Years ago, when I was first learning about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, I heard about strict limitations imposed on foreigners visiting that country. It wasn’t just about limiting what they said and did, but also what items they could bring in, cell phones in particular. The purpose of this was to control how the citizens of North Korea viewed the world and their role in it. A foundational dogma of the Kim dynasty was that North Korea was the most advanced nation in the world, and that while life wasn’t perfect there, it was better than anywhere else.
I’m sure not all North Koreans believe that, but the point was to have enough to send a clear message – change could lead to disaster. You think you have it bad now? Rock the boat and it’ll get worse for you. Some of that threat was from the government itself, of course, but at the same time there’s the idea that this leaky, dangerous boat with its brutal captain are all you’ve ever known, and the choice presented is not between that boat and a better one, but between that boat and no boat at all.
And when someone complains to much, the captain makes a big show of throwing that person overboard to remind everyone else that things can always get worse.
When news broke of the efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election in the United States, there were a lot of people trying to work out what Putin’s interests might be in meddling in the American government. First, to be clear, America is a near-global empire, perhaps the first of its kind. Its military reach covers the whole planet through a massive air force, and a huge network of military bases. All of that power has gone not towards controlling territory, but rather towards ensuring the global economy is a capitalist one, as much as possible. That means that there’s a very real way in which the control and activities of the American government are a legitimate concern for everyone on the planet.
Setting that aside, one of the proposed motivations for Putin’s activities was very similar to that narrative I had heard about North Korea. Putin’s interest wasn’t in controlling America, though he’d doubtless be fine with expanding his power, but rather in convincing the Russian people that while his rule might not be everything they wanted, it was the best they could expect. No other system that might look better from the outside is stable enough to last. Having the United States operate in a way that directly benefited Putin would be nice, but more valuable than that was the chaos and decline in standard of living that would come from a Republican administration under Trump. Under that analysis, it didn’t matter whether Trump was fully controllable, or even that he always worked for the benefit of the Russian government. What mattered was that he continue to be divisive, chaotic, and corrosive to the United States and its allies, to provide evidence that the notion that America’s claimed democracy was so unstable that it wasn’t worth trying for.
Hearing this discussion about Putin, and linking it to what I had been told about North Korea, made me think more about the United States, and the narratives fed to us as citizens of that country. Various flavors of nationalism are ubiquitous. Slogans like “America #1” can be found everywhere, as can the claim that it’s the “greatest country in the world”, to the degree that it causes a bit of a scandal if anyone suggests that that’s not the case. When we talked about improving our healthcare system, we were told that what we had was already the best possible healthcare system, and given justifications for the downsides, and outright lies about what other countries had.
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Marcus Ranum says
Putin just managed to adjust Russian laws so that now he is effectively dictator for life. I guess he envied Kim.
Yes and whilst phones and such aren’t restricted in the USA I’m sure Trump envies Kim’s power to shape perceived reality in this regard and is trying to achieve that himself by demonising the media in the USA and trying to set himself up to his cult followers as the arbiter of what is “reality” vs “fake news.”
Pedntic of me sorry, but I’d say the British empire also was near-global in extent with the French, Spanish, Dutch and maybe even Roman empires not that far behind. I don’t think the Roman empire quite manages near-global status although it did expand into three continents (Europe, Asia, Africa) but I think you could just about make a case for the French, Dutch and Spanish ones (both Americas, Europe, parts of Africa, parts of India at least traded with and influenced too?) although clearly its a bit of a spectrum here and depends how what we count as near-global. Thinking here of it as extending over extremely large areas beyond the “merely”regional and spanning much of the planet & many widely dispersed continents and islands. But yes, that quibble aside. Admittedly the USA’s empire was larger than all the others if we count the Cold War division and “vassal states” like Oz.
Agreed although I think its also the zero-sum rivalry contest that Putin probably envisages with the old Cold War mentality of it being Russia and the USA fighting to dominate the world and Putin thinking whatever hurts the States is a win for him. Quite unlike the co-operative we could work together mindset, I think , of Gorbachev. Putin like Trump being very nationalistic rather than having a broader cosmopolitian perspective. What I don’t quite get is Trump’s seeming willingness even happiness at being Putin’s too here and his apparent adoration of his boss. Its clear that Putin wields huge influence over Trump – quite probly both financial obligations for rescuing him from debt and very likely Kompromat as well. (Pee tape? Worse?) But the joy Trump takes in doing what Vlad wants and his almost father-figure worship of the Russian dictator, why that is would be an interesting if tangential psychological question.
Yet “greatest” is somehow never defined. Greatest what? Size?* If so size in what and why does it matter? Greatest in military power? Happiness? Most economically prosperous? Most guns? Most scientists? Most or best at / in being X, Y, Z? Everything?
* FWIW Russia wins there and China, Canada and Brazil beat the United States too :
In area with population figures making China and India the “greatest” if by greatest youmena largest and is that really a good thing natiosn should aim for? (I don’t think so.)
Abe Drayton says
Sorry for the confusion – when I say “first of its kind” I don’t mean global, I mean that it exerts a sort of imperial control without claiming ownership of territory – relying instead on a network of military bases, and “covert” political and military interference.