Ideologically Motivated Institutions
4 December 2011
It would be difficult to name two Latin American nation-states that have not gone to war with each other. While these conflicts may not be well known in the Anglophone world, the War of the Triple Alliance still affects politics in Paraguay, the consequences of the War of the Pacific are still keenly felt in Bolivia, and the breakup of Gran Colombia (and the Gran Colombia – Peru War) is still relevant in Andean South America.
When Spanish power was forced to retreat from Latin America, it predictably left chaos in its wake. Visionaries like Simón Bolívar sought to organize larger confederations like Gran Colombia, but these larger political entities proved to be unsustainable, and Bolívar himself in his final despairing testimony wrote that, “He who serves a revolution ploughs the sea,” and, “For us, Latin American is ungovernable.” Well, it didn’t turn out quite so bad as Bolívar feared in his worst moments, but South America was not to see a continental land empire emerge from sea to shining sea as happened in North America.
It was two hundred years ago that Bolívar was worried about the future of Latin America. I happened to be present in Argentina for their bicentennial, and attended a wonderful parade in the small town of El Bordo, near Salta. All the symbols of nationalism were present, and there were more Argentinian flags flying than I could count. I also happened to be present in Santiago de Chile on the thirtieth anniversary of the coup that toppled Salvador Allende and put Pinochet in power for many decades. That anniversary was marked not by celebration but by protest, clearly highlighting the deep internal divisions that continue to haunt many of the Latin American nation-states. The flags present in these protests were not the Chilean flag, but Marxist banners.
South America — which, with a little extension up to Mexico can be said to include all of Latin America — is a continent divided. This is not without precedent. When Roman power retreated from Europe and sought a millennium of sanctuary in Constantinople and the East, Europe became a continent divided. The universality of Roman Latin rapidly experienced adaptive radiation among populations separated by geographical barriers that were less significant when Roman power maintained a transportation network, but which reemerged as significant when the transportation network was no longer secure and populations retreated into a defensive localism.
More than a millennium and a half later, Europe is still a continent divided. Every nation-state has its individual language and culture and traditions, and each is as proud of its independence as Greek city-states were once proud of their independence. This is a central part of the Western experience: the East saw a succession of empires; the West had only one, Rome.
Europe, of course, has made great efforts over the last fifty years to unify itself — after two devastating world wars that bled European nation-states white. Many commentators on geopolitics make the claim that efforts to unify Europe since the end of the Second World War are undertaken with the express purposes of deepening the connections between these nation-states to the point where war becomes unthinkable. To a large degree this has been successful. European armies, once the military pride of the world, are dwindling, and the Europeans are content to live in their postmodern paradise under the US security umbrella.
Perhaps the same will eventually come to pass in South America. Perhaps all of Latin America can be unified in an American Union that would ultimately become more important than the rivalries that divide the nation-states of South America as the nation-states of Europe were once divided by ancient quarrels and old grudges. But unity has its limitations. Even relatively unified Europe is now demonstrating that it cannot make its currency union work. A common currency was created for the European common market, but no mechanisms were built into the currency to maintain its stability in the face of inevitable financial crisis.
There is genuine debate and disagreement over the fate of the European currency union. If you’ve been reading the editorial page of the Financial Times over the past few months you know that every financial luminary has written an article or a letter to the paper to give their perspective on the prospects and future of the Euro. The experts don’t agree. Some think the Euro should be scrapped altogether; others that the Euro can survive, but it must shed its weaker members; a few take the heroic stance that the Euro can only be saved by expansion and deepening political union.
Even today, despite the progress that Europe has made, any kind of substantial political unity is extremely controversial. Danes and Spaniards and Finns and Greeks do not want the peoples of these other regions to be legislating for them, and if the currency union has been difficult, political union would be even more so.
So the past few days which have seen a conference of all Latin American nation-states gathered in Caracas to found a new association — CELAC — among themselves, excluding only the US and Canada in the Western hemisphere, I see this in the context of the earlier experience of Europe, which mirrors South America far more accurately than North America.
There is no question that, if the member nation-states of CELAC wanted to take substantive measures, they could — ideally, in a perfect world. Say these nation-states decided to get serious about collective security and created a common military force, or they opted to relinquish sovereignty and create a political union, or they decided to eliminate all trade barriers and tariffs and create a genuine free trade area. These things would made a decisive difference. However, these things are not about to happen. Too many old rivalries remain. And, perhaps more importantly than the memory of past conflicts, is the underlying fact that CELAC is, upon its inception, an ideologically motivated institution.
The news stories have made plain that CELAC is another brainchild of Hugo Chavez, and many played up the pointed exclusion of the US and Canada: Latin and Caribbean leaders challenge US role in region and New regional bloc established at Caracas conference.
CELAC is not the first ideologically motivated institution that Chavez has sought to found. He and his oil money have also been behind ALBA, which recently distinguished itself by voting as a bloc against the transfer of Libya’s UN seat to the anti-Gaddafi rebels — thus displaying even less diversity of opinion than the Southern African Development Community. ALBA is a paradigmatically ideologically motivated institution, and we can think of CELAC as ALBA-lite. It is less stridently constituted and more inclusive, but it doesn’t compromise on the most important point: excluding the US and Canada, which represent a different culture and a different tradition.
Of course, most member state will not have unrealistic expectations about CELAC, but Chavez did give a speech about the OAS being an old and worn-out institution in need of replacement. Rafael Correa also gave a speech saying that the OAS should have been disbanded upon the outbreak of the Falklands War, having proved itself, in his eyes, impotent upon this occasion. This is to be expected. Such ideologically constituted institutions are primarily about people giving speeches. In other words, Chavez has created a new talk shop, sort of like the UN, but smaller and less diverse.
Of what use are ideologically motivated institutions? I mean, of what use are they other than an opportunity for a junket and a chance to give speeches? Like ideologically motivated persons, such as I mentioned in my Against Natural History, Right and Left, ideologically motivated institutions are all about the ideology. Pragmatism, critical thinking, and effective action are not merely put on the back burner, they are often absent.
Of course, ideologically motivated institutions can be utterly ruthless, and they have visited some of the most horrific violence upon human beings that the world has seen in its history. One party states like Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia were controlled by ideologically motivated institutions. They were also mortal enemies. To a slightly lesser extent, ideologically motivated institutions perpetuated the Cold War, and routinely prioritized ideological conformity and correctness over human decency, intellectual integrity, and even the most minimal moral standards.
Ideologically motivated institutions are ultimately doomed in the struggle for existence because the centrality of ideology militates against the kind of pragmatism that always prioritizes effective action over ideologically approved action. An ideologically motivated institution is constituted precisely for the reason of attempting to abolish such expediency. As abstract as this sounds, this is the ultimate reason for the fall of Nazism and Soviet-style communism. Had these ideologies been capable of compromising — as for example in the case of Chinese-style communism, or, as they say, “socialism with Chinese characteristics — they would have compromised and survived. The point is that such institutions are created for the very purpose of avoiding compromise.
However, in the short term, and even in the medium term, ideologically motivated institutions cause a disproportionate degree of suffering and misery before they fall of their own dead weight.
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