Prosperity, Then Peace

Tracy O (ASA)money money money

I recently wrote about how globalization could make the world a much safer place. The logic is essentially this: countries that have significant business interactions are much less likely to go to war. A China that relies on exports to the West probably won’t start a war with anyone, and a West that relies on imports from China is less likely to go to war with them. If you extend this logic to a world in which each country relies on imports and exports to and from everywhere else, a completely “globalized” world seems destined for peace.

In explaining that theory, I drew on the (easy) example of Europe. The logic is straightforward: trade liberalization under the auspices of the European Union has made Europe more interconnected. That interconnections has made war all but impossible. After publishing, a very interesting and reasonable counter-argument came to mind: the prosperity of Europe, not it’s liberalization, has kept it at peace.

Consider, for example, that almost all the violence in Europe to have occurred in the last few decades happened in the relatively poor Balkans. Consider too, that Africa–a continent almost synonymous with war–is easily the poorest inhabited continent on the planet.

Now I’m not that interested in listing hundreds of examples. I’m well aware that for every example I can give there are probably an equal number of  counterexamples.

The mechanism by which prosperity would yield peace is more intuitive than rational. The basic idea would be that the wealthier a person is, the more social capital–education, acquaintances, leisure time–they have, and the more resistant they are to putting a nice life on hold to risk their own neck in war. This makes sense, but without some actual data remains “just a theory.”

However, it follows that if this worked, generally speaking, to turn a populous against war a responsive government would almost necessarily be less likely to wage war. Even a government deaf to the desires of its citizens would likely struggle to conscript people to join an undesired military action.

Certainly the theory has flaws. Rich countries do start wars. There are poor countries that are peaceful. But I can’t and wouldn’t contend that prosperity alone makes a country or population less likely to go to war. I would say, however, that it’s a factor that shouldn’t be ignored if one desires to end all wars.

big ideas, OPW, world

OPW: Finding Commonality Inside Iraq

Earlier this week I encountered a pretty interesting piece in the New York Review of Books. Entitled “As Iraqis See It,” the piece gives an inside look into the lives of Iraqis working for the McClatchy news organization, one of America’s biggest. McClatchy provides these reporters with a blog, called Inside Iraq, which is where most of the stories in the piece originate. One of the most striking passages was this:

While courteous, the men look right through her. One of the Americans begins searching the living room. In it is a large bookcase filled with books in English. “You read a lot Ma’am?” he asks. “Yes, in fact I do,” she replies, using English for the first time. “What’s this?” he says. “Heinlein? Asimov? Grisham?”

He turns to look at me again, this time with a different expression in his eyes. “Do you have a weapon?” “Yes, of course. It’s in that cabinet.”

He opens the cabinet and looks closely inside.

“You play Diablo?! And what’s this?! Grand Theft Auto??” He forgets all about the weapon and turns to us with a wide grin on his face, and astonishment in his eyes. My son asks him, “Is ours the first house you search?”, “No, why?”, “Because all my friends have these games, why are you so surprised?” The serviceman looks embarrassed, and turns to inspect the weapon.

They went through every room, every cabinet, closet and drawer silently. After they accomplished their mission, in about thirty minutes, they walked out, gray shadows in the twilight.

With its quiet exploration of the subtle interplay between occupier and occupied, the vignette reminded me of Orwell’s writings about his imperial service in Burma. Interested in learning more, I reached Sahar via phone at McClatchy’s Baghdad office. She told me that when the American soldier discovered Grisham and Asimov on her bookshelf, “He was totally amazed. When he looked at me, he didn’t see an Iraqi woman in a hijab, he saw a human being. You can’t imagine the look on his face—there were tears in his eyes. He was inside a house, with love, a family, like anywhere else.”

The incident, Sahar said, gave her a sense of the extent to which the Iraqi people are unknown. “People in America look at pictures of Afghanistan and think Iraq is the same,” she said. “They think Iraqis are people who are uneducated, who are Bedouins living in tents, tending camels and sheep.” Until the plague of wars began devouring the country, she went on, Iraq was the leading nation in the region, with a highly educated people boasting the best doctors, teachers, and engineers. Americans, Sahar sighed, “don’t know this. And when you don’t know a person, you can’t feel for them, can you?”

She continued: “How many have been killed in Iraq? Bordering on a million. If you realize that these are real people with real feelings who are being killed—that they are fathers and husbands, teachers and doctors—if these facts could be made known, would people be so brutalized? It’s our job as Iraqi journalists to show that Iraqis are real people. This is what we try to advance through the blog.”

big ideas

The Triviality of Difference

Everywhere you look, especially as a teenager, the world is full of others. Of people “not like me.” And though teenagers feel this most intensely, few do not feel it regularly.

Just look at the latent antipathy that exists in this country toward Iranians. Or Arabs. Or Mexicans. Or even the French.

Surely these people are different from us. They live in different parts of the world. They look different. They sound different. Put face to face, we’d probably struggle to understand each other fully. And that’s ignoring language.

For all my years, I still don’t understand fully the people I’ve known since I was young. I don’t know my friends. I don’t know my family. Sometimes I don’t even know myself.

There’s a real and meaningful distance that seems to exist between “me” and “you.” And that’s assuming you’re someone I’ve met in some capacity. If we float in the same circles but don’t know each other by name that distance seems bigger still. If we’ve never seen each other, it seems impossible that there’s anything between us. And if we’ll never see each other we may as well give up entirely.

But before we lapse into nihlistic despair at the fact that we’re too different, I’d hope we could consider this. In his wonderful 1989 speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, the 14th Dalai Lama said:

No matter what part of the world we come from, we are all basically the same human beings. We all seek happiness and try to avoid suffering. We have the same basic human needs and concerns. All of us human beings want freedom and the right to determine our own destiny as individuals and as peoples.

I, at least, find this point indisputable. Surely there are people in the world who think that they want to suffer, but it’s usually in some search for a separate and durable happiness. Religious self-flagellation is the imposition of temporary pain in exchange for long term happiness when God is satisfied with one’s commitment. And though I find the practice unfathomably odd and barbaric, even its practitioners seek long-term happiness.

From the time we first recognize differences amongst people, they become an easy way to understand the world. To see that we exist, as people and persons, because of our differences. That they define us.

And though I’m not foolish enough to ignore all differences, I think it’s terribly important that we see the commonality that exists underneath all the superficial difference. It’s sometimes trendy in the West to evangelize against superficiality. But beyond popular culture and children’s feelings, this evangelization rapidly dies.

And that’s certainly unfortunate. I feel rather certain that if the anti-superficiality crusade went all the way to the fundamental commonality that the Dalai Lamas and others point out to us, we’d live in a much better world.

politics, review, world

Review: Hometown Baghdad

Perhaps I was the only one it miss it, but until yesterday (when it appeared on ABC’s Nightline) I was unaware of this incredible project. Hometown Baghdad is a series of vignettes–or episodes if you prefer–about what life is like in modern Baghdad.

The show, which was released from March to June of this year, uses short (two to eight minute) episodes to show many aspects of what life is like for its three protagonists–all middle-class male twenty-somethings living in Baghdad. Though we could rightly question the reasons for choosing such similar people, the show is still compelling, interesting, and worthy of attention.

Hometown Baghdad logoHometown Baghdad shows how people live day-to-day in the war-torn county’s capital. That people are still living in Baghdad was something of a revelation for me. This is something that is clear in the abstract, if asked the question, “Are there average people living in Baghdad?” I would have of course answered yes.

Hometown Baghdad not only asks that question, it answers it. We see these three men struggle with some very normal things: friends leaving, dating, surviving summer heat. And yet we also see them pinned into their homes because of gunfights in the street outside, worrying about getting home by curfew, and the results of some misguided US military actions.

This incredibly ordinary life in incredibly extraordinary circumstances was, for me, the surprise. These men, though their country is full of frightening events, keep going outside of their door. Keep seeing their friends, keep going to school. I’d never have thought normal life was possible inside a war-zone, but I suppose I’m merely learning that all life is normal.

Hometown Baghdad also conjures up some complicated questions. As Saif complains about life in modern Baghdad, I wondered if it was better for him under Saddam. I wondered if it would be better if the US forces exited Iraq immediately. I wondered if the surge has had a positive impact on life in Baghdad.

These questions are not unusual, but the way we can see them through Hometown Baghdad is. Rather then seeing the “war” as a question of “winning,” “casualties,” or “terrorism” we have to question its impact on everyday life for Iraqis.

Does this open a magic window through which we can see the proper way for America to proceed in wading through this quagmire? Of course not.

But it renews our ability to consider the outcomes in light of other factors. To consider not only the lives of American soldiers, their families, and politicians, but the lives of average Iraqi citizens. It is this which is new, and very worthwhile. And that is the reason that you should watch Hometown Baghdad.