I was in the middle of the Utah desert when six co-ordinated terrorist attacks rocked the streets of Paris, expunging the life from the bodies of 129 people. In my desert world, wandering through my Kingdom of Rocks and Sand, I knew nothing of the World Outside. I had disconnected and unplugged – finding solipsism in my solitude.
I emerged from the desert to news of the attacks – live updates on the BBC; terrorist profiles on Le Monde; good analysis, bad analysis and everything in between from internet news sources, everywhere. Aside from the initial shock which came with reconnecting with the horrors taking place outside my little bubble, I also couldn’t help but think that my very existence, the life I’d been living for the past three weeks – rock climbing in the Utah desert – was empty, selfish, maybe even abhorrent, given what was happening elsewhere in our burning Global-Village.
But then, when I read the news shorts about what other people were doing in the rest of the world – beheading journalists, dropping barrel bombs on hospitals, stigmatizing minorities based on their religious preferences – I realized that really, what I was doing – living a life of my own selfish choosing in a beautiful place – wasn’t so bad after all. I wasn’t hurting anybody was I?
One of my desert climbing partners, Dan, was an Infantry Recon soldier in the 10th Mountain Division. Dan had spent 27 months of his four year stint in the US Army deployed to Iraq, fighting a hopeless war in the service of a misguided political philosophy. 19 of the 300 men he deployed with never returned home. His brothers-in-arms were practically decimated.
So, craving a better life, Dan had finished his military service, and like me, had decided to withdraw from the World Outside, retreating to an island of relative isolation (Durango, Colorado) in order to pursue a lifestyle which, though perhaps more selfish than the selfless servitude of military life, would never require him to pick up a weapon and put a bullet between somebody’s eyes.
Indeed, I thought to myself, as I read over what a New York billionaire was suggesting we Westerners do to solve the problems of the Middle East, maybe our outlook going into the future ought to be a little bit more isolationist. Maybe, instead of focusing our attentions outward – by busying ourselves with projecting force and influence into places where we’re not wanted (under the guise of selfless humanitarianism or “spreading democracy”) – we ought to become a little bit more inwardly-focussed, a little bit more selfish. We need to change the way we engage with the rest of the world, I would argue.
The Global-Village in which we now live affords us great opportunities for economic interdependence, expanded networks of trade, innovation through the sharing of information, and diplomatic engagement to tackle tough issues like climate change. But the Global-Village also presents a series of complex and dangerous threats to our way of life. It shortens distances between Us and Others, bringing us closer into contact with those who would do us harm. It creates electronic pathways for dangerous ideas to flood our idea-scapes, radicalizing our youth with info-bites from foreign wars.
In an era where the UN, NATO and R2P blend into practically-synonymous acronyms representing the same ideas, we have told ourselves that our liberal humanitarianism bequeaths us with a responsibility to protect the downtrodden in other parts of the world – invading and occupying countries in order to free them, destroying villages in order to save them. Our paternalistic obsession with effecting “positive change” in linguistically- and culturally-distinct parts of the world, I would argue, is doing little to secure the safety and dignity of oppressed peoples in the Third World and even less to secure our own safety.
Now, it may just be that what is needed to destroy ISIS once and for all is a good bombing campaign targeting Al-Baghdadi’s stronghold in Raqqa, but for the most part what I can take away from this foreign and domestic crisis that is all things ISIS, is that the Western world should return to a position of political isolationism.
Here we might learn from the mountain republic of Switzerland, whose greatest military humiliation (unlike our repeated humiliations in Vietnam Afghanistan and Iraq) in recent years has been the fashion choices of its soldiers in the Vatican. Or here too, we might learn from the North Sentinelese, an island-people adrift in the Andaman Sea who, rather than worrying about where ISIS is going to strike next haven’t even heard of ISIS because they live in hermetically-sealed isolation, having had almost no contact with the outside world. The Swiss and the Sentinelese share two things in common – they are largely insulated against negative developments in the World Outside (ie: they are isolated) and they profit economically from their neutrality (ie: they are selfish) – the Swiss through their banks and the Sentinelese through their safe and secure hordes of coconuts.
Therefore, I advocate, rather than continuing on a tangent of selflessness and interventionism (as has been the trend during the last twenty years), we the people of the West might profer from a new outlook of selfishness and isolationism.
With all these case studies in mind I propose a substantive retreat from the Global-Village in order to create a hypothetical island-village on a new Island – the Island formerly known as the West. This hypothetical Island would be our Island and ours only – a new polity whose primary political ideals are isolationism and selfishness.
Social harmony is created and sustained on the Island by agreeing on a series of basic principles on which everybody can and must agree if they are to live on the Island. These principles should not be religious or cultural, since there are already many different religions and cultures which make up our Island’s demography. Naturally however, since the Island in question is being created in “the West”, these basic principles should be “Western principles”. Some of these principles might include the assumption that democracy is the best way to govern the Island; or that, fundamentally, people have a series of basic liberties which enable them to lead the life of their own choosing, in the manner which they deem fit and in a way which does no harm to others. “We on the Island like freedom – freedom of speech, freedom of worship” – et cetera, et cetera.
In addition to these agreed-upon principles there are barriers which will inhibit and even prevent entry to Others who would come to the Island from the World Outside. An island, by definition, is not easily accessible to outsiders. There is an ocean which separates the Island from the World Outside. Island-dwellers, therefore, live (at risk of being seen to inappropriately quote from A Few Good Men) in a world with barriers. And these barriers are good for those who dwell on the Island.
There are naturally-occurring, geographic barriers (the oceans) which provide an immediate barricade against external aggression. And there are human barriers – sea mines and battlefield blockades and walls with soldiers on them – which provide another layer of defence in-depth. On some level, the Islanders must be prepared to defend their Island and to defend their way of life. And they should do so. When the crazies board their little jihad-boats and cross the seas to do harm to our little Island, the Islanders must stand ready to blow their boats out of the water.
Creating this Island is not the same as creating Utopia. Utopia is Fantasy and the Island will be Real (at least, hypothetically real anyway). The Island will still have its problems. Christian Islanders will have to get along with Muslim Islanders. Brown people will have to get along with white. For the good of the Island.
In addition to the isolation we will make for ourselves, we Islanders will be a selfish people. We will cease to concern ourselves with liberating the un-liberated. De oppresso liber be damned – I’ve got some barramundi fishing to do. We will cease dropping cluster-bombs so that others may revel in the virtues of democracy. We will be selfish.
In retreating from the woes of what is happening beyond our Island, the West will have achieved two great successes – 1.) dodge culpability for negative developments in the World Outside (eg: the rise of ISIS in post-Saddam Iraq); and 2.) be better prepared to defend ourselves against external aggression due to the reductions in cost (both in blood and treasure) from not engaging in foreign wars.
All islands have limited real estate and fixed finite resources. This means that everybody cannot come to the Island. As any Sentinelese will probably tell you – there are only enough coconuts for so many. This unfortunate (perhaps even “inconvenient”) truth means that not everybody can come to the Island. Australia’s national anthem: “for those who come across the sea, we’ve boundless plains to share”, may need to be revised.
But here of course, we arrive at the difficult question regarding what to do about refugees who come to the Island. What do we do about those miserly refugees from Syria?
Refugees from the World Outside will want to come to our Island. This is natural. Inevitable. Who wouldn’t want to drink coconut water and dance with our beauties on our white, sandy beaches? Should we help these asylum-seekers? And if we did wouldn’t this go against our lofty principles of Islander selfishness?
Here, I would argue, Islanders can both take in refugees and still remain true to our selfish ideals.
Firstly, altruism, contrary to popular belief, is not necessarily the antithesis of selfishness. People give money to feel-good charities so they can post the pictures of their sponsor-child on Facebook and accumulate “likes” from their friends. Priests give blessings to the elderly so they can get into Heaven. We can still do good things for our own selfish reasons. And we should. Because it helps everybody and hurts no one. And this is one of the Island’s chief principles.
In addition to this, there are other benefits to accepting a few people from the outside. Accepting some outsiders onto the Island will prevent us from suffering the ills of what anthropologists call “endogamy” – marrying within (and only within) the tribe. A society without immigrants just like a gene pool without new genes, will stagnate. Societies need new ideas, new inventions and new foods if they are to survive – Japanese robotics, Ethiopian intuitive road safety, Middle Eastern cuisine – the Island will benefit from all these fresh and new things. And we will need migrants to bring all these ideas, inventions and new foods to our doorstep.
So yes, inhabitants of the Island should accept refugees provided that these refugees can agree to abide by the principles of Island living. Let those who would do harm to our Island, leave the Island and let us still vet everybody who would come to the Island… For the good of the Island.
Thus, we arrive at the chief point of this piece. Retreating politically from developments in the World Outside is not the same as not having a foreign policy. Just as the Swiss gladly take foreign rich people’s money and the North Sentinelese stripped an Indian anthropologist naked and took his glasses, we can still have a give-and-take relationship with the World Outside – but we can do so from the isolation of our Island.
Perhaps the most pleasant consequence of dispensing with our old “selflessness” in favour of selfish isolationism will be the end of the liberal interventionism for which the current crisis in Iraq and the ISIS-pocalypse in Syria can partly be traced.
John Bolton may be right that a new state for Arab Sunnis is exactly what the Middle-East needs (although his designation of “Sunni-Stan” proves that he can’t differentiate between the languages of Central Asia and the Arabic-speaking Middle East), but it is not for us to say.
Others (including myself), have perhaps made similar blunders in their policy suggestions – confusing things which are happening overseas with things which might effect us. In a recent Washington Post article, Liz Sly has made a valiant effort to determine whether or not “it is too late to solve the mess in the Middle East?” The answer is of course “yes” it is too late to solve the mess in the Middle East. That place went down the toilet a long time ago. Ultimately however, Sly’s question is the wrong one to ask. The real question is: “should the West try to solve the problems of the Middle East?” or “was the West ever capable of solving the problems of the Middle East in the first place?” The answers to both of these questions is “no”. Since we can’t do anything for the Middle East I would argue that we shouldn’t bother trying in future. Thus, the Island.
It may indeed be that ISIS has become too big to ignore. Intensified military action may be required to destroy, finally, the little jihad-island ISIS has created for itself in Raqqa. We might need to drone Baghdadi’s death cult into oblivion before retreating into our little shell. You can call it pre-emptive isolationism. But after this war is over, after ISIS is defeated – it may be an Island mentality which will prevent us from inadvertently creating another ISIS – the ISIS of the future.
Thank you for your excellent article. If the United States (and it’s allies like my native Australia) had turned inward and self reflected after 9/11, the world and especially the middle eastern states would be a much more peaceful place. Sadly George W Bush expressed anger on behalf of the american people rather than reflective remorse, and our PM at the time got sucked into the whirlpool. We could all do with more reflection like yours.
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