“Great Decisions” and underlying themes

I once had a Latin teacher who said that teaching Latin was the ONLY way to learn Latin. I don’t think that’s really true. Being a Latin teacher, he often used the device of a minori ad maius [1] so it is hard to know just how far to go in extending his remarks. I do know of my own knowledge, however, that in preparing to teach a class I learn more than I do in preparing to take a class. It is one of the many reasons I like teaching.

Great Decisions logoOr, in the case I am just about to describe for you, not even teaching; just convening. This year, at the senior center where I live, we used the Foreign Policy Association’s annual program, Great Decisions. It teaches itself, in a way. There is a video of eight 30 minute programs and a briefing book to go with it. My own job was simply to convene the group, show the video, and moderate the discussion afterward.

I did, however, want as good a discussion as I could get–I really like good discussions– so I cast about for some way to prepare the other residents to engage the material for themselves. I hit on the idea of pulling some quotations out of the material they were going to see and passing them out the week before. It didn’t work that well all the time for the group, but it was absolutely terrific for me.

That’s how I discovered the “themes.” That’s what I call them. They are emphases that didn’t play a starring role in any of the eight topics, but that showed up in a supporting role in at least half of them. In watching the DVDs over and over to get the quotes right and to attribute them correctly, I began to notice some of the material that I passed over on the first several viewings.

Here are the three I chose to share with my fellow residents after the program ended last week. These are obvious points. They are dumbfoundingly obvious. Don’t let that discourage you. And they are big points, by which I mean the scale is large. You don’t get to these points by mastering the details. But after the details are so familiar that you don’t have to pay attention to them any more, these more general and often, more important points begin to emerge.

1. What kind of international order does American hegemony guarantee?

A hegemon [2] is a kind of first among equals and the U. S. emerged from World War II as the leader of an alliance of western nations. The period of mostly peaceful competition among nations since then has been referred to as the Pax Americana, the peace that American dominance guarantees.

You don’t have to know very much Latin to know what Pax Americana means. It is pax-americanaintended to be parallel to the Pax Romana and the Pax Britannica and when the Pax Sinica (the peace guaranteed by Chinese ascendancy) is fully in place, they will say it is a parallel expression to the Pax Americana. So I, along with everyone else was familiar with the Pax Americana. It means that the U. S. is the principal guarantor of the dominant international order. But what kind of system is it that we guarantee?
It seems an obvious question, right? I never asked it and never heard it asked. But it showed up in several of the presentations, almost always as a bit player, and after awhile I began to ask it myself. The answer is that America guarantees a “liberal international order” a LIO. That means, according to one of the commentators:

…a new order—an American-led order that involved the creation of the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund. Separate but equally important NATO, the World Trade Organization. These were really the key pieces of architecture of the U. S.-led global order.

This is the architecture of the international order. It is hard to explain to Americans what “liberal” means in this context because both conservatives and liberals in the American political spectrum are Liberals in this historical sense of the term, so I moved on to WIO, a Western-oriented International Order. That has several advantages. For one thing, it clearly means architecture favorable to the West and, really, what other kind of order would the Pax Americana guarantee? Furthermore, if it is true that there will be a Pax Sinica under China, we will have a name ready for the new architecture. It will be EIO. [3]

It will provide something like the World Trade Organization (they have already begun an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) but it will operate with different rules and different priorities. There will be different tariff rules and different rules for military engagement and for financial management. I have no idea what they would be, but they would be guaranteed under the Pax Sinica, (which is an EIO) just as the international rules and institutions oriented toward the West are guaranteed by the WIO.

The new idea to me is that something is guaranteed under the leadership of the leading nation. When we take the trouble to say just what that would be or what it now is, we will know better how to talk about the era and might even catch a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror.

2. Liberty and Equality are not only not the same thing, they are probably not even compatible on the global scale.

First you have to go through detoxification. This particular kind of syntactical poison operates by making any “good” (positively connoted) word the rough equivalent of any other such word. So, brought up on this particular toxin (as you probably were), I was entirely likely to equate liberty and equality on the grounds that they are both good words and we like both of them.

But Jeremy Adelman, commenting on the Cold War confrontation, put it this way.

What the Soviets held out was a model of global integration that was connected to social and economic progress for those at the bottom. Let’s say the American model, liberal internationalism, made a different case. argued that it was not so much the language “the equality of all peoples,” but rather “the liberty of all people.”

Adelman contrasts the rhetorical pitches being made by the U. S. and the Soviet Union as “the liberty of all people” as opposed to “the equality of all peoples.” That’s what detox looked like to me. “Liberty” is the pitch we were making; “equality” is the pitch they were making. We are pitching a process by which everyone is free to pursue whatever it is they want. They are pitching an outcome, where groups that were radically unequal at the beginning have achieved a rough parity by the end.

I’m not arguing that either pitch was sincere or that one would work better than the other. I am remarking that this year, thanks to the Foreign Policy Association, I noticed that liberty is one kind of thing and equality another.

Then, in the program on South Africa, the writer of the script, Mary Patricia Nunan, gives this line to the narrator.

While the racial composition of South Africa’s elite has shifted to some degree, the staggering level of inequality has not. A tiny majority still control most of the industry, land, and economic power.

That took me to the site of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development to look at nations with prominently unequal distributions of income and there I found this, the last two (worst) bars on the right representing South Africa and the United States.Then I remembered, in this new context, that our pitch is all about liberty and we think of liberty as freedom from government control. It is a political issue for us.Screen Shot 2018-03-23 at 7.22.56 AMEquality could be about politics— “one man, one vote” said the Supreme Court in 1963—but it cannot be disconnected from questions of economic equality. South Africa is a good illustration of that, of course, and I already knew that. Allowing the black citizens to vote changed everything politically and almost nothing economically. So what are we doing over there is the next bar to South Africa? That brought Jeremy Adelman’s distinction between liberty and equality right back to me and this time, with some force.
3. America cannot be the hegemon and court valued customers at the same time.

This is another one of those “yeah, of course” realizations. But stop and think for a minute. Where, in the contrast between Western-oriented and Eastern-oriented International Orders, do we see the United States curtailing its role as hegemon so that it can compete in the trade wars along with Europe and China? I’ve read about our hegemony and I’ve read about our trade initiatives, but I have not reconciled our much-heralded “leadership of the Western World”with our courtship of new customers.

While I was preparing for the discussion of our economic relationship with South Africa, I ran across an article by Parag Khanna in the New York Times. Khanna invents the term ‘Second World” to refer to the nations that are just becoming rich enough to be valuable customers. [4]

Screen Shot 2018-03-23 at 7.29.06 AM

When I started thinking of it that way, I found this picture, (above) which represents the latter part of that dilemma. Khanna says that China, Europe, and the U. S. are engaged in all-out courtship of these nations for their trade and their resources. In this picture, I saw the Second World as the attractive woman in the center and China, Europe, and the U. S. (clockwise around the circle) as suitors. And when I began to see commercial “courtship” in this way, the contrast with “American hegemony” became a very sharp contrast.


Sometimes, I guess, the most obvious lessons are the hardest to learn. That is particularly true if you have spent an apprenticeship of…oh…70 years or so in learning not to see the obvious things. But now that I have seen them, I guess they are going to have to compete for mindspace with all the other things I have learned.

[1] From the lesser to the greater. For example, in Luke (23:31) Jesus says, “For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry? Green is the lesser (a minori) and dry the greater (ad maius)

[2] There doesn’t seem to be any way around this unfamiliar word. It is a Greek word ”hegemōn”which means “leader,” just as the German “Fuhrer” does. In common use, it refers to the leading nation among a set of powerful nations. The abstract noun “hegemony” is more familiar to most readers.

[3] The only major downside to this abbreviation is that for most Americans, EIO already means something and McDonald’s farm is not where I want people’s imaginations to be headed.

[4] Rather than the old division where “second world” referred to the communist countries, and “third world” to the poor and underdeveloped ones.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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