Friday, August 02, 2002

Mines, Maps and Ancient Civlizations

One of the most important things I learned when studying Machiavelli’s Prince with Professor Harvey Mansfield back in my Harvard days was: watch those tricky titles. Machiavelli loved to play with his chapter headings, and had an amazing knack for toying with his readers. The effect being that the content of his chapters often ended up contradicting or otherwise altering the apparent intent of the chapter title.

Since then, I’ve come to realize that the truth of a matter is often best revealed in the contradictions hidden in presumably coherent arguments. In Machiavelli’s case, this was intended, it was his way of saying something on the sly; but in the case of less able writers, the contradiction often goes unnoticed.

A perfect example came across my desk last month in the form of the International Red Cross report on land mine activities. As some of you may remember, a few years back, a bunch of nations got together and signed the Ottawa Treaty, agreeing to outlaw the use, production and stockpiling of land mines. Not surprisingly, the United States refused to sign the treaty, drawing the usual boos and hisses from anti-land mine activists, the EU and international humanitarian organizations. Nothing new here.

The current report published by the Red Cross details recent ICRC activities as regards land mines and praises developments since the signing of the Ottawa Treaty with this flowery testimonial:

The ICRC was very gratified to note that by 31 December 2001, 122 states had ratified the treaty or acceded to it. More than two-thirds of the world’s countries now acknowledge that mines are not indispensable weapons. Removing mines from military stocks and eliminating them is now the international norm.

To confirm this “international norm” a map is provided. Unfortunately for the report, the map says a bit more than the text. Looking at this cartographic wonder, we see that those 122 states acceding to the treaty are located primarily in Europe, the western hemisphere and Africa. When we come to Asia, however, we find that the vast majority of nations on the world’s most populous continent have not signed the treaty.

So what does this mean? Well, it tells us that those 122 nations actually comprise only about 30% of the world’s population – a point not mentioned in the text. Nations with large populations, such as China, India, Pakistan and Russia have refused to sign, while Indonesia, which signed the treaty, has yet to ratify it. The boast about “international norms” then, is a bit excessive.

More important is what this map says strategically. Europeans, living in the aftermath of the Cold War peace won by the US virtually all signed on. In the western hemisphere, only the US and Cuba didn’t sign. Here again, apart from Colombia’s internal war and economic worries, Latin America is relatively peaceful; and once again this is a peace presided over by the US. Much of southern and western Africa signed or ratified the treaty, except for nations like Angola, Sudan, the Democratic Congo and Ethiopia, all states engaged in ongoing civil or regional wars.

The point is that nations supporting the treaty are already largely at peace, and it’s often a peace protected by American might. Asia simply does not fit this bill. For one thing, Asia’s nations continue to have substantial military commitments, non-existent in pacified Europe or Latin America.

Additionally, there is a cultural component. Those nations that signed the treaty either constituted the core of western Christianity (Europe), were converted to western Christianity (western hemisphere) or were the homes of tribal cultures dominated by western Christianity (southern and western Africa). By contrast, the homes of major religions like Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, etc. have not signed on. It appears we have something of the Samuel Huntington scenario in play here. Areas of the world where ancient civilizations have long existed are not as willing to accept western universal ideas of justice. It’s no small coincidence that the main threats to international stability also originate in this region.

Still, we can’t overplay the clash of civilizations. In fact, Asian nations are generally more democratic and prosperous than most African states. On the one hand, the universal character of western democracy has not left Asia untouched. On the other hand, the very fact that Asia is home to ancient and powerful civilizations that preceded and rivalled western Christianity shows that this universality is not simply given, it requires a defence.

In this regard, and despite European claims to the contrary, the United States is far more sophisticated in its international dealings than the Europeans. The US argues for the superiority of western democracy, but it knows that there are many in the world – ancient civilizations such as the Asians – who would not necessarily agree. As a result, the US is unwilling to constrain itself as long as those same Asian nations similarly refuse to be restrained.

Europe, by comparison, acts in a reflexively Eurocentric manner. In clichés of pure abstraction, it praises western democratic and humanitarian values, while affirming the creed of multiculturalism and dialogue. On this multilateral basis, Europe asserts that it, not the US, has a greater appreciation of foreign cultures and international affairs. But this is pure illusion. Europeans look at the world through a very dusty lens. They assume peace can come about through international cooperation and an endless stream of treaties, yet they constantly ignore the fact that Asia, home of advanced and ancient civilizations, disagrees. As a result, it falls to the US to deal with the realities of Asia, while the Europeans wander around in their Eurocentric utopian fog.

I’m not suggesting the US doesn’t make its share of naive mistakes in dealing with the world. But when it does, we can usually trace the source of the failure to a policy not significantly different from that of the Europeans.

So, the map in my Red Cross report says quite a lot about the state of the world, it’s just too bad the report’s writers never bothered to learn some Machiavellian reading skills.

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