The physicist Richard Feynman was once asked by a US Congressional defence committee what the latest multi-billion dollar atom smasher had to do with defence of the nation, from whose budget it was to be built. “It may make the nation worth defending,” he replied. Today, on Hong Kong’s National Security Education Day, it is perhaps worth pausing to consider what makes a nation – any nation – worth securing.
First, a confession. I’m not a great believer in nationhood. To me, it’s a dated concept, something which cropped up in Europe during the Hundred Years’ War, which served a somewhat useful purpose in keeping Europe at peace during the colonial era – freeing Europeans to plunder the rest of the world – but which is now past its sell-by date. The problems we face as a species go far beyond what any single nation can hope to achieve and, more often than not, the vested interests of nationhood obstruct solutions to those problems.
The oceans are a classic case where nations and national interests are part of the problem, not the solution. Over-fishing has decimated fish stocks everywhere. Just about every species of fish that we humans eat has seen populations plummet by as much as 97 per cent since the 1970s – the bluefin tuna is endangered and sharks are not far behind. Yet, instead of coming together as the human race to find ways of giving our oceans a breather, Japan continues to plunder bluefin tuna (and – why, oh why? – whales). China goes after sharks, and the Dutch have even invented a boat that delivers electric shocks to the seabed – a football-field sized area at a time – in order to flip flounders out of the mud and annihilate everything else.
Narrow national interests such as these, supported by the tired old “It’s part of our culture” excuse (so were torture and slavery – we learn and move on), hinder efforts to leave the world a better place for our children. How can nations ask for sacrifice when their actions on so many global problems not only leave a worse legacy, but are set to bequeath a torched Planet Earth?
However, nations are not going away any time soon, so the issue is how to make the best of them. What in general would make a nation worth securing? Or, to put it a different way, how could a nation conduct itself in such a way that a rational self-interested person would accept some sacrifice on behalf of his or her country?
A good starting point, as I’ve suggested, is to set aside national interests when it comes to global problems. Utopian, I suppose, so let’s start with the obvious: wars of aggression. There was a time when these were part of the rough and tumble of life; it’s what we humans did as a species. There was little or no need to apologise for starting one. You borrowed some money, raised an army and set off to plunder. If you did well, you plundered more than you borrowed; if you did badly, you probably didn’t come back so it didn’t much matter.
Those days of open aggression are – largely – behind us. The trick nowadays is to create circumstances that justify a pre-emptive attack. Russia when it annexed Crimea, the U.S. when it invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq, are wars that need not have happened. There were peaceful solutions available to represent the interests of Russians in Ukraine, and the 9-11 attackers were, almost to a man, Saudi Arabians. Nevertheless, these wars were presented as wars that were just: they were purportedly fought to combat the injustice faced by Russians in the Crimean Peninsula, and to prevent another 9-11.
I personally think that these wars were inappropriate and disproportionate, but many would differ. So, although we may disagree about what is a just or an unjust war, I think we can agree that, at least in our era today, an unjust war does not leave a better world for our children. And, by extension, a nation that starts unjust wars is not a nation worth securing.
The trouble with unjust wars is that the most pernicious ones are waged internally. Take America’s “War on Drugs.” This was started by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, has been waged for my entire adult life, and the only effect it has had is the creation of a massive and very lucrative industry built on misery.
When we think of the criminal class it has created, we tend to think of the kingpins, street-corner peddlers and the hopelessly addicted. But also subject to its misery are staff in bank compliance departments trawling through mind-numbing and pointless Anti-Money Laundering procedures, large swathes of just about every law-enforcement department everywhere, plus a large proportion of the prison population and its attendant prison officers, Bankers want to lend money, policemen to catch crooks and murderers, and prison officers to cater for prisoners who can be rehabilitated. Yet all of these activities are corrupted (and I don’t mean that in the pecuniary sense) by the “War” on Drugs. I don’t pretend to have a solution for drugs, but the indiscriminate and disproportionate nature of this war accords it a place on the list of unjust wars – and any nation that fights it corrodes its own right to call for sacrifice by its citizens.
Then we come to the War on Terror. In America’s case, this is not an internal war – one mass-shooting after another is proof enough of that – but an excuse to go off and kill people in other nations. Real terrorism, though, always emerges from within. It is conducted by those who are sufficiently angry and excluded to commit such acts. Some are plain angry, some are excluded – those are part of the human condition – but some are angry because they’re excluded. And nations that create the conditions for that exclusion, and for the righteous anger that follows, diminish themselves.
Thus we come to Hong Kong. The Umbrella Movement in 2014 and the protests in 2019 were, at heart, about exclusion. Economic, political and social exclusion, all in various degrees. Many of those protesting were on the one hand angry at that exclusion, and on the other hand willing to make sacrifices not for the nation as it was, but for the nation as they wanted it to be.
The government’s response has been blanket denial. Those who are righteously angry at the political or economic exclusion they face are labelled as terrorists, secessionists or subversives and thrown in prison. To the extent that the establishment recognises there is a problem, its response is typified by Charles Wong, founder of the Bauhinia Party, in his interview with the HKFP: “the prosperity, the harmony, the stability [of] people … counts above anything else.”
Throughout this article, I have used justice – just wars without and within – as the lynchpin of what makes a nation worth securing. From Aristotle to Abraham (Genesis 18 lays the groundwork for the presumption of innocence), justice underlies a long tradition of Western thought. But justice is not the deal on the table from China. What China offers is moderate material prosperity. A nation that delivers that is a nation worth securing.
This is all very well for those who are happy with moderate material prosperity – even if it is in an unjust society. Those who put justice above harmonious prosperity are unlikely to be convinced. And, indeed, I find it almost impossible to work out how harmony can be achieved without justice. Then again, I’m not very bright. I look forward to being enlightened on this, our National Security Education Day.
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