October 2, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, October 2, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
We’ll see the intersection of natural disaster and political leadership, the looming humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, and we’ll see the achievement and the fragility of the nationstate on the world scene.
The intersection of natural disaster and political leadership in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria
No shortage of news over this weekend, nor as we enter the new week. Most of those issues we need to note in the mainstream media have already been reduced to little more than competing political soundbites. But a closer analysis also reveals that many of these are worthy of a far deeper Christian worldview consideration, and of course the first big headline news over the weekend had to do with the first resignation of a member of the president’s cabinet in this administration. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned early in the weekend in the aftermath of controversy over his use of civilian, private, and then military jets at taxpayer expense. That consumed a great deal of the political oxygen in the United States, but there were other issues looming even larger in terms of long-term significance.
The first of these was continuing urgent concern in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in the US territory of Puerto Rico. Even a week after that storm landed, then a category three hurricane doing massive damage, there were concerns that people in Puerto Rico were still in grave danger. The mayor of San Juan Puerto Rico Carmen Yulín Cruz said that,Show Full Transcript
“people are dying here,”
and there were direct accusations back and forth between Democrats and Republicans both in the territory and in Washington about who was to blame and who is responsible. But the big issue here is the understanding that still over a week after the hurricane hit, 95 percent of the citizens of Puerto Rico are without electricity, and here we are looking at the inevitable collision between political leadership and natural disaster. In the United States over the last several decades, we have learned this collision almost always happens, if not early in the aftermath of the disaster then at least eventually. This is just one sad fact of American political culture, but we also need to note the same pattern is found in other democracies.
Puerto Rico has a population of 3.4 million people, and many of them now find themselves without access to at least stable and healthy, predictable food and water. Furthermore, the absence of electricity is not just a matter of convenience. As we’ve discovered in the aftermath of other hurricanes and disasters, the absence of electricity can at times be a matter of life and death. So only 5 percent of the island — as of this morning — has electricity, and the other 95 percent is waiting. And now it is a matter of political football between leaders on the island, even different leaders on the same island, and the political leadership of the United States in Washington, but behind this is a long simmering tension between the United States territory known as Puerto Rico — officially the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico — and the American government.
Officially, in terms of American law, Puerto Rico is considered an unincorporated territory. Those who are born there are considered natural born citizens of the United States, and may use that citizenship to move freely between the island and the Continental United States. But the citizens there do not pay United States income tax on income earned on the island, and, furthermore, even though they vote in presidential primaries they do not have a vote in terms of the United States presidential election. The citizens of Puerto Rico, according to repeated polling, are divided over whether or not they would want to see the island become the 51st state. There are those in the United States, particularly in the Democratic Party, who would like to see that happen because it is considered that Puerto Rico would be a very regular and predictable Democratic vote.
Citizens of Puerto Rico and their elected leaders have often complained that citizens of the territory receive inferior treatment and political consideration to those in the 50 American states, and just measured in terms of economic impact, they certainly have a point. But Puerto Rico is not a state, it is indeed this unincorporated territory, and the citizens there — even being split over what they want as the future their island — now have far more immediate concerns, but that political backdrop is very much in play here with tensions between political leaders on the island and in Washington DC. But a closer analysis in terms of the Christian worldview reveals that in this very urgent humanitarian crisis we also see the undermining of the necessity in any healthy society of an adequate infrastructure, and that’s not just in terms of material but relationships as well. What we see right now in Puerto Rico is a crisis exacerbated by the fact that there are massive resources flowing in, and many of those resources have been available almost immediately in the aftermath of the storm. But what is evident is the absence of adequate infrastructure, physical or material infrastructure such as something as basic as roads, and relational even political infrastructure meaning that they are capable leaders at every level on the island to make certain that those needed items of rescue are actually delivered, including food and water. The fact that all those goods were available offshore on U.S. Navy ships immediately after the hurricane hit, that’s stage one, but stage two requires the adequate, competent, strategic delivery of those goods and services, and that requires more than ships offshore. The absence of a healthy infrastructure becomes glaringly and even dangerously very clear in this situation of Puerto Rico.
But here’s where we also need to note that we as Christians understand that the first urgency is taking care of people. We need to urge that all the political recriminations and considerations will wait; unfortunately, given the political volatility of our current season, that doesn’t appear to be likely. Here’s where we need to underline the fact that when human life is at stake, that’s all that really matters for now.
The looming humanitarian crisis in Myanmar and the ineffectual nature of the United Nations
Meanwhile, a different kind of humanitarian disaster unfolding in the Asian nation of Myanmar, that’s the nation previously known as Burma before a military government changed the name and is now recognized as Myanmar by most international authorities. But those very same authorities are now charging the government of the nation with complicity in what amounts to genocide and massive human rights abuses directed towards a minority group in the country known as the Rohingya Muslims. Myanmar is a predominately Buddhist country, and for years now, there have been accusations that the majority has been persecuting the Muslim minority. Now, given the structure of the arguments at the United Nations and elsewhere, the government of Myanmar is arguing with charges and counter charges that the Rohingya Muslims started it all by involvement in terrorism against the state and they now charge in persecuting the even smaller Hindu minority within the nation. But sources at the United Nations and now the United States government is pointing the finger directly at the government of Myanmar, accusing the government of complicity in murder and potentially even in genocide. But as Rick Gladstone and Megan Specia reported for the New York Times, even if the 15 member United Nations Security Council considered the issue, they
“took no immediate action.”
Diplomats, however, said it was a starting point
“and noted that the Council had not discussed Myanmar publicly since 2009.”
At this point we can underline this as continued evidence of the ineffectual nature of the United Nations. We’ve been told that this crisis has been building for years, but the United Nations Security Council hasn’t discussed Myanmar out loud since 2009. That really says something, and even now all they did was discuss it, but at least we can be glad that the United States ambassador to the United Nations raised the issue in the ultimate, most public international forum. But here we note that when it comes to nations such as Myanmar, there is no effective outside police force that can make them respect the rights and human dignity of their own citizens. That is a heartbreaking point in terms of political realization, but realism does underline the fact that even as the United States government and its ambassador to the United Nations can speak vocally about this, there are severe limitations to any nation or to any collection of nations in dealing with a nation that isn’t going to respect the lives and the dignity of its own citizens.
Achievement and fragility of the nation-state on display as Kurds and Catalans push for independence
But next, even as we speak of nations and the nationstate, there were two huge developments in different parts of the world with regions seeking to hold elections in order to establish an independent state. Effectively, to secede from the nation of which they are now apart. Here we’re talking with the Kurds, predominately in Iraq, and the Catalonians within the nation of Spain. And here we’re looking at two different peoples but one central, inescapable story, and we’re also looking at a reality that becomes very apparent and that is this: There is no formal mechanism whereby a region all the sudden becomes a nationstate. Instead, we’re looking at all of the awkwardness of international affairs and the twists and turns of human history.
For one thing, we need to remind ourselves that the nationstate as we know it is a fairly recent development. You could in the sense of the modern nationstate go only back to the 19th century. Consider, for example, the unification of Germany as a nation that didn’t take place until 1871. Until then there were German states, kingdoms, and principalities, but not a German nation. All that changed in the last third of the 19th century with the argument made by the man who became known as the Great Chancellor of Germany Otto von Bismarck, a ruler who was described as operating by blood and iron who was the key figure behind unifying German, first of all militarily and then with everything else to follow. But by the time you come to the 20th century, the nationstate is clearly the shape of the feature, but the point here is that in human history, that’s a very, very recent development. We take for granted that we talk about nationstates and their flags, we talk about their boarders, we talk about international relations, and we even talk about something called the United Nations, which has existed in its current form only since 1945, and there we note with humility, that the list of member states tends to change over and over again.
The Kurds are an ancient people dated almost the same time as the emergence of the Israelites on the international stage. They’ve been around for about 3 millennia and they are predominately now located in the nations of Iraq and Iran and Turkey. The vote taken last week was by the Kurds in Iraq who are demanding the right to succeed and to establish their own nation, not just an autonomous region. But this is opposed not only by the government of Iraq, but also by the government of the United States and virtually every other world power. Even as this is directly an effort to succeed from Iraq, it has made its neighbors, Iran and Turkey, very, very nervous. And as many others have noted, the United States is not generally in favor of new nations, preferring that the map would stay stable, but similarly, over the weekend, there was what the Spanish are calling an illegal plebiscite taken in the would-be break away region of Catalonia, it’s most identified with its major city Barcelona, in which the Catalonians, who speak a different dialect than the Spanish and consider themselves a different people, voted without the legal or constitutional permission of Spain. The claims made by Catalonian independence leaders were that over 90 percent of those who were polled over the weekend voted in favor of separation. But it was also admitted that only about 42.5 percent of eligible voters actually went to the polls, or it might be true they were only able to get to the polls. Why? Because the Spanish government sought even to use its military and police to prevent the election from taking place in the first place.
The Kurds, religiously speaking, are a very diverse people, and as the Kurds often say, inside Kurdistan there is no understanding of a standard religious identity for the Kurds, but to outsiders Kurds appear like Muslims. Other Muslims, we should note, consider them apostate and that’s one of the reasons for the danger that Kurds have faced. There has been a longstanding independence movement and nationalist movement. In Catalonia it’s a very different situation, the issues there are not primarily religious, the Catalonians, we should note, have been predominately Roman Catholic through their history, although, like much of Europe, Catalonia is now considered to be increasingly secular with upwards of a third of those in Catalonia identifying as secular in one form or another. The one thing that seems to unite many in Catalonia is opposition to the fact that they are considered a part of Spain, and this independence movement is very, very powerful. Trying to interpret the situation, Amanda Taub and Max Fisher writing for the Interpreter column at the New York Times asked the right question:
“When does an independence movement get to form its own nation?”
They then explain,
“For decades, a set of unstated but well-known rules has supposedly decided that. But,”
“those rules include a number of contradictions.”
Indeed those contradictions loom large. The first rule they say is,
“Portray your cause as a struggle for democracy and human rights first, national self-determination [only] second.”
Then secondly, you’ve got to get some major world power on your side, preferably the United States in order to,
“compel, coerce or bribe the government you’re trying to break from into going along.”
Third they say the unstated rule is that this breakaway group must,
“seek independence from a ruler who is unelected and friendless.”
The point there being that breakaway movements seldom succeed when there’s international support and respect for the larger nationstate government. That means that the situation of the Kurds probably has a greater chance of breaking away successfully over time than the residents of Catalonia in Spain. But the bottom line, as the reporters make clear, is that there is no legal right under either international or even domestic law for secession. They then write,
“The modern international system is built, in part, on two ideas that turned out to be in tension: [First] borders are sacrosanct and [second] people determine their own political status.”
Indeed there is often now a contradiction between those two points, but the bigger issue from a Christian consideration is that nations are not facts of nature, they are political and moral achievements, and furthermore event as the nationstate is a fairly recent development and a rival on the world scene, it is also perhaps now understood to be fragile, and here Christians need to understand that it’s very important that the nationstate be respected because over time the nationstate has turned out to be far more effected at protecting human rights and dignity than other forms of government. We also need to note that breakaway efforts had been very long in play in a nation just to our north in Canada where the minority French-speaking providence of Quebec has perpetually had an independence movement and at times a very volatile movement towards succession from Canada. Furthermore, in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, you may remember, that the nation’s most populous state, California at least threatened in terms of some major political leaders to talk about seceding from the United States.
In terms of international analysis, it’s unlikely that many of these secessionist movements will succeed because most of the nation-states of the world prefer that the map state rather constant and stable. That’s not unimportant. But from a Christian worldview perspective, we also see the fact that the nationstate is a moral and political achievement, one that needs to be guarded, the fragility of which should humble us all.