Political Animal

Medieval

MEDIEVAL….Andrew Stuttaford today in The Corner:

All this talk about ancient science reminds me of a story I read some years ago in the Economist quoting a report that looked at the level of scientific knowledge held by the UK’s teachers (excluding, I presume, science teachers). The conclusion? Depressing. Significant portions of the scientific wisdom of the late medieval era (Sun goes round the Earth and so on) were still believed by a substantial proportion of the nation’s “educators.”

This is the kind of thing that drives me nuts. Do teachers, for example, believe that heavy objects fall faster than light ones? Maybe ? especially since it’s perfectly true on any planet with an atmosphere. But do they believe that the sun revolves around the earth? I think not.

I don’t doubt that there are problems with our educational system, but it’s shrill “can you believe that our kids don’t know [blank]?!?” stuff like this that gets big headlines but completely poisons any reasonable discourse.

I don’t suppose there’s anyone out there who knows which study Stuttaford is talking about? Hopefully I won’t have to eat my words about this….

UPDATE: John Derbyshire agrees that this is horrific. This is from the same guy who told us just the other day that he didn’t really care if his mechanic ? or his president ? believed in evolution.

UPDATE 2: I just got back from lunch and read the comments, and I guess I’d better clear something up. My throwaway line about heavy vs. light objects was meant to refer to the fact that given two otherwise identical objects, the light one will generally fall more slowly due to air resistance. That’s all.

And speaking of physics oddities, did you know that the kilogram is a measure of mass while the pound is a measure of weight (i.e., force)? I have not yet succeeded in persuading my mother of this.

The United Nations

THE UNITED NATIONS….Writing the post below (about reconstructing Iraq) reminded me that I get asked a lot why I think we should continue to take the United Nations seriously. The UN does indeed have a lot of problems, some of them inherent in any international organization, but regardless of this there are only a few options for how we can conduct both the war on terrorism and our broader relations with the world. If I can be simplistic for a moment, the options are these:

  • On our own. This is a nonstarter: America may be the most powerful country in the world, but we are not omnipotent and we simply can’t reach our goals without help. In fact, this path would almost certainly lead to ever increasing hostility from the rest of the world and the eventual marginalization of American interests.

  • Ad hoc bilateral relations. This seems to be the primary strategy of the Bush administration and it might work for a short time. In the end, though, our partners will quickly realize that we are interested in them only as long as they support our positions, and no one is going to be willing to support all our positions all the time. Thus, before long, the alliances will break down unless the U.S. is willing to compromise, and if we’re willing to compromise why not keep the international organizations in the first place? There’s a lot of useful infrastructure there that can’t be duplicated by bilateral alliances.

  • A new international organization to replace the UN. This sounds good in bull sessions, but in the real world it’s just not going to happen. This option is hardly worth discussing.

  • The United Nations. The only option left.

So that’s it. Despite its myriad problems, my view is that the UN is the best of a bunch of difficult choices. It’s only one piece of the total foreign relations picture, but it’s an important one that can be steadily improved if we stick with it.

I’m certainly open to opposing arguments on this, as long as they are rooted in the real world and don’t assume that the United States is completely unchallengeable, so feel free to take your best shots. Comments are only a link away!

Reconstructing Iraq

RECONSTRUCTING IRAQ….Never one to let a challenge slip by, I clicked over to the Washington Post yesterday to read an op-ed by OxWife Rachel Belton in which she argues that a multinational coalition is a bad way to go about nation building:

Coalitions diffuse responsibility. When Bosnia failed to arrest war criminals, each coalition member could blame its compatriots. No one felt responsible for ensuring the legitimacy of the coalition — or the success of the country.

….Reconstruction efforts often become the battlefields for unconnected struggles between coalition members. To gain the upper hand, “internationals” dissipate their time and energy playing politics against one another.

No real argument so far. In fact I might even go further: some members of a broad coalition might be actively hoping for failure as a way to prove that they were right to oppose the war all along. Not a pretty thought, but an all too human one, I’m afraid.

Unfortunately, while Belton lists several knocks against international coalitions, she fails to address their biggest positive: they provide a broad acceptance of the effort that the United States is almost certain to lack on its own. In fact, the occupation of Germany and Japan after World War II, which she uses as examples of unilateral nation building by the U.S. military, actually contradicts her thesis. Both of these reconstruction efforts, even if they were led by the United States, had the full support of nearly the entire World War II coalition, and that was key to their success. Legitimacy was never an issue.

More important, however, is that World War II is simply a lousy historical parallel. Comparing the conclusion of a 4-week war in Iraq with the conclusion of the longest, bloodiest, war of the 20th century just doesn’t wash, and I’m surprised to see a comparison like that from a serious writer. Kosovo and Afghanistan are better examples, which she sees as failures of international cooperation, but which strike me failures of will instead. We simply haven’t been serious enough about them.

The growth of democracy in the former Iron Curtain countries is another reasonable parallel, but this doesn’t fit her thesis and therefore doesn’t get mentioned. These countries have done quite well, and a big part of the credit has to go to the EU, which provided aid, technical assistance, and the promise of eventual entry to the EU club. In this case, an international organization did quite well.

In the end, though, it turns out that Belton and I partly agree:

The United Nations and other international organizations are staffed by many capable, intelligent, well-intentioned people. They should be encouraged to run humanitarian relief efforts in Iraq and should create a broad, multilateral coalition to control Iraq’s oil revenue to expunge the accusation that this has been a war for oil.

That’s exactly right, and for the right reason: giving the UN control over oil revenue would prove ? at least partially ? that we went to war for the right reasons, and like it or not, this is something that a large part of the world doesn’t believe. In the real world, this is a compromise I could live with for now.