The Geopolitics of Compassion

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

Beyond the spectacle of the presidential race, the Washington consensus pursues business as usual. This is the season in which I wonder, with an ever-intensifying sense of urgency, what it would take to turn our political system into a democracy.

“And yet the militarization of the United States and the strengthening of the national security complex continues to accelerate,” Tom Engelhardt wrote earlier this month. “The Pentagon is, by now, a world unto itself. . . .”

And as the world’s major powers play a 21st-century version of the “Great Game” to control the resources of the world, the U.S., in contrast with China, writes David Vine, “has focused relentlessly on military might as its global trump card, dotting the planet with new bases and other forms of military power.”

We’re a hyper-militarized global empire, dominating if not quite “ruling” — a word, after all, that implies order and stability — a large swath of the world by brute physical, as well as economic, force. This is not a debated issue, simply what “we” do, or rather, what unelected decision makers do in our name, and will continue to do regardless of the outcome of the 2012 presidential election. Even if there’s majority support, or would be, if it were sought, for America’s pursuit of empire, the quiet secrecy of it, and the complete lack of accountability, are deeply troubling.

We go to war, or the equivalent of war, whenever and wherever we feel like it, killing civilians, destabilizing societies, waving our red flag. Engelhardt, in his essay on “the Failure of the Military Option,” summarizes the disastrous consequences we’ve inflicted on much of the world just since 2001, in our ill-considered interventions and globalized pursuit of manifest destiny. We’ve created chaos, inspired deep hatred and often undercut our own interests pretty much everywhere we’ve swaggered, including Pakistan, Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Somalia, Egypt and Libya — as well, of course, as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet none of its failures have given the U.S. military the least pause in throwing its muscle around somewhere else, or building new bases. In his 2007 book Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, the late Chalmers Johnson noted: “If there were an honest count, the actual size of our military empire would probably top 1,000 different bases overseas, but no one — possibly not even the Pentagon — knows the exact number for sure.” He added: “America’s version of the colony is the military base.”

Once again, I add that this staggeringly costly undertaking is an ongoing fait accompli. Decisions that further the reach of the American empire have no public resonance; they’re simply made and implemented, altering the world, perpetuating global tensions and destroying lives, while the American public and the corporate media, accepting their powerlessness, distract themselves with trivia.

This is geopolitics, a collision and collusion of impersonal forces, as removed from ordinary humanity as gravity, weather and continental drift. The best we can do is live our lives around it, right? Feelings don’t enter into it, beyond the cries of the wounded and the survivors, and the occasional meaningless apology of one government to another: The collateral damage was “regrettable.” This is the game of history.

Deepak Tripathi, writing a few days ago for CounterPunch, described the relentless grind and push of nations against each other. The large and powerful remain in a state of wary respect toward one another, in alliance or competition. The weak become compliant satellites of “the hegemon” — the United States — or defiant outcasts, ripe for invasion and occupation.

“Beyond these categories,” he writes, “are the discarded –– completely failed entities like Somalia, Ethiopia, Mali, where utterly poor and miserable people live.

“The hegemon and satellites have not a care in the world for the welfare of such people, except sending drones or troops from neighboring client states to kill those described as ‘terrorists.’ What desperate poverty and misery lead to has no space within the realm of this thinking.”

And this is the world over which we seemingly have no influence. Theoretically, democracy gives all citizens some power in the realm of geopolitics, in whether our country behaves as an empire, brutally and clumsily asserting its influence around the world, or displays a new and unprecedented sort of leadership, recognizing the sanctity of life and the wholeness of the planet.

I know, this sounds naïve to the point of absurdity, especially because what I’m really talking about is power — the power to disarm an empire, the power to redefine the nation’s interests, the power to bring compassion (synonymous with sanity) to the realm of geopolitics. Who am I kidding?

“We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.”

So reads the Charter for Compassion, one of many global cries for a new way of being, which includes a new, demilitarized geopolitics. This can only happen if democracy becomes, once again, a force of history.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at or visit his website at