19 January 2009

Asked and Answered: Unger & the Military

I came across this short essay late last week and have not had time to comment on it until today:

But what is it for?

Jan 15th 2009 | SÃO PAULO
From The Economist print edition

A philosopher redesigns an army

WHEN Roberto Mangabeira Unger swapped life as a philosopher and Harvard law professor for a place in Brazil’s government, he was given a small ministry from which to think about the future. From this perch, Mr Unger has already produced a proposal for regularising land tenure in the Amazon. He also has a grand scheme for redesigning the world economy (with help from his former pupil, Barack Obama). His most recent plan is a blueprint for Brazil’s armed forces—an unusual task for a man whose previous life involved writing long, gnomic books about “the radicalisation of indeterminacy”.

There are some traces of the philosopher in his “National Defence Strategy”. Conscription, which Mr Unger is keen to continue (but which many youngsters avoid), is described as a “republicanising space”. But in some respects his report reiterates the military top brass’s traditional preoccupations, including the urge to master new technologies such as nuclear energy (to power submarines, not make bombs) and create a domestic arms industry, and a mild paranoia about Amazonia.

Brazil’s army occupies an ambiguous place in national life. Its officers, fired with a faith in progress imported from France, replaced the monarchy with a republic in the 19th century. The army has often seen itself as a force for nation-building, laying down roads and putting up hospitals. But it has also seized power at times, such as in the 21 years to 1985, during which time one member of the current cabinet was tortured for her political views.

When Brazil became a democracy again it managed to keep the army out of politics but did not define a clear new role for it. Brazil’s territory has not been seriously threatened since the 1860s, when together with Argentina and Uruguay it crushed little Paraguay. The armed forces now talk a lot about flexibility, though this is not so much a voguish notion as a reflection of the difficulty of imagining threats to a country that is almost instinctively pacifist. Mr Unger uses the word flexibility 31 times in his 70-page review.

In the past few years, however, the government has started to think about projecting power abroad. Since 2004, Brazil has commanded the United Nations’ intervention in Haiti. After a slow start during which the mission was plagued by unclear objectives, it is now held up as a great success amid the awful failures in Congo and Somalia, according to Richard Gowan of the Centre on International Co-operation at New York University, who has observed Brazilian marines in action.

A second use for the army, featured prominently in Mr Unger’s plans, is in the policing of the Amazon region. “The Amazon is a bit like the Mediterranean was at the beginning of the 19th century,” says Alfredo Valladão of Sciences Po, a French university, “full of smugglers and pirates, and without much effective state presence.” The former military government had a fixation with the idea that a long, jungly border made the country vulnerable and that foreigners coveted Brazil’s forests. Boosting troop numbers to deter illegal logging and ranching would thus be a return to two old modes of military thinking: defending the forests from invaders and extending the reach of the state.

So, while an outside observer (whom they themselves tracked down and interviewed) believes that statelessness in Amazonia is (at least potentially) a problem, the folks at The Economist dismiss concerns about deforestation and smuggling and so forth simply as simply products of Brazilian "paranoia." And, of course, an example of successful peacekeeping is nothing to sneeze at. Perhaps the military in the U.S., Canada and Britain (to name a few) could take some lessons from Brazilians? One need not have any illusions about the intrinsic virtue of the military in Brazil (or elsewhere for that matter) to see that the trajectory, at least, seems to be positive. And, for my money, Unger seems like a reasonable person to have drafting plans to help keep the military on that trajectory.

In large part, it seems that the sarcastic tone the editors at The Economist adopt in this piece reflects the fact that they are ideologically averse to any policy anywhere that might be construed as "extending the reach of the state." Of course, the notion that environmental protection and economic development in the Amazon - which is a matter of global significance - require well functioning markets, which in turn require effective political institutions seems obvious. Even The Economist folk know that. But they surely- also for ideological reasons - distrust Unger regarding the sorts of institutional arrangements that might best do the job. You can imagine the grumbling at editorial meetings: "What is all that stuff about 'institutional experimentation 'anyway? We have good market fundamentalist blueprints to tell us what to do!" Perhaps The Economist folk ought to read and engage with Unger's Free Trade Reimagined or other works in a serious way. That, of course, would require more than sniping. And, insofar as it is not simply a reflex of ideological shortsightedness, it might diminish the perplexity they express in this piece.

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