Thursday, October 12, 2017

Man-Child Versus Child-Man

International diplomacy is a delicate thing. Established protocols, nuanced words, treaty niceties are designed to facilitate  relationships among nations and people. Yet oftentimes these formalities seem to be hurdles to the goal of bettering human relations. “Git ‘er done” seems frustratingly subordinate to “let’s talk about getting her done.” Diplomacy is not a happy place for one of little patience or subtlety.

It also by definition requires some sense of humility and respect for others. Even when the “power balance” is unequal – usually based upon money, arms, or population measures of power – diplomacy requires some measure of cooperation in order to advance shared goals. It is the same recognition that complicated the very founding of America. Achieving a working federation among the “big states” and the “small states” threatened the original creation of our nation, and resulted in an inefficient but necessary balancing of competing interests to successfully achieve a larger, overriding shared goal.

As cumbersome as diplomacy may often be, it has achieved much over the past 75 years since the end of World War II. That was a war so terrible that it inspired a commitment to “never again.” The financial cost and maddening rhetoric of the United Nations and all its agencies, the formal structures like NATO and SEATO, the individual trade and cooperation treaties that manage the daily interactions of nations, have nevertheless eliminated conflagration-scale wars, even as smaller conflicts still prick at our aspirations for world peace. Nevertheless, we have kept on trying.

All of these years of effort are now dangerously close to being blown up in our face – quite literally. Diplomacy is being replaced by confrontation; stability is morphing into chaos; leadership is defusing into a wandering vacuum. America has been the post-war leader in international diplomacy for decades – sometimes from the high moral ground, other times from questionable or ill-considered selfish interest. But we have never withdrawn from the expectations placed upon us to articulate our human aspirations and then back it with tangible goods, services, and sacrifices of its people.

Today, in a relatively short span of time, that ship of international leadership has been cast adrift on the rocky shores of “America First.” It is a catchy slogan, appropriate if one believes America is enduring a unique suffering unlike any other nation, or that it lives and works in isolation from all other nations. It is a hollow slogan if one understands that our worst days still leave us better off than much of an envious world. We enjoy notable accomplishments, while still necessarily confessing great shortcomings that need addressing. Our world leadership is not dead, but it is sitting just outside the diplomatic Intensive Care Unit.

Our most prominent conflict is the growing fight, and increasing threat, between the United States and North Korea. Unfortunately, it has become a fight not between two nations but between two individuals. Like meets like on a collision course that could easily envelop much of the globe, with millions (billions?) of people’s lives at stake. On the one hand, we have an old man behaving like a schoolyard child, name-calling and threatening the smaller kids using America’s superior size fueled by his own personal sense of inferiority. On the other hand, you have an overgrown child thrust into power too soon, intent on showing his toughness to the elders surrounding him and proving his worthiness to occupy the seat of his father and grandfather. Both were spoiled, pampered children used to having their way from living in a closed “family business” granting them absolute power. The power of intimidation in attempting to control the world around them is the only real skill that they have learned. The reality of people and the normal ways of the world are incomprehensible to them – as these two people in turn are incomprehensible to us.

The man-child has a compulsive need to show toughness and to “win.” What he wins is secondary to just winning for the sake of personal accolades. The child-man has a compulsive need to win, and what he seeks is a parity of respect. Both had successful fathers that they seek to now overshadow and are out do to prove successes in their own right. Both are trapped within entrenched cultural drivers: a Western culture that prioritizes intellectual and political dominance; an Eastern culture that prioritizes saving face and being shown respect. People with something personal to prove can be very scary; these two people are very scary. Both are playing the same game of taunting, threatening, and brinksmanship. Neither will succeed by fighting their battle on the public stage, backing each other into corners behind their various “red lines.” Left to their own ego battles, we can care less who wins. But when their ill-conceived battle threatens millions, then we all need to care.

Is it too late to stop this cold war-renewed march into a hot war? Very possibly. In a schoolyard fight of egos, there comes a point at which no one feels able, or is willing, to blink. Sitting in their respective corners, each has his self-respect at stake. Each has a home audience cheering them on, delighted to see a flexing of national muscle, and who expects “victory.” However, America’s track record as the big kid fighting against the little kid has not been great – think North Korea in the 1950s, Viet Nam, Iraq-2, and Afghanistan. Being greater in war power can still mean losing to a smaller but committed adversary. Did we learn nothing from our Viet Nam experience about gradual escalation, driven by overriding personal ego and reputation, and how hard it is to pull back?

Both of the kids need to turn off the spotlight. Get off the public stage. Quit acting like childish jackasses. This is not a game; the issue is too serious. More sane and experienced people need to come together to try to find a way out of this sinking morass. If pushed to a final confrontation, there will be no winner. The winds of radioactivity know no borders. Ducking under our school desks will not spare us. The World War III movies we watched in the 1960s do not seem so entirely fictional right now. The policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) thankfully worked out for the world when it was effected by rational leaders in the USSR and the US who knew how and when to pull back from the brink. The MAD premise will likely not work out so well with a man-child and a child-man in charge.

Now, Donald, it’s about that shared multi-nation agreement with Iran that you want America to unilaterally pull out of even though the Iranians insist on meeting their treaty obligations …

©   2017   Randy Bell