Two wet dreams and a nightmare

A Note to the Reader: This is the first of two articles published at Hong Kong’s Asia Times Online in late 2002.

Two wet dreams and a nightmare
By Robert L. Adams

The mention of “wet dreams” may bring a smile to adult males, but their metaphorical use here is nothing to smile about. The wet dreams I refer to are every bit as ephemeral and every bit as pleasurable to experience while the illusion lasts, but their outcome will be far worse than the embarrassment and unexpected laundry requirements of boyhood.

The first wet dream originates on the right end of the political spectrum: a Pax Americana, global peace under an American empire. In this out-dated fantasy drawn from centuries past, so-called analysts compare US military and economic power with all other nations and declare an empire in the making. To them, it’s clear that only the US can provide the strong direction needed to end global terrorism and the tyranny of despots like Saddam Hussein. In theory, it sounds plausible. In practice, it’s another story.

Empires are extremely expensive to create and maintain in both money and lives. Just the current war on terror has thrown the US budget into a major deficit after a period of surpluses, and let’s not talk about Iraq. Running some kind of global empire is going to cost much, much more. In addition, last September 11 “cost” the US nearly 3000 lives. Creating and maintaining a global empire is going to cost many, many times that.

No one likes to pay heavy taxes. No one likes to die. In the past, empires have had to meet one of two basic requirements. Either the empire must have the power to coerce its citizens into paying these costs or its citizens must lust after empire to such an extent that they willingly pay the costs.

Can Americans be coerced into empire-building? No. Americans have a strong tradition of distrust of government and its bureaucracy. Despite being as opinionated and emotional as any other people, they don’t like being coerced, even to do something they want to do. Whether it’s forbidding abortions, guaranteeing equality for women, or requiring prayer in public schools, Americans step back from amending their own constitution. You might not think of a constitutional amendment as coercion, but that’s what it amounts to for the people who disagree with the amendment. Americans much prefer to legislate on these and other controversial issues, allowing themselves the right to change their minds at a later date. Coercion, even coercion in support of a “good cause”, is simply not a popular approach in the US.

Do Americans lust for a global empire? Far from it. Let’s take one very simple example: Canada. Over the last 50 years, I can remember several occasions when Canadians have accused the US of trying literally to absorb their nation. I can remember several occasions when various Canadian provinces have threatened to leave their federation and seek US statehood. In all that time, I cannot remember one occasion when “absorbing” Canada was of any interest to the American public. It wasn’t even discussed. As for the rebel provinces of past years who threatened to petition the US for statehood, these were easy opportunities to express that lust. Not one of those threats created any interest, much less imperial excitement, in the US.

The philosophy of “live and let live” has become the norm in American society, especially in the last couple decades. We have often been criticized by other nations as too self-absorbed. We’re no more self-absorbed than any other nationality, we just want to get on with our lives and let everyone else do the same. This is not the foundation for empire.

The second wet dream comes from the left end of the political spectrum: peace and justice based on an illusion.

Many pretend that the United Nations is an effective organization because they don’t want to confront its ineffectiveness. The UN was founded nearly 60 years ago and reflected the desire of a very war-weary world to avoid further violence. It was a noble expression, but, in truth, it was never anything more than a tool of a few nation-states.

Think about it. Is anyone waiting for the General Assembly debate on the issue of an attack on Iraq? No. It’s the Security Council and only the Security Council where the debate is of any significance. And is it a question of what the majority of Council members feel and how they vote? Not really. It boils down to five nations with the power to veto any resolution. It is their debate that focuses our attention and for a very good reason. Theirs are the only votes that count when all is said and done. And does anyone really believe that a veto will prevent the US from attacking?

There’s more. Those of us who have worked with the UN and its agencies over the decades know perfectly well that it is one of the least efficient, least effective bureaucracies ever created. When it was founded over a half century ago, it was a bold step into the future, a statement that the globe’s nation-states finally recognized the need to work closely together to avoid war and ensure peace. It remains a symbol, really our only symbol, of such a dream, but it is still a dream and a fading dream at that.

The left failed to confront Milosevic and his Hitleresque plans for a “Greater Serbia”. They failed to confront the Taleban and its ugly oppression. They simply ignore the killing going on in the Congo, Sudan, Liberia, Indonesia, Kashmir, and a hundred other places as someone else’s problem. When a situation finally gets so out of hand that it must be confronted, they turn to the UN as if the UN actually was an independent body that stood above the petty politics of the nation-state.

The UN is a clubhouse for the nation-state political elite. It has no taxing power, thus no money, of its own. It depends on whatever is supplied by the nation-states. It has no armed forces of its own. It does not develop its own policies. It depends on whatever is supplied by the nation-states, and very few of them at that. It is neither a threat to, nor a promise of, global peace, but a facade, not an independent institution.

Others focus on American foreign policy. Their arguments remind me of those of the American right in the 50s and 60s when they insisted that every global problem was somehow the result of the Soviet Union’s policies. It makes life easy by dumping the responsibility on one government’s shoulders and removing it from your own. By arguing that a change in American foreign policy will cure the ills of terrorism, tyranny and other afflictions only encourages the “empire complex” of the right. It’s time for that segment of the left to shoulder its own portion of the responsibility.

These are wet dreams. The problem with both is the problem with every wet dream. They are fantasies that provide illusionary pleasure, but disappear once we “wake up” to the real world.

What’s the solution? A world government with its own money, troops, and independent policies? No. Think of China, India, the US, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Russia, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Japan, the 10 most populous nations on Earth with more than half the total global population. Do we seriously think the people of these nations, much less their political elites, are going to accept and pay for a world government that can interfere in their lives at its discretion? Forget it. One brief glance at Europe’s struggle to unite over the last five decades should be enough to put that idea to rest. It’s so unrealistic that I have yet to hear any leader even suggest it, much less propose it. It’s just another wet dream. But hold on! It can happen – which brings me to the nightmare.

The threats we face in the 21st century are truly global. Terrorism knows no borders. Global warming knows no borders. A virus, cyber or biological, knows no borders. There are plenty of others that could be listed, including some we haven’t even thought about yet, but one thing is clear. Recognize it or not, we all live in one global community. What makes al-Qaeda so different from other terrorist groups is that they seem to have caught on to this. Meanwhile, the rest of the world pretends that borders still count as much today as they did 100, 50, or even 20 years ago. We face global threats. Now we have to develop a global response and no nation-state empire, no collection of UN delegates, no fanciful world government can do it for us. We have to develop something entirely new.

In the past, catastrophes, usually wars, have been the trigger that forced new approaches to maintaining peace and fostering development. We will be forced to deal with at least one genuinely global catastrophe, probably more, in the 21st century. I really don’t care what form it takes, or who or what is responsible for it. The only assumption I can safely make is that one will occur and, to qualify, it will be devastating. The responses of past centuries, whether empires or “consultative bodies” or something else, will not suffice.

There is one other thing I can say with confidence. When that catastrophe occurs, the global public is going to demand that it be dealt with immediately and effectively. When the lives of tens or hundreds of millions are threatened or, worst of all, lost, there will be no patience with wet dreams. We will be wide-awake and we will be more frightened than we have ever been before. It is at this point that a global police power is almost certain to arise. People who today debate American hegemony or the loss of civil liberties or the legitimacy of fundamentalist Islam’s demands will speak with one voice. Do something to stop this, do it immediately, and make it work; we’ll worry about the details later. This is no way to create a new world order.

The question is, in the face of threats with global, catastrophic consequences beyond any experienced in prior history, what can the “global community” do to prepare in advance to defend itself and, if we’re very fortunate, avoid such catastrophes entirely?

Our only hope is to wake up right now and begin the serious search for an answer. What is that answer? I don’t know and neither do you. No one person or one group or one ideology or one theology has the answer. On the other hand, each of us has something to offer if we take the question seriously and focus on it. We are not doing that. We have not even begun to do that. But hear me well. If we don’t do it now, we will do it when it’s too late to do it thoughtfully, and only after a catastrophe that scares the hell out of us and litters the global landscape with dead bodies.

How can the process begin? If you look back at the history of major social movements that first dealt constructively with issues ranging from slavery to women’s rights to the environment and so many others, the search for an answer began within the non-profit, voluntary sector, whether it was called that at the time or not. Unfortunately, non-profits have failed miserably to deal with tyranny and terrorism, the issues most pressing today.

The older, traditional groups have been satisfied to offer “victims funds”. They deal with the aftermath of a catastrophe instead of measures to avoid it in the first place. Their work in the past has often been admirable, but this approach is no solution and, in any event, will be immediately overwhelmed by the immensity of the catastrophes to come.

Other groups raise the issue, but make a fatal error. They provide a detailed “solution”. They may believe their ideology or their theology is the one answer to everyone’s problems, but they aren’t making any noticeable progress in convincing the rest of us. They seem completely unaware of their arrogance, but no one else is. In order to be heard at all, they are reduced to a form of verbal terrorism that further alienates them from the very people whose best interests they pretend to represent.

We can lie half-awake in bed enjoying the illusionary pleasures of a wet dream, only to find ourselves trapped in an unending nightmare. Or we can wake ourselves up now and deal with reality, not illusions. It won’t be easy, but it’s that or the nightmare.

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One Response to Two wet dreams and a nightmare

  1. Robyn says:

    My bad dreams of the UN is that they’re blaming Israel for it all buT I’m awake and it’s true

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