Is mutual interdependence the solution?

The Thinker by Rodin

That is what I have been asking myself this evening. As often happens, I was getting dishpan hands this evening while listening to the radio. Tonight, C-SPAN Radio was featuring speakers at yesterday’s Republican Straw Poll in Ames, Iowa. I happened to tune into a speech given by candidate and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. He was winning kudos from the friendly crowd by speaking of the virtues of energy independence. He proposed a plan that within ten years would make our country energy independent. He also warned of an even bigger national security issue: food independence. A nation that cannot grow the crops to sustain itself could be blackmailed, he warned. He warned the crowd that we could not let this happen. He received warm rounds of applause for these points.

I too have made similar points in the past. When discussing illegal immigration, I pointed out the consequences to our nation if much of our agriculture disappeared because we could not find sufficient migrant labor to pick our crops. When discussing global warming, I pointed out that conservation and renewable fuels could help us become energy independent. Once we were energy independent, the consequences of another war in the Middle East would trouble us a lot less.

While I still think that both goals are laudable it occurred to me that there is a downside to all this independence. What we are really saying when we talk about energy or food independence is we want our nation to be completely self-reliant. If we can take care of ourselves, then, if necessary, we can seal our borders and live in relatively happy isolation from the world’s chaos.

In our interconnected world, we will never be isolated from the world’s problems again, if we ever were. It is still said that when Wall Street sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold. This seems to be borne out by the turmoil the last few weeks in our risky sub-prime mortgage market. Now it is also true that when stock markets tank in South Korea or in China, Wall Street catches a cold. These effects of course simply reinforce my point that we are increasingly interdependent. There is no way to go back to our isolationist past. We need to accept this reality. That our economy is growing at all is largely a result of our interdependence. Imagine how you would feel as a shareholder of Microsoft if it could only sell inside the United States.

So what does this mean? It means, as I have suggested before, that nation-states are moving toward obsolescence. I see this in small ways in my own life. I earn a few bucks on the side installing software for clients. I have yet to meet any of my clients in person. There is one client twenty miles or so away, but even in his case, all of our interaction was accomplished through email. Most of my clients live in the United States, but I have had clients in Israel and Great Britain too. It is not hard to transact business. They send me money via PayPal. I do the work over the Internet. At least in my case I can state that the Internet has made such things that used to matter, like the country where someone lives, irrelevant. Their money may be in a different color when they go buy groceries, but it is green when it arrives in my PayPal account.

It looks like before we ingloriously leave our debacle in Iraq will cost us at least a trillion dollars. Why did we do it? President Bush was quite candid about his rationalization before we invaded: because he perceived a real threat from Iraq to our national security. We thought that given more time Iraq could create atomic weapons that it might lob at us. Apparently, that was unacceptable to the cost of about one trillion dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives. Our ability to remain an independent nation apparently trumps all other needs including the need for all nations to peacefully coexist.

Most economists tout the virtues of free trade. They see it as a cure to the world’s economic ailments. Free trade, they intone, raises all boats. If it is cheaper to import vegetables from Mexico because the labor is cheaper there, this is ultimately good. Consumers benefit. Our farmers may be a bit put out but overall both the United States and Mexico would benefit. Our agriculture would change to be more efficient, or we would develop new industries to replace it. However, what free trade also does is that it promotes our world’s mutual interdependence.

From listening to politicians running for office, I am left to conclude that the world’s mutual interdependence is a bad thing. Is it? Maybe what we really need is to encourage our interdependence. Maybe nation-states are entities that are on their way out. Maybe what the world needs is world federalism instead. If this is where we need to go, from a world of autonomous states, to a world of federated nation-states then we need more interdependence, not less.

My firm conviction is that these dynamics are already well underway. Those who adapt to this new reality, like Europe, are likelier to prosper. The longer that the United States of America deludes itself into thinking that we will always be completely sovereign the more painful and costly our adjustment will be. Arguably, the debacle in Iraq is a one trillion dollar consequence of our delusion.

Imagine a different world where this is no my country vs. your country competition except in sports. I am not naïve enough to think that such a world will happen overnight. However, I do think that since the process is already well underway, the longer we delude ourselves then the more painful our transition will be. We need to discard ourselves of foolish notions like we can provide entirely for our country’s needs. While energy independence may help us find cleaner means of generating energy to reduce global warming, its ultimate goal is to find ways for the world to also do this. For global warming, like much of what ails us, can only be solved globally.

The more we rely on other countries, and other countries rely upon us, the more natural incentive there is for all of us to get along together in peace and harmony. These ties truly bind us together as a planet. We need to listen to the message. China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, India and many other countries need to listen too. The European Union has already heard the message and is prospering.

We cannot solve our national problems by being independent in all things, or even in areas that we consider critical to our sovereignty. This is delusion. However, the world can solve its problems by engaging in them together. Economic interdependence is the means by which a newer and saner world order could emerge. It is likely to be messy, as are most things in human affairs, but it offers a hopeful vision, and seems more viable than our current tactics.

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

– John Lennon, “Imagine”

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