17 March 2005

Waving flags - more short items

Every once in a while, I read something that reminds me that great nations are not necessarily large (they just have to be where I was born!). By yesterday, one of every hundred Norwegians had signed up to participate in Norwegian Church Aid's Lenten campaign against human trafficking, raising hopes that last year's record of NOK 25 million, US$ 4.11 million, to the church's annual Lenten campaign will be exceeded.

Speaking of waving the flag, am I the only one who wonders why the U.S. military really sends advisors and trainers out to countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia? How can it be that the USA is always in a position to tell others how to run their militaries and military operations? In countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia, don't the local armies have far more locally relevant experience than our military would have? Why aren't they coming to help with training at the Pentagon instead of the other way around? 

If you accept military and great-power logic, of course, these questions are just plain silly. Joint operations reinforce the relationships between empire and client (or candidate client). They provide local facilities for U.S. forces. (As Admiral Blair candidly reminded a reporter once, "As a military commander you can never have enough places for your airplanes to land and your ships to pull in, so in this area certainly more is better.")

There are mixed agendas, some not entirely bad: By training host forces to be kinder and gentler and to resist corruption, the U.S. "experts" can hasten the day when Congress will lift restrictions originally caused by human rights violations. In the meantime, supplies and equipment can be transferred that might otherwise violate those restrictions. What troubles me is that the U.S. media seem so ready to report blandly that these visitors are "experts" and "trainers"-- reinforcing the myth that Americans always know better, and undermining any kind of conversation about our imperial role in the world.

The Lamb's War just lost a good partisan from our earthly company. Theologian Stan Gretz died this past weekend after a sudden brain hemorrhage, according to his Web site. That same site has a number of tributes (including one from Brian McLaren) and a guest book. As John Witvliet (Calvin Institute for Christian Worship) says, "Stan was just here for the Symposium in January -- young, vibrant, full of life, and probably ready to write about 4 more books. It's quite hard to believe."

A recent article by Michael Plekon on the Jesus Prayer, which is on the Orthodox Peace Fellowship site, Incommunion.org, mentions one of the lesser-known spiritual giants of the 20th century, Mother Maria Skobtsova (Liza Pilenko), who was a theological and spiritual writer, a martyr to Nazi cruelty, and a continuing influence in and beyond Eastern Orthodoxy. Alexander Men' included a beautiful article about her in his series of lectures, collected posthumously in the volume Russian Religious Philosophy. I recommend this Web tribute to Mother Maria, and its links page.


Unknown said...

It warms my heart when an American labels the America and its relations with the world as "empire". It gives me a certain hope that as long as tehre are americans who see it that way -- paradoxically -- it American may not be one - yet. And so there is still hope.

Johan Maurer said...

I would agree with commentators who say the USA is not literally an empire. The word "empire" is one of those words that tempt me with rhetorical power but become less useful when used too frequently and imprecisely.

We're not an empire in the traditional sense because we don't have territories and colonies; we don't seek to expand our country; we don't and cannot control other governments.

Our imperial tendencies, however, are more and more obvious: We have military bases in many other countries, while no other country has a military base in the USA (correct me if I'm wrong). While we don't control other countries, we exercise enormous influence in several countries, and in many international organizations. We use our political, economic, and military influence to seek every advantage for ourselves, defining "advantage" often as short-term domestical political gain rather than true long-term, sustainable benefit. In pursuit of advantage, we constantly undermine the development of international law.

The USA-as-empire picture is made more complicated by our vulnerabilities: Much of our economy is dependent on forces outside the USA, including many foreign investors, importers, and exporters. For more than a generation, the old concept of sovereign nation has been weakened by multinational corporations, multinational political actors, and multinational security threats (including pollution and disease). Undocumented immigration and emigration also diminish "sovereignty" - and cyberspace defies national regulation.

So, rather than a classical mature empire, the USA to me seems like an enormously powerful and enormously vulnerable adolescent state. Power corrupts, making our state sometimes behave like a rogue state, even a bully, to my embarrassment. Its adolescence shows in its idealism, its bursts of maximalism, its fits of moody isolationism, its yearning to be liked by others. Unfortunately, if wisdom doesn't set in soon in its governing circles, I'm very concerned that the rest of the world, even our admirers, will organize to limit the harm we can do to the rest of the world, using the most obvious pressure point: our overextended economy. Since other countries, and configurations of countries, are not necessarily any wiser than we are, the world's "cure" for a rogue USA may not be any better than the disease. This is why it is so important for Americans to begin thinking more soberly and globally about the dangers of imperial behavior.