The smart against the dumb: The new Cold War
By Scott Sumner
Consider the following story:
A suicide bomber has killed at least 48 students at a high school assembly in northeastern Nigeria, witnesses say.
. . .
The region has been in the grip of fighting between government forces and Boko Haram, whose name, roughly translated, means “Western education is forbidden.” A suicide bomber last week killed 30 people in the same city, Potiskum, the Yobe state capital.
This story is emblematic of something I’ve noticed seems increasingly common in the 21st century—political movements that appear exceedingly stupid. Before exploring this idea, let me concede that the second half of the 20th century had many similar examples. Idi Amin in Uganda, the anti-intellectualism of the Khmer Rouge and indeed to a lesser extent the entire Chinese Cultural Revolution. And let’s not even talk about the first half. That’s why I italicized “seems.”
Nonetheless, something about the 21st century seems radically different from the period of my youth (the 1960s and 1970s.) In the 20th century there was a global battle of ideas, roughly capitalism vs. socialism. This battle took many forms in many different places, but one common theme was that there was pretty widespread intellectual support for both sides of the struggle. Not both sides in each and every case, but as a philosophical struggle for the future of mankind.
The world is still filled with struggle, but here are some things that seem different to me today:
1. Most intellectuals now buy into the mixed economy, liberal democratic structure of Europe, North America, Australia, Japan and South Korea. Much of Latin America is edging in that direction as well, but there are obvious exceptions. The big debate in Chile is about how to fund education, not the merits of Marxism.
2. Throughout the rest of the world there is a generalized anti-western feeling, at least in many governments and terrorist groups. But these groups often have absolutely nothing in common with each other. Here are a few recent alternatives to the liberal democratic model:
1. Chavez’s soft authoritarian socialism
2. Putin’s soft authoritarian right-wing nationalism
3. Ahmadinejad’s Islamic fundamentalism
4. Mugabe’s corrupt racism
5. Kim’s Marxist monarchy
These models are mostly unrelated (although of course there is some overlap–two are socialist and two or three are racist.) In the 20th century they would have despised each other. But today they are united by a common anti-western inclination. Thus you often see alliances between these strange bedfellows on foreign policy issues that never would have occurred at the height of the Cold War. Instead, during the Cold War the “right wing” outliers would have been allied with the US and the “left wing” outliers would have been allied with the Soviet Union.
3. To an educated westerner the statements made by the anti-western leaders (as well as terrorist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram) don’t just seem offensive, they seem extremely stupid. I’ve talked to Venezuelans who told me that Chavez would give long speeches on TV that were almost mind-bogglingly stupid. Anyone who has read the various laughable claims made for the Kim family in North Korea has to wonder what the North Korean people make of the absurd propaganda. Just to be clear, I am not arguing that the leaders of these countries are stupid at a personal level, indeed Putin seems like a very wily and shrewd politician. Perhaps the others are (or were) as well. But I don’t recall ever reading any public statement by Putin that did not insult one’s intelligence with its obvious dishonesty or mean-spiritedness.
4. Of course in the days of the Cold War there were lots of dishonest and foolish things said by various governments, but nonetheless there was always the sense that most were at least trying to appeal to idealistic global opinion. Both the US and Soviets, as well as their allies, at least tried to make their political models look appealing to the nonaligned countries, and to intellectuals. And to some extent they succeeded–lots of western intellectuals were on each side of the debate. There is almost no western intellectual support for the militarism and gay bashing of Putin, or the racism of Mugabe, or the stoning to death of adulterers and homosexuals. Nor for the kidnapping of school girls that get sold into slavery. The North Korean dynasty is treated like a bad joke. Only Chavez had a bit of support among western intellectuals, and that’s mostly gone now, as Venezuela keeps deteriorating under his replacement.
5. Why do such dissimilar leaders of outcast countries align with each other? Perhaps they share resentment at being looked down upon, at being on the losing side of history. If the western liberal democratic model is correct, if it is the “end of history,” then places where history is still playing out are naturally seen as being inferior in some sense. I don’t think that perception is correct, but I understand why it occurs. (For conservatives of the “civilization vs. barbarism” variety, I can’t help pointing out that as recently as the 1940s Europe and East Asia were far more barbaric than the Middle East. Does that mean that Arab civilization was in some fundamental sense “superior” to Western civilization in the 1940s?)
6. Or maybe this is all “realpolitik,” the cynical manipulation of not very well-informed populations by calculating politicians.
PS. I anticipate that people will point out how I oversimplify the differences between the 20th and the 21st century. Guilty as charged. As I noted earlier, there are lots of similarities between the anti-intellectualism of the Khmer Rouge and Boko Haram. Perhaps what has actually changed isn’t so much the world itself, but rather the world as perceived in the imagination of Western intellectuals. You can find quotes from lots of respectable western intellectuals praising Mao, even at the height of the Cultural Revolution. I doubt you can find any western intellectuals praising Boko Haram.
PPS. Modern China is an interesting case, with a foot in each camp. I suspect that one difference between China and the other outcasts is that China really believes it can beat the West at its own game, that it can become the greatest economic power in the world. Hence less resentment at being on the losing side of history.
PPPS. Castro is one 20th century leader who lived into the 21st century. He and his brother seem totally out of place today.