.S. intervention, particularly China, Russia, and Iran. None of them wish to go one-on-one with the U.S., for obvious reasons. The result has been the formation of a new pan-Eurasian alliance: the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Politics makes strange bedfellows, and it is indeed strange to see the Islamic Republic of Iran wanting to bed down with China and Russia, both of which have restive Muslim minorities.

Despite the arms buildup, and an ever more fragile international system, global peace might still continue indefinitely. The destabilizing factor is really the spread of an increasingly aggressive globalist ideology and, correspondingly, resistance by various forms of anti-globalism.

For comparison, we can turn to the gradual breakdown of the post-Napoleonic peace that lasted from 1815 to 1914. That century-long peace was made possible by the Concert of Europe, a coalition of conservative regimes that worked together to keep the continent free of liberalism and nationalism. The coalition fell apart during the second half of the 19th century and gave way to a looser system of opposing military alliances.

The really destabilizing factor, however, was the return of liberalism and nationalism to the continent. Demands grew for democratic constitutions and for the creation of states along ethnic lines. Eventually, much if not most of Europe’s intelligentsia came to see the status quo as an archaic monstrosity. When global war finally broke out in 1914, it was readily framed as a struggle between “freedom” and “tyranny.”

From the “old order” to nationalism to globalism

Today, the rise of globalism might seem to promise a return to that lost era, when liberalism and nationalism were still on the margins of political life. That old order, however, allowed people to organize their lives along traditional lines—on the basis of kinship and ethnicity. Nor was there any effort to “elect a new people.” Loyalty ran both ways, and the ruling aristocracies felt bound to their subjects in a way that would seem incomprehensible to our current elites.

Indeed, the late 19th century saw liberalism and nationalism begin a process that would eventually culminate in today’s globalism. Both liberals and nationalists wanted to open up the tight little world of small communities. Both wished to create a larger community, the nation state, that would provide more room for individual freedom and individual identity. Both viewed “parochialism” as an obstacle to progress and the creation of a more rational social order. Above all, both saw the leveling of local identities as the means to create a society that would be militarily stronger and economically more viable.

Nationalism has thus paved the way for globalism. It has merged local identities into national identities that are, to varying degrees, synthetic and lacking in authenticity. The more artificial the resulting national identity, the easier it has been for globalism to present itself as the next logical step.

From globalism to what?

There is one more way in which globalism resembles nationalism, as well as other ideologies. It tends to push ahead while ignoring evidence that things aren’t working out as planned. And this blindness will likewise condemn it to the same fate that has befallen other ideologies. Until then, however, it will likely do much harm.

Will globalism collapse through an eventual global conflict, like fascism in the mid-20th century? Or will it collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, like communism a half-century later? And just what will post-globalism look like? These are questions for which I have no ready answers. Perhaps you do.


McDonald, M. (2011). North Korea suggests Libya should have kept nuclear program, New York Times, March 24, 2011.


Anonymous said...

"There is one more way in which globalism resembles nationalism, as well as other ideologies. It tends to push ahead "

Taoism, as I understand it, is the very opposite of that way of thinking and it is authentically Chinese. Indian thought, in so far as I understand it is not activist either.

I think those ideologies (liberalism, fascism,communism and globalism) have one thing in common. They are all European in origin. So if it is truly the end of an era those ideologies may not have a successor.

There is no particular reason to think that the thinkers of the east are going to try and come up with a way to alter the human condition.

Anonymous said...

Indian thought, in so far as I understand it is not activist either.

Traditional Aryan, Indo-European thought, which shares roots with Indian thought, was/is not activist either.

The progressive, activist ideologies depart from traditional I-E thought. It's obscuring to say that they are purely European in origin. There is something else there.

Anonymous said...

Remarkably thought provoking.

Chris Crawford said...

First, I apologize for not keeping up with your latest posts; I shall therefore have to present my reactions in one big mess.

You present a very interesting analysis of the new global order; I find elements of it attractive. However, there are some major flaws that, in my mind, rob your conclusions of punch.

For example, you posit that North Korea now sees the invasion of South Korea as a pressing need. Yet you also acknowledge that North Korea does not have the military capability to invade South Korea and would surely lose any such war. So how could the North Koreans possibly achieve their policy objective? Perhaps you are insinuating that they might attempt to goad the USA into attacking them first -- but why would the USA be so stupid? If the North Koreans, for example, sponsored a new 9/11-style attack, the USA would certainly retaliate, but I doubt that China would step in to aid the North Koreans in such a case. Any North Korean provocation strong enough to elicit an American military response would surely be too strong to preserve Chinese support for North Korea.

There is no solution to the North Korean's problem. The USA and South Korea can both afford to wait, and North Korea cannot. It's George Kennan's containment policy all over again. It worked with the Soviet Union and someday it will work with North Korea.

But my biggest problem with your conjecture is the fascinating connection of globalism in the 21st century with nationalism in the 19th century. I agree that the parallels are fascinating, but I don't see a strong enough connection to deduce any causal relationships. The crisis of August 1914 has been studied ad nauseum, and its lessons have been drilled into every statesmen. Don't let military "precautionary preparations" become "military threats". Don't let the military stampede you into a war (Kennedy did this brilliantly in the Cuban Missile Crisis). Maintain frequent communications with all parties. And so on.

One other major difference between then and now is the existence of nuclear weapons. The soldiers of the European powers marched off to war promising to be home by Christmas. They thought that the war would be short, decisive, and relying on just one or two battles to be resolved. They were wrong, but today nobody has any illusions that a major power would be short, decisive, or bloodless. Everybody would lose -- and everybody knows it.

I'll stop here.

Anonymous said...

"Or will it collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, like communism a half-century later?"

In Russia Communism actually collapsed at the time of WWII. It was replaced by Russian nationalism. Post-WWII Stalin, Khruschov, Brezhnev - that was all Russian nationalism, i.e anti-Communism. The "anti-Communist" West was actually the Communist (i.e. internationalist, anti-traditionalist) side in WWII. Since you understand that North Korea's rulers aren't really Communist, I thought you understood that post-WWII Russia wasn't really Communist either. But the above quote implies that you don't. The thing that collapsed in Russia around 1990 wasn't Communism, but Russian nationalism. Putin is now trying to partially restore it.

And sure, Stalin wasn't actually Russian, but Napoleon wasn't actually French either, and yet he was and still is an important figure in French nationalism.

Kevin said...

Until very recent times, seen through a Hobbesian framework, the international scene has always been a State of Nature with no sovereign powerful enough to impose their will on the others. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US has been fast approaching the position of indeed being the global sovereign and in the process turning international relations from State of Nature to a Commonwealth.

If one takes a map of the world and color blue all the countries who submit to US mastery, the only countries left out would be Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Syria (whose status may change rather quickly).

Now to be sure the US’ sovereignty is not absolute; all rulers have limits to their power. And some of the more powerful countries (China and Russia) are somewhat reluctant subjects. The model of US domination is the Achaemenid (First Persian) Empire. The US rules through the various Satraps (individual foreign leaders) and has little direct influence over the individual people of any nation (except their own). The amount of influence a government has over its people is known as “penetration”. On one side of the penetration scale would be George Orwell’s “1984” which is an example of almost total penetration and that is the direction many rich nations are moving towards. The opposite end would be Somalia where there is almost no government penetration and this is the direction many non-rich countries are going. On the global scale the US has limited day-to-day penetration and so it relies on its Satraps. However, if needed, especially thanks to the internet and other technological innovations, the US in specific instances can penetrate deeply into almost every country on earth.

What are the main characteristics of sovereignty? The first is a monopoly on violence. While the US is not powerful enough to bully around China and Russia, it is very close to achieving an international monopoly on violence. The only “international” (civil wars are different, analogous to a domestic squabble within a household for a national sovereign) breaches of the US monopoly on violence since the end of the cold war have been Russia’s wars in Chechnya and Georgia. The war in Yugoslavia was also a breach but the US stepped in a shut it down just as you would expect a sovereign to do. All other international wars have been either launched by the US or approved (Israel attacking Lebanon or the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia). The recent events in Libya were probably more inspired by the Europeans pleading to their American overlord to help them get rid of the embarrassment of having to deal with Gaddafi only after he started slaughtering his people.

So for the time being there are really only two serious countries that do not accept the US monopoly on violence, Iran and North Korea. I would say by 2020 both of these countries will have crumbled one way or the other into the American fold. At this point international conflicts will halt until such time as the US loses its military supramcy over the rest of the world.

The main threat to US hegemony in the future will not from powerful states but from crumbling nations that are unable to control their people. And this included the United States itself.

Anonymous said...

The opposite end would be Somalia where there is almost no government penetration and this is the direction many non-rich countries are going.

The US does conduct predator drone strikes in Somalia and places like it. That is ultimately the only government penetration you need for sovereignty.

Anonymous said...

The US tends to co-opt local leaders as satraps to act as America's pawns. The co-opted parties can get rich, but they further a policy designed to undermine the emergence of a kind of economic structure that might stand as an alternative to the U.S. structure. The US has well worked out how it can win at any game in which globalization replicates the US structure. It gives U.S. investors control of their credit system, natural monopolies and hence real estate.

It is a general principle of history that exploitation within countries is, and has long been, greater than exploitation of one region or nation by another.
The reason seems to lie in the perceptions of the exploited party. From antiquity, conquered territories saw quite visibly how they were exploited by imperial powers. They had to pay tribute. (In Sumer, cities paid off other city-states not to attack, as we learn from the early pages of the Gilgamesh epic.) Throughout antiquity taxes were imposed internationally, not domestically, as they were deemed a sign of unfreedom.

But domestic exploitation numbs the perceptions of the exploited parties, as their masters claim to be shepherds. (Of course, we all know WHY shepherds take care of their sheep - it is to sheer them, and to kill their children for the butcher. But sheep are sheep, what do they see of all this. They love their shepherd.)

Today, despite America's visible free ride, it is doing what Rome did in antiquity: It co-opts local ruling elites in subject regions, and lets them exploit what they can, in exchange for stipulated tributary payments, military support and political loyalty.

Anonymous said...

"the existence of nuclear weapons".

It may be true that nuclear weapons have abolished conventional war but the superpowers certainly haven't acted as if they believe it. The Warsaw Pact and NATO faced each other with plenty of nuclear weapons but spent a fortune on tanks. Conventional weapons are expensive.

Insightful said...

Peter, what is your opinion of the premise of Steven Pinker's latest book "The Better Angels Of Our Nature". In it he argues that violence has been diminishing for millennia and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species's existence. Nevermind the ceaseless stream of news about war, crime, and terrorism..

Peter Frost said...


All civilizations tended to be pragmatic in their policy-making until the 20th century. I don't see this as an East vs. West thing.


It no longer takes much for the United States to intervene. That's what makes the current world situation so precarious. Did Libya stage a 9-11 attack? Did Iraq? Did Serbia?

Many U.S. and South Korean policy-makers are already arguing for "regime change" in North Korea. And the trigger for such intervention would not be an attack on the U.S. It would be a perception that North Korea is on the brink of collapse.

Perceptions can be misleading. One might imagine a situation where Pyongyang deliberately deludes the U.S. into thinking that the North Korean army or other elements are willing to overthrow the current regime. Such disinformation would not have to be very sophisticated because the threshold for U.S. intervention is so low.


Stalinism and post-Stalinist communism incorporated elements of Russian nationalism (largely for opportunistic reasons), but neither could really be called Russian nationalism.

This is a theme that the American Right has used to win over parts of the American Left (especially Trotskyites). And it's still being used.


You've summarized how the U.S. sees the world. The more the U.S. intervenes without triggering a major war, the more willing it is to make such interventions.

Meanwhile, other nations, particularly the SCO (China, Russia, and Iran) are coming together because they fear an eventual intervention directed at them. Eventually, a point will be reached where the threshold for U.S. intervention dips below the threshold for a response from the SCO.


Yes, there has been a process of cultural and even genetic pacification of the dominant societies on our planet. Those same societies, however, are losing ground demographically. The result will be a growing imbalance between "pacified" and "non-pacified" societies.

I wrote about this dilemma in:

Frost, P. (2010). The Roman State and genetic pacification, Evolutionary Psychology, 8(3), 376-389.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the sinking of the Cheonan, the South Korean military investigation blamed North Korea and produced what they claimed to be a smoking gun, the remnants of a North Korean torpedo that they said was found in the vicinity of the sinking.

There was public skepticism in South Korea about this so South Korean President Lee put pressure on Russian President Medvedev to send a Russian team to examine the South Korean evidence. The Russian investigators found the South Korean case so flawed that their report was never published, and it wasn't released to the South Korean government. Publicly the Russians said that the evidence was ‘inconclusive’.

Former US ambassador to South Korea, Donald Gregg, said that:

When I asked a well-placed Russian friend why the report has not been made public, he replied, “Because it would do much political damage to President Lee Myung-bak and would embarrass President Obama.”

Leaks* of the Russian report showed why the Russian investigation was too explosive to publish. The Russians concluded that the Cheonan was probably accidentally sunk by a South Korean mine. They were also adamant that the torpedo remnant produced by South Korea could not have sunk the Cheonan (though a South Korean torpedo might conceivably have done so). But there was more. They said that the corrosion on the remnant
showed it had been in the water for six months or more, not the two months between the sinking
and its miraculous discovery. So North Korea may not merely have been innocent, but also may have been framed.

*Russia’s Cheonan investigation suspects that the sinking Cheonan ship was caused by a mine in water

*Russian Navy Expert Team’s analysis on the Cheonan incident

Anonymous said...

With the end of the Cold War, it increasingly means American military interventions that would have been unthinkable previously. There is now an “imbalance of terror”—the United States is free to overthrow one unfriendly regime after another without triggering a major war.

Indeed the recent Libya intervention is being viewed as a template for future interventions by the establishment:

"The squadrons of alliance fighter jets that helped rebels depose and finally defeat Gadhafi point to what defense experts see as a new template for future military intervention.

The approach emphasizes quick planning, a small footprint and limited duration engagements, according to U.S. officials assessing the outcome. NATO showed it could provide a ready-made coalition capable of conducting a far-reaching, expeditionary operation.

President Barack Obama, an early champion of the approach, said Thursday that it "demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century."

In contrast to other recent conflicts, in Libya the Americans took the initial lead opening days of the conflict but, at Mr. Obama's insistence, quickly handed overresponsibility for most airstrikes to European allies and leaving the U.S. to take a support role.

For the Obama administration, the death of Gadhafi reinforced the view that success is possible without large ground forces and lengthy occupations.

"NATO got it right," Vice President Joe Biden said. "This is more the prescription for how to deal with the world as we go forward."


"Future interventions may not look the same and may not involve NATO. Some could involve little air power and more special operations troops on the ground. Others could involve U.S. forces training indigenous forces.

But the common elements will be a small footprint and little time to plan the mission, administration and military officials said."

It's easy to imagine this model of intervention being applied against North Korea. Instead of internal rebels on the ground like in Libya, it could involve South Korean troops as the ground forces aided by US air support. South Korea has a large standing army, one of the largest in the world.

You've argued that China may not intervene on North Korea's behalf and may not mind a Korea united by South Korea. Perhaps US intervention involving US air support coupled with exclusively or near exclusively South Korean ground forces that allows the overall campaign to be spun as a South Korean one may allow China to sufficiently "save face" and thus not feel compelled to intervene.

With an aggressive US and South Korea itching to fight, the US confident with recent interventions, and no guarantee of help from China, why would North Korea be rash and try to start something?

Peter Frost said...


Yes, the Cheonan incident may well have been a frame-up by the South Korean government.

This is another element of instabiity in the current world system. American allies, like South Korea, are more willing to re-open old conflicts in the belief that the United States is now more willing to side with them. This kind of situation recently developed between Georgia and Russia.

Action leads to reaction. The increased willingness by the U.S. to intervene abroad is stimulating an arms build-up in potential target countries -- and a growing willingness by them to respond in kind before their turn comes. At some point, the two trends will intersect.

In the 1990s, most Chinese policy-makers were willing to allow Korean reunification under South Korean leadership, as long as U.S. troops pulled out. Today, that scenario no longer seems likely. Germany is reunified, and U.S. troops are still there. And NATO has expanded eastward (despite solemn pledges that this would not happen).

The Chinese are increasingly wary of the U.S., and the latest events will probably nudge them farther down that road.

If you want to know what someone really thinks, look at what they do. China is now investing massively in North Korea, including $2 billion in a new
venture in the Rajin-Sonbong Special Economic Zone. Is this the behavior of a country that no longer supports Pyongyang?

Anonymous said...

Anon says:

Today, despite America's visible free ride, it is doing what Rome did in antiquity: It co-opts local ruling elites in subject regions, and lets them exploit what they can, in exchange for stipulated tributary payments, military support and political loyalty.

Sounds great. However, where are the tributary payments? Were you thinking of negative tributary payments?

Anonymous said...

Peter wrote:

Frost, P. (2010). The Roman State and genetic pacification, Evolutionary Psychology, 8(3), 376-389.

There are some very important observations in there about the interplay between the state and religion and the way a religion might evolve to ensure its spread and survival.

It also gets one thinking about selection for exploiting the system and how outsiders can use the system to their own end.

RS said...

> Sounds great. However, where are the tributary payments? Were you thinking of negative tributary payments?

See D. Finbarr's comments, etc, on Foseti's recent 'American Empire' post.

Anonymous said...

Not only the Cheonan incident but the Yeonpyeong Island bombardment also occurred under more complicated circumstances than was portrayed by the mainstream American media, which painted it as a completely random act of aggression out of nowhere.

There was a live fire exercise by South Korea on Yeonpyeong Island on the day of the incident that coincided with a massive SK military exercise. The exercise included large scale amphibious landings. There have been live fire exercises and large military exercises before, but them coinciding together seems to have been unprecedented. The live fire exercise may also have fired shells into contested waters. The North complained to the South and asked whether the military exercise was an attack. And it warned that it would not tolerate firing in what it regarded as its territorial waters. The warnings were apparently ignored and then the North shelled the island.

The South claimed that it was firing in a different direction, away from the contested waters, and that the live fire exercise at Yeonpyeong was not part of the large military exercise. However, the marines firing howitzers from Yeonpyeong were under the same command as those practicing beach assaults.

So it's entirely possible that the South was being deliberately provocative or that there was some miscommunication and misunderstanding, rather than it simply being a case of the North attacking randomly out of the blue.

Both the South and the US have been pushing the view that it was a one-sided, provocative act and belligerent attack by the North, and they have recently threatened that another similar incident would result in a counterattack:

The United States and South Korea held out the possibility on Friday that the two nations would join in a military response against North Korea if there is another provocation in the region from North Korean leaders in Pyongyang.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and the South Korean defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin, in effect threatened North Korea with some form of a counterattack if the North engaged in another belligerent act, such as North Korea’s shelling of a South Korean island last November.

Anonymous said...

I see nationalism and nation-states as the logical culmination of social evolution and the current version of enforced globalism and trans-nationalism as an unnatural and doomed reaction to the excesses of two world wars.

We need to go back to nationalism first imo and make sure each nation has their own state. Any future attempt at globalism has to be voluntary and gradual and will probably require stages like a jump to regional nationalism as an intermediary step.

Forcing it or missing neccessary steps will lead to...well to what we are witnessing, the slow motion collapse of American hegemony, the end of globalism and the return of nations.