Russil Wvong / History, politics, the future / FAQ

    1.  Newsgroup purpose
    2.  Newsgroup guidelines
    3.  Basics of international politics
    4.  Different views of international politics

1.  What's the purpose of

From the List of Active Newsgroups:      Diplomacy, cooperation, conflict

The purpose of this newsgroup is discussion of political issues that
are international (involving more than one country), whether bilateral
(involving two countries), multilateral, or global.

Anyone who's interested in international politics -- for example, the
kind of issues that get covered in international news, or in
publications such as Foreign Affairs or the Economist -- is welcome to

If you can't find on your local news server,
you'll need to make a request to your Internet Service Provider
to add it.

Some examples of on-topic discussions:

  - Books and articles on international politics
  - Disputes over territory
  - Current and future challenges to the international status quo
  - Why is the world so unequal?
  - Should the US try to overthrow Saddam Hussein?
  - Southern Kuriles dispute between Russia and Japan
  - Future Chinese hegemony in East Asia?
  - The failure of the international community in Bosnia and Rwanda
  - Realism in US foreign policy:  the founders, Kennan, Kissinger
  - Why is Robert Kaplan such a pessimist?
  - Wolfowitz vs. Powell
  - Impact of resource scarcity on future conflicts

Criticism of country X's foreign policy from people in country Y is
also on-topic, as long as it's intelligent criticism, not just

    "If it weren't for us, you'd all be speaking Russian!  Or German!"
    "I do speak German.  Russian, too."
        -- The Moral Bullet, by Bruce Sterling and John Kessel

2.  Guidelines

2.1.  Please don't cross-post!

Cross-posting is the bane of politics newsgroups: it melds multiple
newsgroups into one big unhappy dysfunctional newsgroup.  Please
DO NOT cross-post to other newsgroups.

If someone else cross-posts to, especially
if it's an inflammatory topic ("The US is the world's leading
terrorist state!"), and you post a followup, please remove from the Newsgroups line.  Otherwise, will get swamped by trolls.

As a further preventive measure, please put [api] in the Subject
line when posting to  This will let
readers easily see which threads are not cross-posted.

    [api] Current balance of power in Asia
    Re: [api] Current balance of power in Asia

2.2. Newsgroups for specific topics

There's a number of newsgroups for discussing more specific topics. -- radical-left view of international politics -- the United Nations
    alt.war -- discussion of current wars, war in general
    alt.war.nuclear -- weapons of mass destruction
    soc.history.* -- discussion of historical issues
    soc.history.future -- discussion of the future
    soc.history.war.misc -- discussion of wars
    talk.politics.mideast -- discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict
    talk.politics.misc -- traditional newsgroup for US domestic politics
    us.politics -- new newsgroup for US domestic politics

2.3. Flaming

Political arguments, given their nature, tend to be quite heated.  If
you get into an argument yourself, I'd encourage you to refrain from
indulging in self-righteous abuse of the other person; even if you
disagree strongly with what the other person is saying, or regard them
as immoral, readers will take you more seriously if you restrain
yourself from making personal attacks.

It's useful to keep the following rules in mind:

  - Don't be offensive.
  - Don't be easily offended.

It's also helpful to keep in mind that your ability to change the
other person's mind is limited, as is the ability of the other person
to change *your* mind.  At most, you may be able to convince other
people who are reading the thread, so try to keep them in mind.

It's human nature to filter new evidence through one's existing
beliefs, as described by William James:

    The observable process which Schiller and Dewey particularly
    singled out for generalization is the familiar one by which any
    individual settles into *new opinions*.  The process here is
    always the same.  The individual has a stock of old opinions
    already, but he meets a new experience that puts them to a strain.
    Somebody contradicts them; or in a reflective moment he discovers
    that they contradict each other; or he hears of facts with which
    they are incompatible; or desires arise in him which they cease
    to satisfy.  The result is an inward trouble to which his mind
    till then had been a stranger, and from which he seeks to escape
    by modifying his previous mass of opinions.  He saves as much of it
    as he can, for in this matter of belief we are all extreme
    conservatives.  So he tries to change first this opinion, and then
    that (for they resist change very variously), until at last some
    new idea comes up which he can graft upon the ancient stock with
    a minimum of disturbance of the latter, some idea that mediates
    between the stock and the new experience and runs them into one
    another most felicitously and expediently.

    ... Loyalty to [existing beliefs] is the first principle--in most
    cases it is the only principle; for by far the most usual way of
    handling phenomena so novel that they would make for a serious
    rearrangement of our preconceptions is to ignore them altogether,
    or to abuse those who bear witness for them.
    ["What Pragmatism Means"]

Maintaining a sense of humor and a sense of perspective also helps to
avoid flaming.

Finally, you may find it helpful to read George Orwell's "Notes on
Nationalism", which discusses how excessive partisanship endangers
one's grasp of reality and one's sense of right and wrong:

2.4. Checking the reliability of information

There's a lot of partisan misinformation on the Internet.  This isn't
a new problem.  Orwell wrote in 1945:

    Much of the propagandist writing of our time amounts to plain
    forgery. Material facts are suppressed, dates altered, quotations
    removed from their context and doctored so as to change their
    meaning. Events which it is felt ought not to have happened are
    left unmentioned and ultimately denied.

If you're following an argument and trying to figure out who's right,
particularly when it comes to a question of history, keep in mind that
you need an accurate picture of the facts before you can make moral
judgments.  You may find it helpful to do some "triangulation" to
check the reliability of the sources that are being cited.  To check
what author A says about X -- assuming that X isn't a subject I know
much about -- I find a number of techniques to be useful:

  - Find something I *do* know about, and see what A has to say
    about it.  Same principle as checking the reliability of a
    telephone book by looking up your own listing.

  - Find out what other people have to say about X.
  - Find out what other people have to say about A's discussion
    of X -- book reviews, for example.

The Internet and Google make it pretty easy to do this even for
an author you've never heard of.  If there's not much commentary
available on-line, consider looking them up at your local library.

Keeping in mind the natural tendency to filter new information
through one's existing beliefs, and thus to be much less skeptical
of evidence which happens to confirm one's existing beliefs, I find
it useful to apply the same triangulation technique to evidence
that I post in support of my own arguments; it's quite possible
that when I came across the evidence in the past I accepted it
uncritically instead of checking its reliability.

A few resources I find particularly useful:
  - Yahoo! News Full Coverage,
    Provides the latest news stories from wire services and newspapers,
    as well as detailed background information, *for every country in
    the world*.  Very useful for following a continuing crisis, as
    well as tracking what happens afterward.

  - The New York Review of Books,  A one-year
    subscription to the full archive, containing 15,000 articles
    dating back to 1963, is $62; several articles from each issue are
    available for free.  Excellent book reviews and commentary on
    history and politics, by well-known writers; clean and fast web

  - The Library of Congress Country Studies.

  - H-DIPLO:  a mailing list for diplomatic historians.

If you have time to read books, here's a list of books that I'd
recommend for more background information on world history and
international politics.  If you only have time to read one book, I'd
recommend "Politics Among Nations."

    Hans Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations (1948, 6th ed. 1985)
    Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1988)
    William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1959)
    John Toland, The Rising Sun (1970)
    Louis Halle, The Cold War as History (1967)
    Maurice Meisner, Mao's China and After (1977, 3rd ed. 1999)
    Thomas Skidmore and Peter Smith, Modern Latin America (5th ed. 2000)
    William Polk, The Arab World Today (5th ed. 1991)
    Roland Oliver and J. D. Fage, A Short History of Africa (6th ed. 1988)
    Roy Gutman and David Rieff, eds., Crimes of War (1999)

Also see the University of Chicago's reading list:

3.  Basics of international politics

The following is a sketch of some of the basics of international
politics, based on "Politics Among Nations."  It's divided into
two parts.  The first part is *descriptive*, based on world history.
The second part is *prescriptive*, discussing how international
politics *should* be conducted.

3.1. Descriptive

3.1.1. The nature of international politics

International politics is primarily about *power*.

International politics differs from domestic politics because it's
*anarchic*.  Within a country, the state has a monopoly on the use of
force; the state defines the laws, and imprisons or kills anyone who
breaks them.  But there's no such monopoly on violence at the
international level.  Disputes which cannot be resolved through
negotiation are often resolved through force, i.e. war.  If the world
is a global village, it's like a village with no governing authority,
great disparities in wealth and power, and individuals who are heavily
armed and willing to use violence.

Historically, states have been able to maintain their independence
under these conditions through the *balance of power*.  Each state
attempts to protect itself against a perceived threat by allying
itself with other states which face the same threat; if one state
becomes powerful enough to threaten everyone, it will face a
formidable alliance of opposing states.

*Power* does not mean military power alone.  The exercise of power is
primarily psychological, rather than physical: it refers to the
ability to impose one's will on someone else, to convince someone to
change their mind, whether this is through threats, promises, or

The states which have the most power at any given time are known as
the *Great Powers*.

3.1.2. Great Power conflicts, 1500 to the present

European history from 1500 onward is the history of successive powers,
each the strongest European power of its time, attempting to conquer
all the rest through war and being checked by an opposing alliance:
Spain under Charles V and Philip II from 1519 to 1659, France under
Louis XIV and Napoleon from 1660 to 1815, Germany under Wilhelm II
from 1914 to 1918.  After the first World War ended, the League of
Nations was established to resolve future international conflicts
peacefully, based on the mistaken belief that all countries had an
identical interest in peace; it proved to be unable to deal with the
challenges presented to the status quo by Germany under Hitler, the
Soviet Union, and Japan.  World War II, in which Britain and the
United States allied with the Soviet Union against Germany and Japan,
was followed by the Cold War, in which the United States and its
allies confronted the Soviet Union, with massive nuclear arsenals on
both sides.  Hannah Arendt wrote despairingly in 1951:

    Two World Wars in one generation, separated by an uninterrupted
    chain of local wars and revolutions, followed by no peace treaty
    for the vanquished and no respite for the victor, have ended in
    the anticipation of a third World War between the two remaining
    world powers.  This moment of anticipation is like the calm that
    settles after all hopes have died.

In fact the world came close to nuclear war a number of times, notably
during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962; but the Cold War
finally ended in 1989, with the breakdown of Soviet control over its
satellites in Eastern Europe.

3.1.3. Evaluating the distribution of power

Peace -- that is, the absence of war -- depends critically on the
*relative distribution of power* between the countries seeking to
maintain the status quo and those opposed to it.  During the period
between the two world wars, France, Britain, and the US were
outmatched by the rising power of Germany, the Soviet Union, and
Japan, all opposed to the existing distribution of power.  The League
of Nations and the Kellogg-Briand Pact (which outlawed war) proved to
be ineffective in maintaining the status quo; what mattered was the
distribution of power.

*Evaluating* the distribution of power is very difficult, because of
the complexity of the task: the number of factors involved --
geography, population, economics, technological developments, military
strength, leadership, national morale; the interactions between these
factors; comparing the relative power of different countries;
predicting how the distribution of power will change in the future.
History never comes to a stop; there's no reason to think that the
most powerful nation at one point -- France in the 17th and 18th
centuries, for example -- will still be the most powerful in the

In fact, it's impossible to evaluate the distribution of power with
any kind of certainty, which makes it necessary to rely on the
intuition and hunches of experienced observers.  Inevitably, people
make mistakes.  During World War II, the West's appeasement of Germany
is one example; Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union is another;
Japan's attack on the United States is a third.

3.2. Prescriptive

3.2.1. Alternatives to power politics

Given the destructiveness of modern war, why haven't we been able to
find a way to avoid resorting to violence, based on morality and law
rather than power politics?

This actually works reasonably well *within* countries such as the US
and Canada; there's enough of a shared value system to allow people to
trust each other and get along with each other, based on laws,
customs, and shared knowledge of what's considered appropriate

But this isn't true at the international level.  We don't have a
common value system; the value placed on human life varies greatly
from one society to another, for example.  And the international laws
that do exist (such as laws against indiscriminate killing of
civilians) don't have effective enforcement mechanisms.  If a state
decides that it's powerful enough to flout the agreements that it's
signed (e.g. Germany under Hitler), nobody can do anything about it
unless they're willing to fight a war.

Moreover, in a community such as the US or Canada, the status quo is
accepted by everyone.  This is not true at the international level.
There are many reasons that states may oppose the status quo and seek
to revise it (known as "revisionist" powers): it's human nature to
feel keenly the grievances and humiliations inflicted on oneself by
others, while disregarding those that you inflict on other people.
Similarly, it's human nature to resent and oppose others' desire to
gain power over you, while viewing one's own desire for power over
others as natural and just.  And, of course, there's any number of
ideological justifications for the pursuit of power over others.

Of course everyone claims to want peace, but what this really means is
that they'd like to achieve their goals without having to resort to
violence.  E. H. Carr, "The 20 Years' Crisis 1919-1939", written
just before World War II broke out:

    Politically, the [incorrect] doctrine of the identity of interests
    has commonly taken the form of an assumption that every nation has
    an identical interest in peace, and that any nation which desires
    to disturb the peace is therefore both irrational and
    immoral. This view bears clear marks of its Anglo-Saxon origin. It
    was easy after 1918 to convince that part of mankind which lives
    in English-speaking countries that war profits nobody. The
    argument did not seem particularly convincing to Germans, who had
    profited largely from the wars of 1866 and 1870, and attributed
    their more recent sufferings, not to the war of 1914, but to the
    fact that they had lost it; or to Italians, who blamed not the
    war, but the treachery of allies who defrauded them in the peace
    settlement; or to Poles or Czecho-Slovaks who, far from deploring
    the war, owed their national existence to it; or to Frenchmen, who
    could not unreservedly regret a war which had restored
    Alsace-Lorraine to France; or to people of other nationalities who
    remembered profitable wars waged by Great Britain and the United
    States in the past. But these people had fortunately little
    influence over the formation of current theories of international
    relations, which emanated almost exclusively from the
    English-speaking countries. British and American writers continued
    to assume that the uselessness of war had been irrefutably
    demonstrated by the experience of 1914-18, and that an
    intellectual grasp of this fact was all that was necessary to
    induce the nations to keep the peace in the future; and they were
    sincerely puzzled as well as disappointed at the failure of other
    countries to share this view.

    The confusion was increased by the ostentatious readiness of other
    countries to flatter the Anglo-Saxon world by repeating its
    slogans. In the fifteen years after the first world war, every
    Great Power (except, perhaps, Italy) repeatedly did lip-service to
    the doctrine by declaring peace to be one of the main objects of
    its policy. But as Lenin observed long ago, peace in itself is a
    meaningless aim. "Absolutely everybody is in favor of peace in
    general," he wrote in 1915, "including Kitchener, Joffre,
    Hindenburg and Nicholas the Bloody, for everyone of them wishes to
    end the war." The common interest in peace masks the fact that
    some nations desire to maintain the status quo without having to
    fight for it, and others to change the status quo without having
    to fight in order to do so.

Of course it's possible that at some point in the future, it will be
possible to resolve international conflicts without resorting to
violence.  Certainly it seems improbable that a war will ever be
fought again between the nations of the West.  However, it's worth
remembering that it took a great deal of bloodshed to reach this
point; that a great deal of the progress towards unification of
Western Europe took place while facing the common threat of the Soviet
Union; and that the nations of Western Europe shared an underlying set
of values to begin with.

And finally, there's the Roman Empire solution: one state conquers all
the rest, and imposes law and order.  This is Thomas Hobbes's answer:
you need a sovereign ruler with a monopoly on force.  The ruler
defines the laws of the society, and imprisons or kills anyone who
breaks them.  In the modern world, I don't believe that this can be
done.  There's no state that's powerful enough to conquer the entire
world, not even the United States.

3.2.2. Power politics and foreign policy

Foreign policy requires *balancing means and ends*.  It's foolish and
dangerous to set grandiose objectives without thinking about the
resources required to meet these objectives, or indeed if these
objectives can be reached at all.

*War is a means*, not an end in itself.  Threats may be an important
part of diplomacy, along with negotiation and compromise, but resort
to actual war, with its violence, uncertainty, and destructiveness,
indicates that diplomacy has failed.  Military strategy should be
subordinate to a broader political strategy.

In the event of war, it's even more important to keep in mind that
military victory is not an end in itself, only a means.  The objective
is not physical -- the destruction of the opposing military force --
but *psychological*: the objective is to convince your opponent to
change a policy that conflicts with yours.  A successful military
strategy is one that accomplishes this goal with the minimum force

If a war cannot be won quickly -- and most Great Power wars in the
past have turned into tests of endurance -- then the outcome of the
war is likely to be heavily influenced by *economics*: that is, which
side is capable of maintaining a greater productive capacity over the
long term.

If war is to be avoided, it's necessary to be willing to *compromise*
on all issues that are not vital.  This in turn requires a clear
definition of one's vital interests -- that is, those which affect the
security and well-being of one's citizens; an understanding of the
other side's vital interests; and an ability to put aside
self-righteousness, which is fatal to compromise.

Morality in foreign policy requires *prudence* -- the weighing of the
consequences of alternative actions.  A policy which leads to disaster
cannot claim to be moral.

*Moderation* is also critical in foreign policy, for both moral and
practical reasons.  Given the uncertainties involved in international
politics, the tendency to disregard or justify actions which harm
others, and the limitations of one's ability to foresee the
consequences of one's actions, it's important to exercise
self-restraint in using one's power.  Hans Morgenthau describes the

    fear and trembling with which great statesmen have approached
    their task, knowing that in trying to mould the political world
    they must act like gods, without the knowledge, the wisdom, the
    power, and the goodness which their task demands.

The religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries may be over, but
there are many substitutes for religion which provide the same
moral certainty and self-righteousness, making it extremely difficult
to pursue a moderate policy, let alone to compromise with an enemy
seen as wholly evil.  Similarly, moderation has become more and more
difficult, and more and more vital, as the destructive power of
military technology has increased.

Today, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States is
the most powerful nation in the world.  History suggests that it
should use its power with moderation and restraint, rather than
throwing its weight around.  Hans Morgenthau:

    A nation that throws into the scale of international politics the
    maximum of material power it is capable of mustering will find
    itself confronted with the maximum effort of all its competitors
    to equal or surpass its power.  It will find that it has no
    friends, only vassals and enemies. ...

    The only nation that in modern times could maintain a continuous
    position of preponderance owed that position to a rare combination
    of potential superior power, a reputation for superior power, and
    the infrequent use of that superior power.  Thus Great Britain was
    able, on the one hand, to overcome all serious challenges to its
    superiority because its self-restraint gained powerful allies and,
    hence, made it actually superior.  On the other hand, it could
    minimize the incentive to challenge it because its superiority did
    not threaten the existence of other nations.

3.2.3. Laws of war

Despite the anarchic nature of international politics, it's generally
accepted (at least in the West) that you have to draw the line

International morality, at least as it's commonly accepted in the
West, prohibits killing during peacetime, no matter what the benefits
might be.  (For example, Churchill rejected Stalin's proposal that
several thousand German leaders and officers be taken out and shot, in
order to prevent future German militarism.)

During wartime, the laws of war (again, as commonly accepted in the
West) require protection of non-combatants, including civilians as
well as soldiers who surrender or are captured.  They can't be
tortured, raped, summarily executed, starved, or worked to death.

Attacks on military targets may endanger non-combatants.  The laws of
war recognize this, and require *proportionality*: the risk to
non-combatants must be proportional to the military benefit of the
action.  Bombing an entire city, for example, as happened on both
sides during World War II, violates the laws of war.  Destroying a dam
or nuclear power plant is prohibited if it would release deadly forces
endangering civilians.  Smart bombs which miss their target and kill
civilians do *not* violate the laws of war, provided that reasonable
precautions were taken to prevent this from happening.

Both sides violated the laws of war during World War II.  The US
violated the laws of war during the Vietnam War, but not during the
Gulf War -- in fact, the US military was calling the Red Cross several
times a week to find out whether particular actions were allowed or not.

How can the laws of war be enforced?

If an army accepts the laws of war, and individuals within the army
violate those laws, then they can be punished by military
court-martial.  But what if both sides in a war routinely violate the
laws of war, as happened during World War II?

Once the war is over, the victor can put the loser on trial, as
happened with the Nuremberg Trials.  But nobody has the power to put
the victor on trial.  We live in a self-help world (an anarchy, in
other words); we don't have a world government.  Most international
law imposes reciprocal obligations, and is therefore self-enforcing,
but this isn't the case when it comes to war.

So the laws of war are more like a voluntary code of conduct, based on
principles of honor, than what we usually think of as laws.  The Red
Cross works with governments and armies to promote awareness of the
laws of war, and the Red Cross and other NGOs work to monitor
violations of the laws of war.

There's a very ugly question here: given a choice between adhering to
the laws of war and losing, or violating the laws of war and winning,
which do you choose?  George Kennan's answer (contemplating the ruins
of Hamburg, in "Sketches from a Life") is that you need to maintain a
sufficient margin of power over your rivals to ensure that you don't
have to make this decision, to ensure that you can win without
violating the laws of war -- even if your opponent does.

4.  Different views of international politics

The following is a very crude sketch; my apologies in advance.

Major schools of thought in the US:

  - Realist (George Kennan):  the Cold War was an abnormal situation.  Now
    that the Soviet threat no longer exists, the US ought to follow a much
    more modest and restrained foreign policy; to be one of several great
    powers in a multipolar world, not a superpower.

    Owen Harries, "Understanding America"

        Let me draw this talk to a close on a personal note. During the
        1990s I spent a lot of time arguing with a lot of conservative
        American friends that the United States should use its position
        of dominance, its vast power, with restraint, discrimination and
        prudence. I argued that anything resembling a "democratic crusade"
        or the imposition of a "New World Order" was a bad idea--first
        because democracy is not an export commodity but a do-it-yourself
        enterprise that requires very special conditions; and secondly
        because an assertive, interventionist policy was bound to generate
        widespread hostility, suspicion, and if historical precedents
        meant anything, concerted opposition to the United States.

  - Liberal (Clinton):  the US ought to use its dominance to work for the
    extension of democracy and human rights throughout the world, and the
    strengthening of international law and multilateralism.

    Joseph Nye, "The New Rome Meets the New Barbarians"

        Granted, there are few pure multilateralists in practice, and
        multilateralism can be used by smaller states to tie the United
        States down like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, but this does
        not mean that a multilateral approach is not generally in America's
        interests. By embedding its policies in a multilateral framework,
        the United States can make its disproportionate power more
        legitimate and acceptable to others. No large power can afford to
        be purely multilateralist, but that should be the starting point
        for policy. And when that great power defines its national
        interests broadly to include global interests, some degree of
        unilateralism is more likely to be acceptable. Such an approach
        will be crucial to the longevity of American power. 

  - Neoconservative (Bush):  the US ought to maintain its "benevolent
    hegemony."  Rejects multilateralism.

    William Kristol and Robert Kagan, "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy"

        The ubiquitous post-Cold War question -- where is the threat? --
        is thus misconceived. In a world in which peace and American
        security depend on American power and the will to use it, the
        main threat the United States faces now and in the future is its
        own weakness. American hegemony is the only reliable defense
        against a breakdown of peace and international order. The
        appropriate goal of American foreign policy, therefore, is to
        preserve that hegemony as far into the future as possible.
        To achieve this goal, the United States needs a neo-Reaganite
        foreign policy of military supremacy and moral confidence.

Also see the references discussed in

Views elsewhere in the West (UK, France, Germany):  generally
liberal, with a tendency towards wariness of the US and especially
US neo-conservatism.  Generally supportive of the status quo.

I'm not sure I know enough about other parts of the world to make
intelligent comments, but here's an even more crude sketch.

  - Russia:  seeks to prevent US hegemony, maintain and rebuild
    its power and independence.  Debate between cooperation with
    the West and obstruction.

  - China:  the biggest issue is probably Taiwan, where there's
    a delicate balance of power with the US.  Also faces hostile
    regional powers:  India, Vietnam.

  - The Arab and Islamic countries:  the status quo is viewed as
    unjust, the two most important grievances being the
    Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the sanctions against Iraq.
    Bitterness towards the US in particular.  Lacks unity.
    Seeks nuclear weapons as an "equalizer" against conventional
    military superiority of the US.  Turkey an important exception
    (secular, NATO member, seeking EU membership).  Some other
    important states:  Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia.

Russil Wvong
Vancouver, Canada

$Date: 2003/01/12 09:58:50 $