Between the Atlantic Ocean and the China Sea there are at least half a dozen “rogue states”, countries that are unable to find a satisfactory place in an international order in which only economic prowess counts. There could soon be many more, some of them armed to the teeth and led by warlike individuals who greatly value piety and are determined to keep the modern age at bay. One such is Iran.
North Americans, Europeans and East Asians are undecided about how to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear arsenal. With the possible exception of the Chinese, who know a thing or two about the power of ideology and are currently “reeducating” millions of Muslims in an effort to save them from what the antiterrorism experts euphemistically call “radicalisation”, few are much interested in what is going on in the ayatollahs’ heads. All most want is for them to stop stirring up trouble. Meanwhile, they will let the US take charge of the situation and do their best to profit from whatever misunderstandings may arise.
There are sure to be many. In the US it has long been obligatory to pretend that people are much the same everywhere, which is why so many desperately want to become North Americans. Oldfashioned sceptics who say cultural differences should sometimes be taken into account tend to be distrusted by allegedly hard-headed realists in Washington who seem to be especially prone to overlook whatever they find inconvenient.
George W. Bush and his advisors assumed that all human beings wanted to be free and would give an enthusiastic welcome to anybody who would rid them of oppressors; many Westerneducated Afghans and Iraqis agreed, but there were not enough them to make building democracy in their part of the world as easy as optimists had assumed. In chronically insecure regions like the Middle East and Africa, many people find freedom uncomfortable and much prefer to be told what to do. Were that not the case, democracy or something like it would flourish the world over.
Donald Trump is less highminded than Bush or, for that matter, Barack Obama, who apparently thought that terrorism would fade away if the US apologized convincingly enough for being so strong, wealthy and influential. Trump’s approach to the problems posed by sworn enemies of the country he presides over is rudimentary; he takes it for granted that what people really want is more stuff, lots of it, and don’t mind where it comes from. That is why for over a year he has been either threatening Kim Jong-un with a fiery end or telling him that, in exchange for the dismantling of a couple of nuclear plants and some missiles, he would see to it that North Korea became as rich as the capitalist South. Last week, he made much the same offer to Ali Khameini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, a man who enjoys hearing his followers shout Death to America.
Trump’s theory about what makes people tick has its merits. Individuals who are more interested in piling up consumer goods, often for symbolic purposes, than in anything else have always been ill treated by those who see themselves as intellectuals, but all but the greediest and crassest of shoppers is less dangerous than those who, like Shakespeare’s Cassius, “think too much”.
Many of these, including some of the brightest, are attracted by the single-minded revolutionaries and religious fanatics who use their fellow human beings as pieces of clay to be twisted into whatever shape they think desirable and which, if they cannot be made to fit into the appropriate slots, should be consigned to the rubbish heap.
The prospect of getting the fabulous amounts of material goods that Trump, like a benevolent deity, is dangling in front of Kim, Khamenei and their respective underlings could affect the behaviour of the former, who would want to have them all for himself, but the latter, in public at least, would dismiss the notion with contempt as yet another example of Western decadence that should be righteously spurned by all believers.
It is entirely possible that, after mulling it over, Kim will feel tempted to take the bait being offered by Trump. He must rather like the idea of reuniting Korea under an arrangement that would allow him to keep his own freedom and the loot he has piled up, even he was not named president for life. It would be less exciting than watching the White House go up in smoke as in a video game, but for him it would make an attractive retirement plan. As for his granddad’s Juche version of communism, he will see it as part of the comic-book world people of his age got brought up in.
But Khamenei seems to be a far tougher bird than Kim. Despite the opposition of a growing number of Iranians, the devastating collapse of the birth rate and a series of economic calamities that have been made worse by US sanctions, the Islamic revolution that was kicked off by his predecessor, the ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1979 is still a going concern. It depends on willpower, not on the military deployment of high tech gadgetry, and the feeling that at long last the West is in retreat does not seem to have been that much affected by Trump’s sporadic bellicosity. While some of the men in Iran’s ruling circles may be as scornful of religiosity as any 18th century freethinker, there are enough fanatics to ensure they all toe the officially approved line. And, like the Sunni jihadis of the Islamic State group, they run organisations for which thousands of young people are eager to die.
Many Westerners say they find such a death wish incomprehensible, something to do with oriental fatalism; they forget that, until
quite recently, their own forefathers felt similarly devoted to their
own country. For a fervent believer, a religious or political cult is a
fatherland or motherland. Pace Wilfred Owen, in many societies,
“dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” is not the discredited “old
lie” it has been among the intelligentsia in much of the Englishspeaking world for over a hundred years. For many millions of
people, a willingness to die on behalf of something greater than
oneself is what gives meaning to life.