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The Problem and Potential of Provincialism

painting symbolizing Manifest Destiny

In most respects, the United States is isolated and protected from the problems of the world. While WWI and WWII devastated much of the world, the wars never made it to US soil. The geography and military capability of the United States made sure of that. And, afterward, US economic and political dominance only grew. The US dollar became the world’s reserve currency. Excepting natural disaster, the only structural damage that comes to the US comes at its own hand.

As such, Americans are exceptionally ignorant of world affairs. We may be better informed than the impoverished of many nations in the Global South, but this comparative advantage is easily explained by our increased access to information. Compared to the industrialized nations in Europe, the United States is greatly outperformed in knowledge of world affairs.

The vast majority of the time, Americans have no reason to think or care about the world. This fact is well-known enough to be a subject for jokes. In the very first episode of the YouTube series, Crash Course US History hosted by author and educator John Green, Green comments on his desktop globe, which has every land region painted over in green except the United States. This is tongue-in-cheek of course, but the joke only works because it has truth to it. Though the people of all countries put their domestic affairs ahead of international ones in most cases, Americans are unique in their utter disregard for problems that do not directly affect them. Here, we are safe. Here, we are free.

But in recent times, we have experienced an exception to the rule. Viruses do not much respect borders and tend to ignore the customs agents. So, the global problem of COVID-19 has seeped into even the smallest, most rural towns in the country. In this rare case, the global problem—as John Green would say, the problem of “the green parts of Not-America”—has become a domestic issue. And so, unlike most every problem of Not-America, COVID-19 is getting tons of mainstream news coverage and many Americans are paying attention to what is happening in Italy, in Korea, in China, and elsewhere, if only to get ahead of their own domestic experience of the virus.

The term for this sort of behavior, common to Americans, is “provincialism,” or, less kindly, “parochialism.” And, as I have presented it so far, associating it with terms like “ignorance” and “disregard,” I seem to be presenting it as a moral flaw of the American populace. But, the idea that this is a flaw is not so clear.

The United States government, like increasingly many governments nowadays, is a representative democracy. Because it is impractical for every citizen to vote on every issue, both for logistical reasons and because it is difficult to assure everyone has expertise on every issue, we elect representatives to decide on political solutions for us. And today, our representatives themselves tend to rely on still other people to guide them because the political issues of today, unlike in 1783, are so much more complex. It is quite unreasonable to expect even a representative to form an opinion on how to approach climate change, or the efficacy of different tax incentive structures, based on the raw data. In the United States, the Congressional Research Service provides detailed analysis for our representatives to use in making their decisions. If we have such a resource, why does every citizen really need to know what is happening in Myanmar, Monaco, or Malawi? So long as each of us acts in our self-interest, so long as we elect representatives who act in accordance with those interests, and so long as those representatives are informed by such reputable sources as the CRS, there seems to be no need for widespread citizen awareness of global affairs. Our province is all we need know.

In the ideal case, this argument obtains. But, reality—in all its stubbornness—rarely chooses to conform to our ideals. The problem of idealism failing when met with reality is well encapsulated in a famous quote from Roman poet Juvenal: quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchers? Representative democracy is already nonideal. In the truly ideal society, every citizen would have perfect knowledge, would be able to apply that knowledge to their self-interest, and would vote in accordance with that self-interest. Representative democracy is a compromise. And so is our representatives’ dependence on the CRS. As the knowledge of truth and falsehood becomes concentrated in the hands of the few, there is little room to question the government. For what do you know compared to your representatives, or they compared to the scholars of the CRS?

Thomas Jefferson recognized this problem long before our time. He wrote in a letter to George Wythe that “I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowlege among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness.” In his time, the people were to trust kings and priests and in light of the oppression that came along with that trust he wrote: “Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils” for “kings, priests and nobles. . . will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.” Unfortunately, now we the people have been left in ignorance, by our own hands as well as by the news media who respond to our demand only for news of domestic affairs, unless of course, some bombs are being dropped in some exotic locale.

This is not only worse for us, but for all the people of the world. A focus on domestic affairs encourages Americans and their representatives to value their own interests above those of others, even to the point of taking actions to superficially benefit themselves when, as a whole, those actions hurt them as well as others.

The prototypical example of this can be found in the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, the United States government has attempted to hoard medical supplies, including N-95 rated masks, particularly by banning their export to other countries. While these bans were partially lifted later on, that they were ever instituted at all—and allowed to persist even in a limited capacity—is testament to our short-sighted self-interest. In a classic case of game theory brought to life, when these bans are instituted, other nations retaliate, and, on the whole, everyone is left worse off.

“But,” you might say, “you’re demanding the unreasonable and the impossible. How are we, a nation of people working so much, to stay up-to-date on global affairs? How are we, as a collective, to ignore our self-interest?” And you would be right to ask these questions. Thomas Jefferson was, for better or worse, fairly idealistic. Some people just don’t care. And we can’t make them care. The issue, then, is better presented as an either-or.

Either we find a way to approach the impossible, perhaps by way of expanded public education and incentivizing knowledge of global affairs, or we find a way to assure our representatives are tied to the truth, unable to act indifferently to it. There are good arguments for a limited sort of parochialism. In practice, market-based economic systems like those of most industrialized countries, do not rely on consumers having perfect knowledge, and yet they seem to work fairly well at efficiently allocating goods.

In a similar way, utilitarianism is often chided for demanding practitioners to consider how their actions could affect the whole of humanity for all time. Not only is it impossible to do so for our finite minds, but any attempt to do so can be paralyzing. There is a great deal of allure to leaders who take decisive action, even if they have not considered the problem they seek to solve at great length, seeking the perfect solution. In reality, decisions have to be made with some rapidity.

The solution to the problem of parochialism is unclear, and though in practice it provides great efficiency, its trade-off is increased uncertainty on the part of most people, and the potential for oppression by leaders whose knowledge greatly exceeds that of their citizens. As the aphorism goes, scientia potentia est. Knowledge is power. And since we also know “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” by the transitive property we can deduce, absolute knowledge corrupts absolutely.

COVID-19 has demonstrated some of these flaws, particularly with the more severe parochialism to which Americans are uniquely subject. But due to the rarity of such situations where the global affects the domestic in such an extraordinary way, it is questionable whether Americans will do much to abrogate their parochialism and whether, in fact, they should. Nonetheless, even if the pursuit of knowledge necessary for an ideal citizenry is unobtainable, the citizenry, ideally, will find it necessary to have knowledge of that pursuit. Only then will we know how to go forward, how much we ought to depend on the few holding our collective knowledge, how much we should seek to understand ourselves, and whether our seeking should include global affairs or only those of our own provinces.

Transactionalism in U.S. Foreign Policy

image of world map with flags indiciating national boundaries

Since House Speaker Pelosi announced the start of the formal impeachment inquiry in the light of the new allegations against President Trump, the news cycle has seen abundant questions about the likelihood of impeachment, details of the process, and questioning whether there is a basis for the impeachment. The reasons for the start of the proceeding was a controversial call with Ukrainian President Zelinsky during which the president conditioned U.S. aid to Ukraine upon information about presidential candidate Biden and his son. As a result, Trump has been accused of engaging in a quid pro quo agreement, as he asked a foreign government to investigate a political rival. Yet, what goes easily unnoticed is the shift from humanitarianism to transactionalism in U.S. foreign policy that appears as a consequence of President Trump’s actions. Making U.S. foreign aid straightforwardly contingent upon political gains represents a sharp shift in the U.S. foreign policy doctrine. What are the consequences of this transactional approach?

Transactionalism is defined by Nikolas Gvosdev as “an effort to shift the basis of U.S. engagement and to define a series of quid pro quos for U.S. involvement.” This approach is meant to put tangible benefits above abstract values, and thus represents a transformation in the way the U.S. approaches assistance and aid. Until now, the U.S. has most commonly used humanitarian pretext to justify aid, but the current administration has indicated that it is not willing to continue the practice as it sees aid and financial assistance as a political tool instead.

There are several ethical questions raised by the U.S.’s new transactional approach:

First, is it morally permissible to prioritize aid to allies rather than to those who truly need it? If humans are suffering and we need to react instantly, is it morally acceptable to turn our backs on countries who do not share our values and ideologies? What obligation do we have to donate funds to causes which might frustrate our interests? Consider President Trump’s justification for constraining aid when Hurricane Dorian threatened Puerto Rico. Trump’s claim that “Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth” was meant to justify a lack of willingness to approve further funding needed to rebuild. Is the potential misuse of federal funds, as the president has claimed, a morally justifiable reason to deny further assistance?

Second, the transactional approach has the potential of leading to crises across the globe, bringing us back to the pre-UN world order. U.S. foreign policy appears to be putting aside its long-held belief that, alongside military action, it ought to promote its values across the world and cherish alliances based on a common vision of the world. But if diplomacy turns transactional, we risk the well-established world order by prioritizing relationships of benefit.  Just recently, the U.S. changed its approach toward Syria, as President Trump decided to withdraw U.S. troops and abandon Kurdish allies. In doing so, President Trump articulated a new vision for policy based on national interest and likelihood of victory, rather than the protection of hard-won allegiances. This shift led many of the President’s supporters to openly criticize the fact that he abandoned Kurdish people who have been paramount for U.S. efforts in Syria.

Third, does the U.S. have a responsibility to the global community as its leader? This question continues to trouble academics and policymakers alike as they try to decipher what role the U.S. should play on the world stage, especially in light of the rise of other great powers. If the leader of the free world is seen as conducting foreign affairs on a quid pro quo basis, what message does this send to the rest of the world?

The ongoing conversation regarding the president’s request that a foreign power intervene in domestic politics needs to center on more than just talk about the breaking of norms and statues. Democratic interference is a real worry with its own moral concerns and weight, but just as pressing is the question about the U.S.’s foreign policy transformation and the U.S.’s shifting role in global politics. The Trump-Ukraine scandal merely marks the most recent, noteworthy event in the movement of U.S. policy from participatory to more self-interested. We should not overlook this shift in the U.S. foreign policy doctrine towards transactionalism, a shift that might have grave consequences for the U.S. as well as the larger political world.