Our Height of Power

Apollo-11-US-flag-on-moon-001The Pyramids at Giza, the Great Wall of China, the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, the Arch de Triumph – these spectacular structures are not only testaments to human creativity, productivity, and ingenuity, but are symbols of a civilization at its height. Great nations accomplish great things, because they are capable of mobilizing the inordinate amounts of resources, manpower, and brainpower required to pull off such feats. Yet only the richest, most prosperous, most secure, most advanced, or most powerful nations are in a position to produce such wonders. Those that have will forever be remembered as humanity’s defining civilizations; the era of their accomplishments as one of humanity’s golden ages.

12 pairs of human footsteps are imprinted on the surface of the Moon. An American flag hangs bravely on its barren terrain, another testament to human creativity, productivity, and ingenuity. The Apollo program which took humans to the Moon was a modern wonder, one which perhaps dwarfs all of the other great accomplishments of mankind. However, unlike those spectacular standing structures, which will eventually crumble to dust, the American footprints on the Moon will remain indefinitely. The knowledge and expertise needed to send humans on a week-long voyage through space to walk upon another world, and to bring them back safely, had no parallels. The Moon landings are perhaps humanity’s proudest achievement.

Neil Armstrong and the Apollo Program can be seen as symbols of our civilization at or approaching its height of power. They represent the apex of American ability. The Moon landings required our country’s largest mobilization of resources since the construction of the intercontinental railroad. Other than World War Two, the Apollo Program was by far our largest mobilization of manpower and brainpower. The organizational, financial, and technical challenges facing the program were so staggering, only the most powerful country on Earth could pull them off. We did.

The Apollo Program, it seems, came at a time when America and Americans cared about being on top. It can at a time when we wanted to make history, to define humanity’s future. It came a time when we thought we could do something extraordinary, something no country had ever done before. It was a time when Americans thought they were at the height of their power, and wanted to demonstrate it. We landed men on the Moon with less technology than can be found in modern-day cell phones. We landed men on the Moon in the midst of violence in Vietnam and violence on college campuses, amongst the Kennedy assassination and Civil Rights struggle. Despite all of the challenges around us, we rose to something greater. The United States of America forever secured a defining position in human history for this accomplishment, the likes of which had never been seen before.

Or ever since. 42 years that have passed since the last human walked atop the Moon. It’s difficult to say that the United States has been on the decline since then. Our economy has only grown since the Moon landings, and is still the strongest in the world. It would take another two decades after our accomplishment until we were the unrivaled global superpower, a position we still hold onto today, even if only tenuously. American engineering, technology, and culture still dominate the world, perhaps even more so than in the 1960s and early 1970s. Yet clearly, something has changed. We are no longer the nation that produced wonders, that accomplished humanity’s greatest feats. If we were, there wouldn’t only be 12 pairs of footsteps on the Moon. We would’ve gone back.

Americans today, it seems, no longer think of themselves as on top… or at least, are no longer acting like it. Where can the willpower that once drove us to think the unthinkable, to do the undoable, be found today? Where is that pride in our ability and our determination to utilize it? Where are those individuals, the likes of John F. Kennedy, Wernher von Braun, and Neil Armstrong, who recognize our privileged position and  are driving forces behind accomplishing something great?

The Egyptians are remembered for the Pyramids, the Qin Chinese for their Great Wall.  These structures mark the height of these civilizations power. They represent their golden age. Thousands of years from now, people will remember the United States for sending the humans to walk on another world for the first time.  Were the 1960s and the early 1970s our height of power? Was that our golden age? Undoubtedly, it was a remarkable period for our country, but it doesn’t have to be the only.  America is still a great country; indeed, it is still the most powerful country in the world. If we find the will, we are still in the position to accomplish even greater things.

It is inevitable that the 12 pairs of footsteps on the Moon will be joined by others. It is inevitable that more flags will fly on the Moon, and that some will fly on the dusty surface of Mars. America – if it truly hasn’t yet reached its height of power, if it hasn’t yet entered its decline, if the Moon landings were only harbingers of things to come -will be the nation to fly it.

Liberalism and Realism – A Personal Perspective

Because the nature of International Relations (IR) is one in which multiple factors and actors are in play, specific predictions for the outcome of a political event or conflict rarely occur as thought. Therefore, broader generalizations must be made when attempting to predict the actions of an international actor, and from these generalizations the IR theories are derived. Since the treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the concepts of national sovereignty and the ‘nation-state’ have dominated the field of IR and international studies. The basic tenets of national sovereignty state that no external actor may interfere with a nation’s domestic structures or idea, and that territorial boundaries must be respected in times of peace. From these concepts arose the two most prominent IR theories today, Liberalism and Realism. These two theories hold contrary views on a number of critical questions that need be asked regarding the nature of international relations.

The basic view of the Realists, who subscribe to the theory of Realism, is that world politics and international relations are driven by competitive self-interest. They believe that the international system is one of consistent anarchy, and therefore there is no actor above states capable of regulating their interactions. Due to the lack of this ‘regulating’ actor, states must act to maximize their security from other states, and do so by striving to attain as many resources as possible. Realists believe, therefore, that the primary national interest of each state is that of its national security, and, in turn, its survival. To ensure survival, states are unitary actors who act rationally, and in their own national interest. The issues of morality or values are unimportant for Realists, who view their interjection into international relations as the source of ‘reckless’ commitments and the escalation of conflicts outside the national interest. Realists therefore also argue that the type of government, societal morals and values, and other domestic differences between states do not make a difference in their international interactions. Because states all act rationally, they argue, they will all make decisions that benefit them the most, and in turn act similarly to other states, regardless of domestic differences. A major concept in Realism is that of the balance of power. Because states view their safety as paramount for their survival, they will actively undermine the rise of power of another state. The ‘balance of power’, therefore, is the term used to describe the nature of the international field where states seek to equal each other in power and prevent each other from getting stronger. A major shift in the balance of power, Realists argue, is the catalysis for international conflict.

Realism has long been the most prominent theory in the field of International Relations. Its study as a formal discipline did not arrive until the advent of World War II, but its tenets had long been in practice beforehand. Perhaps one of the earliest proponents of the Realist viewpoint was the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who, in his ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’, stated that the war between the Athenian and Spartan empires was due to a shifting balance of power in Greece. Later advocates of realist ideas included Machiavelli, who in ‘The Prince’ declared that the sole aim of a prince was to seek power and security; Thomas Hobbes, who argued that the ‘state of nature’ was an anarchical, violent one in which humans sought to maximize personal security by gaining power; Carl von Clausewitz, who wrote ‘On War’ and argued that armed conflict was a political tool used by states to gain power; and Otto von Bismarck, whose leadership was vital in uniting Germany through practices of ‘realpolitik’, or the use of politics and diplomacy based on power rather than ideological or moralistic premises. Realism grew to great prominence during the onset of the Second World War, primarily due to the view that the ideals of Liberalism, which had been brought to bear following the close of the First World War, did not prevent the return to a global armed conflict. The Cold War era, which pitted the United States of America against the Soviet Union, was the pinnacle of the ‘Realist era’. Both nations played off against each other in a race for maximum security, and through their respective political actions attempted to retain the balance of power. Realists point to various themes of the Cold War, such as the American ‘propping up’ of dictatorships or non-democratic rebels against Communist adversaries, as prime examples of Realist ideology in action. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and the rise of an Unipolar world dominated by the USA without any clear, national adversary, the theory of Realism has slipped from prominence and ceded to a return of  Liberalism.

Liberals, who believe in the tenets of Liberalism, tend to view the world in a more benign light than Realists.  Liberals argue that, while the world lacks a central actor to ‘regulate’ states and bring order to international chaos, the international order functions smoothly without a central authority. The creation and implementation of international organizations to mediate conflicts and issues, such as the United Nations, enable states to build a  security apparatus without having to resort to increasing their relative strength. Liberals further believe that the state is not the sole international actor, and that multiple factors of statecraft and nationhood influence the IR environment. Economic interdependence, and the spread of free-trade ideals, acts as a deterrence to conflict between states. Similarly, Liberals believe, the permeation of cultural or societal norms through states creates closer national ties between those states, thereby acting as a further deterrence against conflict. Liberals argue that democratic practices are important for states, and subscribe to the ‘Democratic Peace Theory’, which argues (with empirical evidence) that democratic states rarely go to war with each other. Unlike Realists, who argue that states should act only in their best interest and avoid intervening on purely moralistic basis, Liberals believe that states should intervene internationally when they feel as though a challenge to their moral norms is being presented. Further, they argue in favor for the spread of individual liberties and democratic,and free-trade ideals, be it through peaceful or coercive means.

The rise of Liberalism as an IR theory began during the Age of Enlightenment, when early Liberal thinkers such as John Locke argued for the concepts of natural rights and the social contract theory. The  late 18th and 19th centuries saw some tenets of Liberalism employed by states, such as the spread of free-trade capitalism amongst the industrializing European states and the extension of individual liberties in many Western states. Following the First World War, Woodrow Wilson’s ’14 points’ presented an idealistic, liberal future for the world and presented arguments for many of the provisions of liberalism, such as free-trade, national determination, open diplomacy, and the creation of a regulating international body (in this case, the League of Nations). The failure of the United States to join the League of Nations, as well as the catastrophic economic, domestic, and political situation in most of war-torn Europe caused the rise of Fascism in Germany, Italy, and Eastern Europe. This, coupled with the failure of the policies of appeasement and eventual outbreak of World War 2, proved to many IR theorists that liberalism was not the ‘correct’ theory. The liberal experiment of the inter-war period had seemingly failed, and had given way back to the Realist approach. The period of detente in the 1960s and 1970s, which witnessed a cooling of hostilities between the United States and the Soviet Union, provided an environment conducive for the restoration of liberal internationalism. Free-trade was expanded, and nuclear proliferation between the great powers was tempered, thereby decreasing the impact of the ‘security dilemma’. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and the resulting rise of the United States to a global hegemon, the theory of Realism gave way to the return of Liberalism. The rise of globalization, and in turn the increasing permeation of information, culture, and ideas throughout societies enabled for a more interconnected world, and thus provided non-military deterrents to conflicts. Furthermore, increased levels of free-trade created a more interdependent global economy, therefore further supporting the theory of Liberalism.

Realism and Liberalism, being the two most prominent theories of IR, both have many ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ associated with their ideas on the international environment. Both have experienced periods of prominence in the field. An interesting facet of these theories, and IR theory in general, is that they seem to work best when describing only a certain international environment, as opposed to describing and predicting the entirety of international history. By this it is meant that the two theories are more conducive and more ‘applicable’ when the international environment has met a certain set of conditions and factors. For example, realism is a more appealing theory during periods of multi- or bi-polar hegemony, when multiple states are competing with each other for their respective securities. Because the nature of this sort of international environment is such that a state can be rivaled in power by another, the security-maximization tenet of Realism would seem to be a more appropriate explanation than the arguments of Liberalism. Conversely, in a period of uni-polarity, where there is a clear and defined global hegemon who need not worry as much about the threat other nations present, the tenets of Liberalism seem to apply better. Additionally, in an international environment where liberalized free-trade and democratic ideals are being proliferated, and where international organizations have risen to prominence, the basics of Liberalism seem to play out better than those of Realism.

Due to this argument, and the current conditions of the international environment,  I can say that I subscribe more to the Liberal viewpoint as opposed to the Realist approach. The current international environment is one that plays directly into the conditions specified by Liberalism. The United States of America is a global hegemon, and is unrivaled in power or clout by any other state. The balance of power still exists, but it is one weighted heavily in favor of the United States, who plays off other states to ensure that none will gain an equal strength. Because of this uneven balance of power, and because no other state can therefore gain equal footing with the United States, the issue of security as described by Realism does not apply. While security is still a vitally important issue for the United States, especially in a new era of international terrorism, it is not in the same form as security against another state. Realism is a theory of the interactions between states, and no other actors. The reality of terrorism, however, is that the actors who commit terrorist acts often are not associated with borders or under a national banner. Realism, therefore, cannot accurately theorize about the actions that the United States must take to increase its security. Liberalism, on the other hand, deals with more actors than just the state. With the understanding that multiple actors can influence the international field, the theory of Liberalism can be used to better explain and deal with threats that do not take the shape of a state… the types of threats which the United States currently face. I believe that this idea is proven by President George W. Bush’s actions against Afghanistan and Iraq following the September 11th attacks. Attempting to deal with the imminent threat of terrorism, the United States engaged in the Realist practice of attacking and conquering other states, as opposed to striking at the organizations directly responsible for the attacks. Although one can argue about the extent of the success of the Afghan and Iraq wars, the wars did not directly nor adequately eliminate the terrorist threat, and therefore proves that the Realist approach is no longer applicable in this era of influential non-state actors. Due to this failing of the Realist approach, I can the Liberal viewpoint as the only viable option in this new sort of international environment.

There are additional reasons for my subscription to the theory of Liberalism, however. The prominence of international organizations in the modern era is better explained and better described via Liberalism than by Realism, which ignores them. Although the efficiency and effectiveness of the United Nations and other international actors can be debated, they do serve as a medium and forum for communication and conflict resolution between states. States can, and do, derive a sense of security from the assurances of the United Nations, which therefore subverts the Realist necessity for military strength in supplying security. Other international organizations, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) lend assistance to states, but only if those states met certain criteria (in this case, for example, opening markets and enabling free-trade) and bend in certain ways to the organizations’ wills. The fact that these international non-state actors can change the international dealings of states stands in stark contrast to the unitary role of the state in the Realist view of IR. Other examples of these actors include terrorist or rebel organizations, as previously argued; corporations, whose growing influence in a free-market world can be extended towards states, and NGOs such as Greenpeace or the Red Cross, who monitor international actions and can lobby states to change their domestic and international behavior. The inability for Realism to mention or consider any of these actors, and the Liberal acceptance and embrace of non-state actors drives me to consider Liberalism the more ‘realistic’ theory in this era of IR.

Additionally, current trends in the international arena have lead me to believe that Liberalism is a more appropriate theory in the modern times than Realism. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and rise of a more economically liberal China, free-trade capitalism has become the dominant economic model in the world. With the rise of the free-trade market comes growing economic interdependence amongst states. This interdependence leads to a powerful deterrence effect against state conflict: when two states depend on each other for economic stability and trade, they will think twice about engaging in conflict and jeopardizing trade. The theory of Realism does not mention nor take into account economic interdependence, let alone international economics at all. In a ever-increasingly connected world, however, I feel as though it is incredibly important to consider factors such as economics when dealing with IR. Because Liberalism not only takes into account the IR ramifications of economics, but stipulates that a free-trade world will be one of greater international security and harmony, I feel that the current conditions of the world play directly into favor of Liberalism.

IR theory  is not used just to analyze and describe the history of international relations, but to also predict and direct those of the future. Thus, the application of theory can be very useful when attempting to determine the actions a state should take on the international arena when dealing with others. In the case of the United States dealing with a powerful and rising China, the application of theory can provide a clear direction and dictation on what the United States should do and should avoid doing to prevent potential conflict. The Realist and Liberal approaches to IR both point to various approaches the United States should take.

Under the theory of Liberalism, the United States should continue to build its economic ties with China  and continue to press for free-trade and open markets. The growing interdependence between the two economies will serve as a powerful deterrent when China considers to exert more clout in the region. Because the Chinese Communist party’s legitimacy is drawn from the fact that it is producing economic results, it would only make sense for them to tread lightly when dealing with contentious issues that affect the United States, lest they risk loosing their economic gains. Economic gain in China will also lead to the rise of a ‘bourgeoisie’ middle class, who, as seen in cases throughout history, will demand more liberal practices take place in domestic policy, such as the democratization of the government and  greater respect for human rights and liberties. Assuming this transition will take place, as Liberals do, one can then look towards the ‘Democratic Peace Theory’ as a promising result of the application of the theory of Liberalism when dealing with China’s rise. Additional methods of countering Chinese power include the utilization of international organizations, such as the UN, to mediate and resolve issues between our two states. Because the UN is an international body comprised of most of the world’s states, if China disobeyed an UN mandate it would reflect very poorly upon the international view of China (which, as a growing power seeking to spread it’s clout and influence, China would not want).

While the Liberal theory looks more promising in my personal opinion, Realism also lays out a ground-plan for dealing with the rise of China. The Realist would see the rise of China as a threat to American hegemony, and thus argue for a balancing of power to keep China ‘in place’. This would include strengthening ties with other East-Asian powers, such as India, Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. By creating a system of alliances around China, the hope would be that growing Chinese power and ambition would be counter-balanced by the combined strength of it’s competitors, and also that a powerful deterrence effect would be put into place. Offensive realists, who believe that a rising China is a direct threat to American hegemony and the current unipolar system, would argue that the United States would need to build a more powerful security apparatus, in this case probably the military, to directly counter the security threat provided by China. Defensive realists, on the other hand, would argue that, while China’s growing power provides a threat to American hegemony, and that they should be countered through diplomatic maneuvering and systems of alliances, China itself would not seek to ‘overstep’ its bounds in the international arena. Because China is a rational actor, they argue, it understands that its growing power is being carefully watched and monitored, and thus if it over-exerted  or over-extended itself it would face great security challenges from other states. Examples of this exist in history: Napoleonic France, Imperial Germany, and Nazi Germany all ‘overstepped’ their bounds as growing regional hegemons, and found that the result of this was the declaration of war by other states (and, ultimately, their destruction). Defensive realists argue that the same case applies for China, and because China is rational, it will not seek too much power. Therefore, they argue, the United States should not necessarily overly fret about a rising China, at least not in more immediate future.

Of course, as the future takes its path, unforeseeable or unpredictable events or changes may and will occur. Neither Realism nor Liberalism, let alone any other IR theory, can accurately predict or even account for such unknowns, and thus these theories cannot alone dictate American policy. Changing IR environments require quick thinking and quick action by the officials of United States, and often such actions may not be rooted in a certain theory. However, IR theories can, should, and do account for a general groundwork on what the United States should do to deal with the rise of China. They present a certain set of guidelines and conditions for the international world, and outline how the United States should approach various aspects of China’s rise in the world stage. As a Liberal, I believe that the tenets of Liberalism would guide American IR policy in a way that would enable the most peaceful, and arguably more ‘humane’ and ‘free’ way of dealing with China. That being said, of course, the theory of Realism can also easily be applied when dealing with China. No major part or tenet of Realist theory has been proven incompatible with this new era of IR, and thus the arguments Realists make could equally well shape American policy for the coming years. It is my personal opinion, however, that ‘Realist’ policies would present a much more dangerous situation for both nations because of the potential for the ‘security dilemma’.

A Jew’s Reflection on Violence in Palestine

It is hard today to escape news of the escalating conflict in Palestine and the violence, suffering, and deaths that it has caused. As a Jew, I watch with growing trepidation and disgust. Once again, I see the Israeli people, a people with whom I share a distinct ethnic and cultural heritage, engaged in acts of war. Hearing about the brutality of this war, I once again feel ashamed.

The Judaism I know is about selflessness, about charity, about empathy. Why do we fail to exhibit these core values in the case of the Palestinians? The ancient Israelis and Jews of recent times have been forced from their lands and homes. Through the building of settlements and claiming of land, so too have the Palestinian people. Jews have long suffered from discrimination and inequality. In this occupation environment, so too do the Palestinians. Jews have been the targets of uneven aggression and violence. Considering the nature of this recent Israeli offensive, so too are the Palestinian people.

Where is the empathy? Where is the charity? Why does my people respond with missiles, bombs, and bullets to a people decrying unfair treatment? Why do many Jews not see that we are building the same history for the Palestinian people that others built for us? It is because, I believe, a moral blindness has afflicted the Israeli people, and by extension, Jews worldwide. It is a blindness born from fear and anxiety.

The overriding narrative in Jewish history is about being the absolute victim. No doubt, there is a large degree of truth to this view. The Jewish people and identity have been molded by a history of oppression and discrimination. We had been driven from our lands, we had been forced to live in horrid environments, we had been the targets of intense hatred. With such a history, Israel offered the hope of a Jewish state and homeland, a place where Jews could live in peace.

Significantly, the state of Israel gave the Jewish people power, and this power became the linchpin of our security. Without it, we are again defenseless to hatred. Without it, there is no sure place Jews can go to escape discrimination, to openly embrace and revel in their culture.  The Palestinian people, because of their claims to the land, because of the threat they pose to the nature of the Israeli state, represent a direct challenge to that power. The Palestinians create an existential anxiety for the Jewish people. It seems that, in fear of losing what we now have, after so long of not having it, we will do anything to hold on. We will resort to violence and oppression, breeding hatred and distrust. We will forget our history, our roots. We will ignore the very core values that make us Jewish.

What can be done to change this reality? Undoubtedly, the Jewish people must truly embrace the values of empathy and charity which underlies their heritage. That embrace must extend even to those who we fear or who we hate. Perhaps we need to reinterpret our historical narrative. It seems we believe that our victimized history now gives us special privilege. I feel we should instead think that our history now gives us a special moral obligation to fight for and uphold the fundamental rights and decency of humankind.

We musn’t forget that being victimized does not make us incapable of creating new victims. Despite being targets of extremism, we are not immune to it on our part, either.  Religious, political, and state-sponsored violence and terror can occur in any religion or people, and this conflict aptly demonstrates that it does. We must honestly acknowledge this unfortunate part of the human character, and take care to avoid and fight against it. Doing so is, I believe, part of being Jewish.

So I wonder again, why do we respond with bullets instead of food aid? Why do we respond we respond with occupation instead of economic assistance? Why do we respond with thoughts of hate and fear instead of thoughts of forgiveness and tolerance? For, fundamentally, much of the conflict is rooted around issues of economic depravity and underdevelopment, inequality, and perceptions of unfair treatment in Palestine. By solving those problems, the road to peace can be constructed. Bombs do nothing but destroy it.

I do not doubt that this period of Jewish history will one day be a reason for reflection. I hope that my people will see it as a bump in our road to maturity. We are new to our freedoms, to our powers, to this nature of our existence. We need to learn to use them responsibly. Or could it be that we were like an abused child growing to be an abusive parent?I hope that my people can change this characterization in the present, to prevent even more suffering in the future.