Time-Lapse Foreign Policy

In the popular virtual game Civilization, you can build an empire and take over the world in a matter of hours. In other words, you can compress thousands of years of history into one long session in front of your computer. This is the gaming equivalent of time-lapse photography, which allows us to watch the blooming of a flower or the entire life-cycle of a caterpillar in a matter of seconds. Thanks to computer technology, Civilization gives you the illusion of experiencing and controlling epochal change.

Civilization is just a game. Or is it?

Much has been written about how technology has accelerated our modern lives. We now live in a time-lapse era, in which our lives seem to unspool in reel time rather than real time. Our new technologies cut and splice our days so relentlessly that it feels as though someone has depressed the fast-forward button (or perhaps left large chunks on the cutting room floor). We can watch new technologies — VCR, BBS, PDA — emerge, prosper, and then die within a generation. Our brains have become so accustomed to the new pace that when we watch movies and TV shows of previous eras, they seem soooo sloooow.

Has this accelerated pace of modern life — popularized by pop sociologist Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book Future Shock — had any effect on the practice of foreign policy? At first blush, the impact of technology would seem rather obvious. The speed of computing has reduced the decision time and increased the need to multitask for those in the military, those who interact with the global economy, and those who must apply spin to public diplomacy. The Iraq invasion, the recent global economic collapse, the turnaround in U.S. reputation abroad after the 2008 elections: These events owe some of their impact to their rapidity. But we’ve had blitzkriegs, tulip-mania, and rapid political swings in U.S. popularity in the past. The changes in geopolitics that result from new technologies aren’t simply about pace.

Here are four less obvious characteristics of time-lapse foreign policy:

The Volatility of Pendulum Swings: Governments can fall with often surprising speed. The 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe demonstrated that activists didn’t need email or Facebook to bring hundreds of thousands of protestors into the street. But Facebook and other social media can accelerate this process. From Iran to Egypt, “Facebook seems to be an ideal platform for the replacement of governments, as it combines two key attributes: networking and grievance amplification,” I write in Will Facebook Remake the World? “One can easily join groups through Facebook that focus generalized discontent on a single, clear objective.” But this cuts both ways. The Obama campaign used social media to focus discontent with the Bush administration. The Tea Party fought back with the same tools. And now a new Coffee Party has entered the Facebook fray. According to a long-held assumption in politics, the incumbent has an enormous advantage. But the amplification of grievances through social media may well eliminate the incumbents’ edge. The rapid rotation of governments that results from the volatility of focused public opinion will bring new challenges to the conduct of diplomacy.

The Rise and Fall of Empires: The ancient Egyptian empire lasted 3,000 years. The Ethiopians endured for nearly 2,000 years, the Byzantines hung around for 1,100 years, and the Romans rose and fell in 700 years. In the modern period, colonial empires lasted around three centuries or so. And now, after watching the Soviet empire crumble in about 70 years, we may in the space of our lifetimes witness the fall of the U.S. empire. The latest pushback from Tokyo around U.S. bases in Okinawa is only the latest sign that “the American empire of overseas military bases has reached its high-water mark and will soon recede,” I write in Can Japan Say No to Washington? It isn’t so much that technology has shortened the life spans of empires. After all, the Athenians, the Macedonians, and the Danes all had very brief imperial tenures. Rather, our new technologies may spell the end of empires altogether. For one thing, military garrisons are increasingly archaic in an era of satellites and greater force projection over longer distances. More to the point, however, the alliances on which the U.S. empire of bases depends have become subject to the same politics of resentment that has unseated so many governments.

The Arrogance of Nation-Builders: It was almost as if Donald Rumsfeld and his fellow neoconservatives were playing a version of Civilization during the Bush years, when they invaded Iraq and attempted to build a new democratic nation. Rumsfeld and crew believed they could introduce a few elements from the outside and voilá, a nation would emerge. But when nations do successfully cohere these days, it’s because their own citizens built durable political, economic, and social institutions. The forces that technology released into the global arena have very powerful destructive capabilities — taking down tyrants, mobilizing discontent — but they aren’t similarly powerful in their integrative or constructive capabilities. The United States could not “shock and awe” either Afghanistan or Iraq into becoming modern nations. Our technologies often provide us with illusions of omnipotence. Sometimes “slow politics” — locally grown, organic — is as vital as “slow food.”

Stratospheric Expectations: We have come to expect continual upgrades. Every day my smartphone tells me to update applications that I thought I’d just downloaded the week before. So given the pace of change in the world, why haven’t we received any notification of North Korea 2.0? The country has been ruled by one party and two leaders for 65 years. Listen to anyone inside the Beltway following North Korea and it won’t be long before you hear the impatience in their voices: Why can’t Pyongyang just change and be done with it? Several successive administrations in Washington based their North Korea policy on the imminent likelihood of regime collapse and then had to recalibrate when the collapse didn’t happen. Our expectations of change, based if only subliminally on our perception of the ongoing technological revolution in our lives, shouldn’t delude us into abandoning diplomacy for quick fixes (like “surgical strikes”). Talking with people we don’t agree with — the essence of diplomacy — remains an essential component of statecraft.

The more some things change, the more other things stay the same. The revolving door of government is moving ever faster, and the imperial project is perhaps drawing to a close. Yet, technological quick fixes can’t replace the slow and patient work of institution-building and diplomacy, even if our experience of the Internet leads us to expect otherwise. I’m no Luddite. I have my smartphone, my Facebook page, my Twitter account. It’s truly amazing — as well as disorienting — to watch history unfold before our eyes as fully as the blooming flower or the metamorphosing caterpillar. And indeed, corrupt systems and ruthless tyrants are best disposed of in fast-forward.

But we pay a price for all this change.

In his novel Thirteen Moons, Charles Frazier describes an era in the United States that is long past. “All that you had learned in childhood remained largely in effect lifelong. When you got old and approached death, it was not an unrecognizable world you left, for we had not yet learned how to break it apart,” the narrator observes. He ends with a warning: “All I can say is that we are mistaken to gouge such a deep rift in history that the things old men and old women know have become so useless as to be not worth passing on to grandchildren.”

Somehow, in the deep rift that the time-lapse technologies of Facebook and Twitter have cut into our history, we must preserve something of value — the importance of diplomacy, the necessity of institution-building, the virtues of slow as well as fast — to pass on to our grandchildren.

In the Middle East

Elections took place in Iraq this week. The final results won’t be known until the end of the month. But even before the elections, U.S. military officials started talking about delaying the withdrawal of U.S. troops. President Obama promised to remove all combat troops by the end of August. Last week, though, the top U.S. commander in Iraq Army Gen. Ray Odierno put in an official request to keep a combat unit in northern Iraq past that deadline.

“The Iraqi media has been overwhelmed with political statements, analysis, and press releases condemning the possible prolongation of the U.S. occupation,” write Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributors Raed Jarrar and Erik Leaver in Sliding Backwards on Iraq? “In one statement, MP Omar Al-Jubouri, a Sunni from the National Iraqi Coalition, rejected the attempts to change the withdrawal plans, telling the Nina News Agency that while he ‘acknowledges the troubled administrative and security situation,’ he still ‘holds the U.S. forces responsible’ for the deterioration.”Obama is having difficulty explaining other aspects of his Middle East policy. At a recent town hall in Florida, Obama tried to answer a student’s question about why the United States sends so much military aid to Israel and Egypt, both of which have dubious human rights records.

“Obama’s fumbled answer seemed to underscore the administration’s dismissive attitude toward human rights overall,” writes FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes in Obama Fumbles on Human Rights. “Indeed, at the end, Obama even implied that the student’s question was inappropriate, saying, ‘I think that it’s important, when we’re talking about this issue to make sure we don’t use language that’s inflammatory.’ What the president apparently found inflammatory was the very suggestion that the United States should object to human rights abuses committed by its ‘strategic allies.’”

In Africa

The Obama administration doesn’t seem to be doing much better on the human rights front in Africa. Recently, administration officials visited former Nigerian strongman Ibrahim Babangida for an unscheduled meeting.

“Former military dictator Babangida left a legacy of brutality and corruption that’s etched in the minds of most Nigerians, and they fear that the United States may support, or worse, seek his return to power,” writes FPIF contributor Gerald LeMelle in Africa Needs Strong Institutions, Not Strongmen. “With the advent of AFRICOM, which signals further militarization of U.S.-Africa policy and a growing U.S. military presence in Africa, many Africans are paying close attention to U.S. relationships with former and current dictators.”

The administration doesn’t score much better on its Africa policy overall. Giving the administration a C, FPIF contributor Tope Folarin notes that “despite the quickness of response in Sudan and the number of countries visited by senior administration officials,” its record is mixed: “not enough resources devoted to pressing problems and too many resources allocated to the military.”

In the Pentagon

Speaking of misallocations, the military budget has continued to rise under the Obama administration. But compared to the numbers during the Bush years, the growth doesn’t seem quite so cancerous.

FPIF contributor Carl Conetta urges us to think again. “The rise in spending since 1998 is unprecedented over a 48-year period,” he writes in The Pentagon’s Runaway Budget. “In real percentage terms, it’s as large as the Kennedy-Johnson surge (43 percent) and the Reagan increases (57 percent) combined. Whether one looks at the entire Pentagon budget or just that part not related to the wars, current spending is above the peak years of the Vietnam War era and the Reagan years. And it’s set to remain there. Looking forward, the Obama administration plans to spend more on the Pentagon over the next eight years than any administration since World War II.”

Last week was the 56th anniversary of the first hydrogen bomb test on Bikini Atoll. “In February 1946 Commodore Ben H. Wyatt, then the U.S. military governor of the Marshall Islands, traveled to Bikini to ask the people if they would leave their atoll temporarily so that the United States could test atomic bombs for ‘the good of mankind and to end all world wars,’” writes FPIF contributor Gwyn Kirk in The Other Nuclear Survivors. “The islanders agreed to this lofty-sounding goal. Fifty-six years later, they still cannot return to their island due to the continuing effects of radioactive contamination on the land, water, vegetation, fish, and shellfish. Bikini Atoll remains uninhabitable to this day.”

Finally, here’s news from the cigarette wars. Philip Morris has been working hard to twist the arm of the Uruguayan government. “On February 19, the tobacco giant filed a lawsuit against that country, charging that new health measures involving cigarette packaging amount to unfair treatment of the company,” write FPIF contributors Juan Antonio Montecino and Rebecca Dreyfus in Philip Morris vs. Uruguay. It turns out that the tobacco company is depending more and more on overseas sales now that the market is drying up in the United States. And it’s using every tactic at its disposal, including intellectual property rights provisions in trade agreements, to make sure that those warnings about the hazards of cigarette smoking are as small as possible.

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.