War, Peace And Charlie The Tuna

The Swedish Academy’s announcement that the Nobel Peace Prize was being awarded to President Barack Obama met with considerable skepticism both in the United States and abroad. Commentators complained that the prize was premature, bestowed before President Obama had effected any peace initiatives—or much else. The President said that he viewed the prize as a kind of IOU, saying he could “accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations to confront the challenges of the 21st century.”

I contend these brickbats are ill-placed. Who can deny that this President has changed the climate in international affairs? He has made it clear to nations both friendly and hostile that the United States will now be more of a partner and less of a martinet, seeking to impose its values across the globe by fiat. He has lowered the temperature of the global conversation, suitably enough, through words—and statements and declarations are actions of a kind.

President Obama has also signaled a willingness to listen on the part of the United States. This reminds me of the observation of C.G. Jung, the pioneering psychoanalyst, that receptivity is itself yet another form of action.

My hope is that the President, in his quest for peace, will look beyond his phalanx of foreign policy advisors. As he considers America’s role in the world, he’d benefit from a more profound and ancient perspective—that of nature. Mother Nature retains the best existential track record in the universe, stretching long before there were nations, families or even human beings. She, too, deserves a hearing.

When anthropologists contemplate foreign policy, they portray the battle for international supremacy in terms of the behavior and evolution of animals. Since, genetically, we are 99% ape, the reversion to animal analogies is 99% inevitable. But in statecraft this approach is myopic at best and narcissistic at worst.

My vantage point on global power is framed by gardening, the natural landscape and botany. In my garden I marvel at the continuous skirmishing for dominance pitched by plants, trees and grasses. The cunning, weaponry and tactics used in plant warfare are magnificent and terrible—enough to send the Jolly Green Giant running for his life.

I hope President Obama, Our Gardener-in-Chief, will take the time to study this green battleground—he has a garden, I’m told—and glean its Clausewitzian lessons.

G. Gordon Liddy, the Nixonian plumber, said of the contest of nations: “When you get out in the mid-Atlantic, it’s not Charlie The Tuna out there: it’s Jaws”. (Something to remember also when the president heads to the mid-Pacific.)

The same is true of the plant world. The rose’s thorns, a cactus’s prickles, the choking vine, the yawning maw of the Venus fly trap are not genetic accidents, but an arsenal of weapons in the life and death battle for the resources of sun, soil and water.

Rooted to one spot—unable to flee, take shelter or chase after food—plants have to defend themselves and battle for dominance while never leaving home. Dominance? Plants are natural-born imperialists. Even our word “race” speaks to the rootedness of nations. Indeed, politics does end, literally, at the water’s edge.

In his speeches, President Obama expressed the view that, in U.S. relations with other countries, engagement is preferable to “win and lose”, stressing dialogue and diplomacy over coercion or force, coexistence over conflict. In articulating this new agenda, the President sounds more like Charlie The Tuna than Jaws, or Major-General von Clausewitz.

The President has reached out, as he puts it, “an open hand…not a closed fist”—most notably to Muslims, Iran, Palestine, North Korea, China, Latin America, Cuba, Burma and Russia. Obama’s use of the olive branch has yet to bear fruit—or olives.

The President has spoken of a world without nuclear weapons. When addressing the General Assembly of the U.N., he asserted, “No nation can … dominate another nation”. Obama’s open-handed approach contrasts with President Ronald Reagan’s closed-fisted reductivism of the 1980s. When a reporter asked, “What’s your position on relations with the Soviets?”, Reagan replied, “Here’s my strategy on the Cold War: We win. They lose”, doubtless with a genial smile.

The two Presidents’ worldviews are worlds apart. President Reagan’s zero-sum calculus gave rise to a harvest of new democracies in Eastern Europe. Prime Minister Putin’s bullying efforts to reassert dominance over Russia’s “near-abroad” have been feckless before the “garden” of new democracies. Putin should tend to his nation’s garden, fast overgrowing with nationalist weeds, and respect the ecology of world affairs.

Nature offers an outstanding lesson in global realpolitik. “Succession” (as in “succeed” and “success”), a central premise of ecology, is a process in any natural environment with plants. Progressing over time, in phases, as various species battle it out, succession culminates in the climax period, a prolonged, stable steady state for the eco-system.

The great forests are called “climax forests”, where one tree is, literally, on top. The Sugar Maple is a prime example. In the upper Midwest, this efficient harvester of sunlight—a monopolist, really—is so dominant that Sugar Maple forests cover thousands of square miles. In the West, White Pine species reign over still larger areas. Every natural environment constitutes a “win-lose” situation.

Ultimately, though, the climax forest runs its course, and a new process of succession begins. As if cued by the Chaos Theory playbook, the prevailing species’ dominance is subverted by a number of possible factors: changes in climate, lightning fires, blight, soil erosion, new challengers (observe the avant-garde of the plant contenders mustering at the margins of a woods near you), or human interference (e.g. logging, development).

This natural regime change can take anywhere from a week to a hundred million years. Periodically the genes of the dominant species will recombine as a form of self-defense, but succession inevitably wins and the climax forest ultimately succumbs. If it didn’t, there would be no diversity but a global monoculture—the ultimate natural calamity.

Both dictatorships and totalitarian states are quintessential monocultures, utilizing much of their resources quashing individuality and the open exchange of ideas. What makes the United States the country best qualified to dominate the world scene is our extraordinary range of races, ethnicities, religions and ideas—all guaranteed by the Constitution. If one nation must dominate—and by nature’s rules it will—whom would you chose to lead the world? China? Italy? Saudi Arabia?

President Reagan was determined to weed out the encroaching kudzu of totalitarianism, and did so. At the time, Russia’s President Yuri Andropov declared Reagan’s “Star Wars” plan as “insane”. Perhaps the scheme was unbalanced: it sure unbalanced the Soviet Union. I wonder if President Reagan was a gardener.

President Obama, cerebral and idealistic, sees lurking in every demagogue a constitutional scholar struggling to get out. He thinks that, if one behaves in a civilized manner, others, awed by his shining example, will eagerly follow suit. The wayward rulers with whom the President is attempting to engage lack his high motives, hopeful view of human nature and innate good manners. Make no mistake, Mr. President, they are aggressively expanding climax forests.

Yesterday when President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, I hope he remembered that peace and stability come from strength, and strength from dominance. Among nations, and in nature, deference and acquiescence will land you on the endangered species list. If you don’t believe me, ask Mother Nature what happened to Charlie The Tuna.

The above appeared in a shorter version in the Op/Ed section of the Philadelphia Inquirer on December 10, 2009.

This entry was posted on Friday, December 11th, 2009 at 4:48 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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31 Responses to “War, Peace And Charlie The Tuna”

  1. Cynthia Smith said:

    Bravo! And i love the word “feckless.”

    • George said:

      Thank you, Cynthia. I don’t get to use the word feckless very often. Too bad they don’t include it in The Philadelphia Inquirer version. I appreciate your posting here at Heronswoodvoice.com.

  2. Becky said:

    LOVE reading your essays…you are thoughtful, articulate and witty. You put so many of my thoughts into words…so elequently too. Brilliant!
    Thanks for sharing!
    Becky

    • George said:

      You’re very welcome, Becky. Thank you very much for posting. Merry Christmas.

  3. Karen said:

    Amen. Thanks for putting it into the right words! You are so “on”…..

    • George said:

      Dear Karen – Thank you very much for your kind remarks. I hope I can do as well the next time I wade into the nightmare that is political commentary. These days I find it unfortunate that society looks at itself through the lens of politics rather than the lens of culture. The constant presence of the media compared to the past is responsible for this change. However, what distinguishes nations is not their politics but their way of life and especially their language.

      Thanks again.

  4. Tony York said:

    Your theme is timely and your thoughts cogent and well expressed. Many excellent points made and I happen to be in agreement with almost all.
    To add to your points I’d say that the wise Prince is well advised to heed Sun-Tzu, who took the discussion well past Clausewitz. The good listener/observer sees more than those who wear the blinders of dogma and preconception, and has more options from which to choose the elegant approach to achieve one’s ends.
    The elegant Prince so outmaneuvers his rival that the conflict is decided without the flight of arrow or shot.
    As always, the stimulation is appreciated.
    TY

    • George said:

      Thanks for the compliment, Tony, and it is nice to hear from you again. Indeed, I was thinking about Sun as I was writing the piece, but I did not know where to place him. One of his greatest contributions was the emphasis on deception. What I was trying to do was to draw a simpler metaphor than the more complex, as well as more common, comparison to war. But you are right. Sun was the great fire-source.

      You are absolutely right about the goal of victory, or regime change if you wish, being achieved without bloodshed. However, 9/11 left a decidedly big hole in southern Manhattan, so I believe that possibility, however much to be desired, no longer exists. Rather, our situation is like the one Harry Truman faced: minimize collateral damage, while bringing the bad guys to their knees. In our present day situation it could be that a very “special” deployment (which is to say massive) of Special Forces units would do the trick.

      Thanks again for posting and Merry Christmas.

  5. Siddhartha Banerjee said:

    American security lies in giving up precisely this Darwinian worldview, a result of the American historical experience. The US in its short history has not been able to live side by side with others. It has either pursued dominance or isolation. It cannot manage co-existence, hence its efforts to thwart a multi-polar world.

    Witness the extermination of the Native Americans, the enslavement of African Americans, the subjugation of Mexico… the catalogue of cases is substantial, remorseless.

    Unfortunately, the Arabs or the Pakistanis are not ready to be the new Apaches or Sioux. And increasingly, the Germans, Japanese and French are charting their own course.

    The Arabs and Pakistanis are resisting and with what final consequences for all concerned I dare not think.

    A superior model to the one outlined by Mr. Ball is that of the European Union today. What was the result of Europeans pursuing the politics of dominance over the centuries with one another?

    Savage Protestant-Catholic wars, the Holocaust and the carnage of the two world wars. Now, they understand that dominance is a bankrupt idea and so they are trying integration… union.

    Not so long ago, standing by the Rhine near Boppard, I saw a river barge stream north. It was flying the Dutch flag. For me, it was the world’s most beautiful sight… better even than colorful seed packets from Burpee in early spring.

    • George said:

      Dear Sid – Thank you for your thoughtful post. I don’t know where to begin. First, my view is not “Darwinian”, since it’s not based on theory but on natural fact.

      Second, it was a metaphor rather than a precise world view. Third, America is in fact the “oldest” nation on earth, having started as an experiment in the abyss that was the western hemisphere. We have not lived side-by-side with each other, much less with any one else. However, we seem to do a good job getting along with our immediate neighbors, Canada and Mexico, whose histories differ profoundly from ours. Fourth, the Native Americans were exterminating each other for centuries before we came along, so I, for one, do not place all the blame on the Europeans. Although I’m not particularly familiar with the history of American slavery, I know that it was started centuries before we became a democracy and ended within two generations after we became a democracy. The “union” that resulted from the Civil War cost more bloodshed from our own people than what we have spent protecting other nations from tyranny as in all the other wars combined. As for the “subjugation” of Mexico, I believe the French and the Austrians took on the Spanish and then the British long before we even became interested beyond the contest of Texas.

      Sixth, I’m confused by your view of the rest of the world. I can’t compare the Arabs or the Pakistanis with Native Americans. This seems incoherent. And finally Western Europe has been moving toward a unionization for several thousand years. Their main problem is one of language. Nevertheless, the Germans—as usual—are utterly dominating the rest of the countries including Russia. German engineering and machinery is the mother’s milk of Europe. They are doing economically what they were not able to do militarily, which is to rule. They have, by far, the greatest influence on the course of international efforts in Western Europe. The Dutch and the British are naturally inclined towards Germany, so they are simply reinforcing this trend. God bless the Germans. The dream of Monnet is finally coming true. On this point, I could not agree with you more.

      Therefore, I don’t believe that we disagree. Europe will become “the US of Europe”, will draw up a modern constitution, will unite under one language (to the dismay of all of the mothers) and will become a “climax forest” that will co-exist mainly with US and India which is, in my view, way ahead of the rest of us in many ways.

      But that is another blog. As is China. Many thanks for the very thoughtful post and best wishes to you.

  6. Kaye Dyer said:

    Nice article. I really hope you are wrong and the
    President can be a world leader with open hands,
    and the other countries will respond back the same way. But, we know that this plea for peace will not happen as we are in war too many places, brought on by another time. I never thought of the rose being an actual bully but, no matter how
    peaceful it looks, the thorns for protection are always there. That has to be the United States….peaceful,but always ready with the thorns.

    • George said:

      Thank you, Kaye. I agree that our President has begun a remarkably innovative approach with his “open handedness”. My concern is only that he is dealing with some of the most brutal dictators we have seen in the last 75 years. Remember Halubja? So we better have some sharp thorns, indeed. Thanks again and Merry Christmas.

  7. Nick beck said:

    Thank you Mr. Ball. You could not have said it better. I really do feel that the Human Race needs to realize what damage we have done and continue to do to this planet we call home. I hope that we still have time left to make a difference. I also hope that a lot of people understand what you have said and realize that we need to change our way of life.

    • George said:

      Nick, you are welcome. Thank you for your kind compliment. I share your hopeful enthusiasm. Best wishes.

  8. michele said:

    How thoughtful.

    • George said:

      Thank you, Michele.

  9. Dinah said:

    Always a great perspective, thank you!

    • George said:

      Thank you, Dinah.

  10. Debra said:

    Excellent analogy. It will be interesting to see how Europe changes their dynamics as other ethnic immigrants make their home in those countries. Other societies are too closed or lack any rule of law. Unfortunately you and I are of an age when we will probably not see it.

    Obama is no pacifist, I put my trust in his pragmatic approach more so then the smirking condesending conservatives who look at politics as a football game-just as long as my team wins!

    • George said:

      Debra, thank you for your thoughtful post. Europe has been, in my view, remarkably accommodating to other cultures since World War II. For example, the Germans and the Dutch have enormous Muslim communities, just as the French and British do a wide assortment of nationalities from their former colonies or allies. The media make a big deal out of a few ugly demonstrations instigated, usually, by outsiders. But I take the long view, and therefore, as you say, I probably won’t be around to see how it plays out. Also I agree with your interesting observation that “Obama is no pacifist”. Indeed, he is George W. Bush The Second with respect to most of his foreign policy. I have been stunned by his use of the military play book from Bush’s second term. Thanks again for your thoughtful post.

  11. catchy50 said:

    Man cannot rewrite the history of the garden,it is what it is.

    • George said:

      Dear Catchy – I am not sure what you mean, since actual gardens were created by mankind. If you are speaking of God then I would certainly agree with you from a Biblical perspective. Thank you.

  12. Dolores said:

    BRAVO!!! Well said!!!

    • George said:

      Thank you very much, Dolores.

  13. Becky said:

    Excellent, and oh so on the mark!

    • George said:

      Thanks, Becky.

  14. John Mays said:

    A beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing.

    John Mays

    • George said:

      Dear John – Thank you very much. Please post again.

  15. GardenGirl said:

    If one studies anything of the history of the later decades of the Soviet Union, one can understand that Reagan gets far too much credit for the downfall of the SU, and of European communism. In the big picture, the SU was in social and economic decay, the government corruption entrenched and the general population demoralized. If the leadership of the late 80′s had not been open to the reforms and policy changes of the Gorbachev era, Reagan’s overtures would simply have lead to deeper Cold War entrenchment. It’s rather like giving a doctor full credit for saving the patient, when in truth the tumor was well along in destroying itself when the treatment began. Yes, he helped, but it was not his work alone.

    While I can agree that there is always a need to stay alert and on guard in world affairs, having seen where acting on emotion got us in the last administration, this is one scientist who is pleased to see a head of state inclined to look (and think) before leaping.

    • George said:

      Dear Garden Girl – Thank you for your thoughtful post. I believe that President Reagan, in concert with Pope John Paul II, did in fact liberate the people of the former Soviet Union. As you point out correctly, the Soviet Union was disintegrating for years. However, there was always one part of it that was never in any scintilla of decline and that was its military. At its height during the 60s and 70s, the Soviet military was easily the toughest in the world, while their intelligence service was probably twice as effective as ours. This was the focus of Reagan’s foreign policy: to break the back of the military dictatorship. From 1981 to the rise of Gorbachev, who was utterly intimidated by both Reagan and the Pope, the West literally “took it” to the Soviet Union. It was a classic example of my broad metaphor that while Reagan was working on the bad guys, the Pope was inspiring the common people as well as the labor unions, and the individual freedoms they wanted, they were able to take into their own hand. Two climax forests—the Roman Catholic Church and the nation of the USA—overcame one. Putin’s fantasies are just that—there is no turning back.

      Thank you again for your thoughtful post. I am so happy to have so many people who read my blog who are all so intelligent and kind hearted. Best regards.

  16. Ben said:

    Our politicians could learn a lesson from the above civilized exchange of positions. The different thoughts are similar to the pollen unknowingly toted by the feeding bee from bloom to bloom. They ensure a diversity that will best protect the species from extinction. It serves to me how lucky I am to live in this great country and assures me that my children will benefit similarly.

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