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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Faded Empire

by digby

Robert Wright recently left his blog at The Atlantic to write a book about Buddhism. I will miss it. He's probably my favorite public intellectual (if one can have favorites in such a strange category.) Anyway, he characteristically wrote something truly profound in his last post, which is worth reading in its entirety. This piece however is so important, I wanted to excerpt it for the record on this blog:

[1] The world's biggest single problem is the failure of people or groups to look at things from the point of view of other people or groups--i.e. to put themselves in the shoes of "the other." I'm not talking about empathy in the sense of literally sharing people's emotions--feeling their pain, etc. I'm just talking about the ability to comprehend and appreciate the perspective of the other. So, for Americans, that might mean grasping that if you lived in a country occupied by American troops, or visited by American drone strikes, you might not share the assumption of many Americans that these deployments of force are well-intentioned and for the greater good. You might even get bitterly resentful. You might even start hating America.

[2] Grass-roots hatred is a much greater threat to the United States--and to nations in general, and hence to world peace and stability--than it used to be. The reasons are in large part technological, and there are two main manifestations: (1) technology has made it easier for grass-roots hatred to morph into the organized deployment (by non-state actors) of massively lethal force; (2) technology has eroded authoritarian power, rendering governments more responsive to popular will, hence making their policies more reflective of grass roots sentiment in their countries. The upshot of these two factors is that public sentiment toward America abroad matters much more (to America's national security) than it did a few decades ago.

[3] If the United States doesn't use its inevitably fading dominance to build a world in which the rule of law is respected, and in which global norms are strong, the United States (and the world) will suffer for it. So when, for example, we do things to other nations that we ourselves have defined as acts of war (like cybersabotage), that is not, in the long run, making us or our allies safer. The same goes for when we invade countries, or bomb them, in clear violation of international law. And at some point we have to get serious about building a truly comprehensive nuclear nonproliferation regime--one that we expect our friends, not just our enemies, to be members-in-good-standing of.

You might ask: If I'm so concerned about international affairs, why am I writing a book about Buddhism? Of course, you might not ask that. But just in case:

Part of the answer is that, though writing in this space has led me to emphasize my concerns about policy and politics, they aren't my only concerns. But another part of the answer is this:

If you look at the three challenges I've just identified in italics, you'll see that the second two wouldn't be so challenging if the first challenge was met. It's because Americans don't put themselves in the shoes of non-Americans that they (with the best of intentions) support policies that generate hatred of America and (without even realizing it) act as if rules are things that should be obeyed by everyone except America and its allies. (I don't mean to suggest that Americans are the only people who make these mistakes. It's just that I'm an American writing mainly for Americans, so I focus on American policies.) So if we could address the first challenge in a big way--if we could get much better at seeing the world from the point of view of others--that would go a long way toward saving the world from the grim fate that otherwise may await it. And, without going into a lot of detail, I'd just say that (1) the Buddhist view of the mind helps illuminate this challenge, as does modern psychology, and I'm interested in seeing how the challenge looks from these two vantage points; and (2) Buddhist meditative practice, in which I've dabbled, can be effective in addressing the challenge.

I am not a religious person, but I can certainly see how Buddhist meditative practices might be of help in sorting out this problem.

I find that as I get older, this simple insight about the necessity of seeing things from the other point of view is key. And Americans, of all the people on earth, seem to have no sense of it at all, and we are the global behemoth that dominates the world. That is a very, very bad combination. A small country can afford to be insular if it chooses. It will only hurt itself. But a large country with such an attitude is bound to make powerful enemies --- and antagonize its allies.

I think George W. Bush expressed the typical American view of its own "exceptional" nature: "I don't know why they hate us. We're so good." Except, of course, we aren't. We're a typical nation that is both good and bad but we have so much power and so much wealth and we are so thoughtless to the long term effects of our behavior that everyone in the world now has their eye upon us and judges us with a profound lack of trust. As we would do in their shoes.

I don't think we are so "exceptional" that we will not pay a dear price for being so self-absorbed that as our empire faded, we didn't care -- or even know --- how we looked to the rest of the world. As Wright warns, we are asking for trouble by doing this. Big Trouble.

If the United States doesn't use its inevitably fading dominance to build a world in which the rule of law is respected, and in which global norms are strong, the United States (and the world) will suffer for it.