A Response to Self-congratulationism

Submitted to Foreign Policy magazine, 1/5/06

by Caleb Stewart Rossiter

Michael Mandelbaum's paean to America as a "benign hegemon" ("David's Friend Goliath"; Jan./Feb. 2006) is a classic text from a dangerous school of thought in international relations: self-congratulationism. This school of thought eschews country or class-specific analysis and simply asserts that the dominant state provides stability, and that stability is good for the dominated. The danger inherent in self-congratulationism is that it encourages the acceptance of empire, which is inherently evil, and destroys those who stand in its way.

Professor Mandelbaum's focuses on the developed nations, and he is often correct in validating his hypothesis for most of their citizens. However, an analysis of the underdeveloping world leads to the conclusion that the U.S. government -- from its backing of recolonization in 1945 and its acceptance of the neocolonial mantle in the 1960s to its crucial support today for dictators who cooperate with its military, covert, and economic initiatives -- has on balance harmed rather than helped the average citoyen du tier monde, the one who lives near the edge of stark poverty.

Perhaps this judgment is an after-effect of the year I just spent teaching in Africa, where my students' orientation on the motives and impact of American power was as far to left of mine as my American students' is to the right of it. Let us consider some of the article's specific claims from the perspective of the underdeveloping nations to see if "benevolence" is accurate:

"The United States does not endanger other countries, nor does it invariably act without regard to the interests and wishes of others….(Unilateralism) does not hold true for U.S. foreign policy as a whole….In contrast with empires of the past…the United States does not control, or aspire to control, directly or indirectly, the politics and economics of other societies….Far from menacing the rest of the world, the United States plays a uniquely positive global role….(America) has intervened militarily in a few places outside its borders, including Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. But these are exceptions that prove the rule….Unlike the great empires of the past, the U.S. goal was to build stable, effective governments…"

Diplomats and non-governmental actors who have sat in deliberations on the laws of war, anti-personnel landmines, nuclear weapons, the environment, gun control, and the invasion of Iraq over the past decade will be shocked to hear that U.S. policy is largely multilateral. Similarly, citizens in scores of nations will be shocked to hear that the United States does not try to control their political economy. From literally A to Z, starting in Angola and continuing to Zaire, with Cambodia, Congo, Cuba, Colombia, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Somalia, Sudan, and Viet Nam in between, to name a few, the United States has related to the entire underdeveloping world since World War II as it has since 1898 to its "back yard" of Latin America: elites who cooperate receive cash and guns, while those who do not get to feel the pain of destabilization and perhaps invasion.

U.S. military, covert, and economic programs operate in every country in the developing world, and the purpose of those programs is American power. Overtly or covertly, we arm and train the armed forces of over 150 nations, and that includes many dictators' armies. President Bush's incessant talk about freedom (32 times in the apologia for invading and occupying Iraq that comprised his second inaugural address; 52 times if obvious synonyms and antonyms are included) as the core our foreign policy is just that, as long as the bases stay open, the minerals keep flowing, and the profits can be repatriated. "Freedom" is repeated on bumper stickers and before football games to justify the complex of American depredations of developing nations, but "they" don't hate us because of our freedoms, as President Bush has claimed, but because of the freedoms we take with our power.

The empires of history, be they Athenian or Persian 2,500 years ago, Roman or Egyptian 2,000 years ago, Muslim or Chinese 1000 years ago, British or Zulu in the 19th century, or German or Italian in World War II, never cared who ruled their satrapies, as long as they cooperated. Indirect rule and aid to local rulers and their armies are cheaper than occupation, and intervention only comes when the local tyrants stop delivering.

The U.S. relationship with Africa reveals the devastation caused by America's imperial practices. As shown in a remarkable book on the Cuban-American competition in Africa by one of Professor Mandelbaum's colleagues at Johns Hopkins ("Conflicting Missions," by Piero Gleijeses), recent finds from American, African, Soviet, and Cuban archives confirm that in the 1960s and 1970s, U.S. support for rulers and movements in Africa, from the white-ruled territories of Portugal and the apartheid government to the contested black-ruled former colonies, was active, significant, and almost entirely predicated on cooperation with U.S. military and economic goals. The U.S. government fueled debilitating wars, such as those in the Congo (Zaire), where the Johnson administration funded Mike Hoare's mercenaries as they lynched followers of elected prime minister Patrice Lumumba (who had been murdered with the collusion of the Kennedy administration), and in Angola, where for nearly 20 years, starting with the Ford administration, the United States funded two potentially cooperative groups, the Zairean-backed FNLA and the South African-backed UNITA, rather than allow a Soviet and Cuban-backed group to lead the government.

In the 1980s, the four largest Sub-Saharan recipients of U.S. military and economic aid were brutal dictatorships who cooperated with U.S. military and covert operations: Liberia (CIA communications and logistics station for the continent), Somalia (bases for President Carter's Rapid Deployment Force), Sudan (support for U.S. covert operations against Libya), and Zaire (continued U.S. access to the treasure trove of minerals in Shaba province, in particular the military and industrial giants, cobalt and, more recently, coltan). Millions of people died from the dislocation of the civil wars fought to overthrow the U.S.-backed thugs, and none of these four countries has a functioning nation-wide government today. Under Presidents Clinton and Bush, arming, training, and joint exercises with armies serving cooperative African dictators have continued apace, as part of the cementing of America's status as the world leader in arming non-democratic governments. We can only guess which nations we will look back on in 20 years and say, these are the new Liberias, Somalias, Sudans, and Zaires, places where the language of inculcating military professionalism and democracy gave way to the reality of devastating civil war.

Professor Mandelbaum further argues that the United States provides a fair setting for a world government, because "the American political system is fragmented, which means there are multiple points of access to it" for other countries who can approach its congressional committees, think-tanks and lobbyists. Having spent 20 years in those three arenas, watching entities funded by military contractors, arms-dealers, and allied labor unions cash in with elected officials, from liberal to conservative, on campaign contributions and voters delivered, I must warn the El Salvadors and Vietnams of the past and the Irans and Venezuelas of today that these "points of access" are largely reserved for pro-imperial pressures. In any event, the overwhelming popularity of an aggressive foreign policy among white, non-Jewish, male voters (80% of whom supported President Bush's re-election) has recently created a presidency that has little difficulty dominating the Congress, no matter who is lobbying it.

By applauding the United States as "a mediator for international conflicts" that "assumed responsibility for coping with…the spread of nuclear weapons to 'rogue states' and terrorist organizations," Professor Mandelbaum accepts too easily the cynical reversal after the demise of the Soviet Union by life-long opponents of arms control, who seized on "arms control by force" as a policy that could justify the military spending needed for global intervention capabilities. The Bush administration portrayed, and continues to portray, the invasion of Iraq not as an effort to seize missing stockpiles of low-utility chemical weapons, as Professor Mandelbaum argues, but as a way to forestall President Bush's infamous "mushroom cloud" over Cincinnati. Building a consensus for joint incentives and pressure against states trying to join the nuclear club is indeed in the global interest, but military power and covert operations have little chance of stopping the inevitable additions, as the cases of Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea show. In the long-run, U.S. maintenance of nuclear weapons in violation of our commitment under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to bargain them away mutually under safeguards may do as much to encourage states to join the club as our saber-rattling will do to discourage them.

On the economic front, Professor Mandelbaum posits that the United States provides benefits to the world economy by, in its own interests, patrolling shipping lanes, backing a global currency, and serving as a lender of last resort. The impact of the global system of trade and finance enshrined by U.S.-dominated international institutions is hotly debated, and properly so, because it varies so much between, and within, countries. Certainly this global system has provided a platform for some formerly colonized countries, particularly in East Asia, to develop strategies to compete with the developed economies, and achieve strong overall growth and in some cases reduce significantly the percentage of their citizens living in absolute poverty. (It should be noted that these strategies were not supported by, and were often opposed by, the United States and the international institutions.) However, many other former colonies, particularly in Africa and Latin America, have not been able to achieve either strong growth or poverty reduction within this system.

Under this system, which Professor Mandelbaum properly lauds for its benefits to the developed nations, those very nations have engaged in an aid charade in Africa ever since the colonial masters accepted the reality of political independence, but trapped the continent in its previous role as an extractive economy that trades, under ever-deteriorating relative terms, raw materials for finished goods. In the latest incarnation of the charade, prime ministers, rock stars, and the lords of poverty at the United Nations and World Bank paradoxically call for debt conversion from previously unsustainable aid programs and a dramatic increase in new aid to reduce poverty. Both steps entail more externally-imposed conditions that favor developed nations and ensure that the funds will not be used to emulate the East Asian model of moving from low-profit provider of raw materials to high-profit refiner, packager, and retail distributor in developed nations.

Poverty is political, both within and between countries. The laughably weak return over the past 20 years from massive outside aid to Africa shows that the most important poverty reduction efforts must be largely indigenous. However, even with more inclusive and less corrupt policies in ethnically-fractured African nations, unless there is a significant shift in power toward African states in the international trading system, even dramatically increased aid will just overwhelm limited local capacity, prolong the rule of a few more dictators (as the original "Live Aid" did in Ethiopia in the 1980s), and add more scuttled projects to the already-cluttered landscape.

Professor Mandelbaum applauds the United States for its alliance with dictators in the Middle East, in which cheap oil is tacitly exchanged for U.S. weapons that then maintain those cooperative dictators. To turn his own paraphrase of that ardent imperialist Winston Churchill against him, never have so many resources been wasted by so few. This policy also exposes the weakness in his claim that the world grumbles about, but secretly enjoys, U.S. domination. America's imposition of the Shah in Iran and maintenance of the Gulf family nations has done much to inflame Muslim opinion against it. It is true that national leaders must be circumspect, to avoid recriminations for their people, but there are moments when true feelings shine through. One of those occurred in 2005 when, in a delightful role reversal of the American anti-apartheid movement's sanctions against a rogue South Africa in the 1980s, democratic South Africa sanctioned rogue America by denying a port visit to U.S. naval vessels taking part in the continuing war in Iraq.

By my recent reading, self-congratulationism has strong standing in academic circles. Among its most prestigious adherents are Professor Mandelbaum, who speaks on behalf of today's Goliath, and one of the authors listed after his article, Niall Ferguson, whose trenchant critique in his 2002 book "Empire" of the swath of murder and pillage cut through Africa and Asia by its British predecessor descends surprisingly into the mawkish conclusion that all moral accounts were balanced by Britain's self-interested fight against Nazi Germany. Of course, state leaders, interested commercial actors, captive media, popular musicians, and court sycophants have always engaged in self-congratulation. The claim of political freedom, economic growth, and social improvement for the dominated by the Bush administration and its publicists is new only in its incessant hyper-marketing. What is new is that scholars are joining in.

Exceptionalism, the belief that one's nation is uniquely altruistic in its motivations and beneficial in its ministrations, should be a disease of bodies politic, not academic. This trend may arise in part from universities' search for an identity, which often leads them to support, rather than critique, national security policy. Professor Mandelbaum may not be consciously swayed in this direction by having his chair named for a U.S. secretary of state, Christian Herter, and his institution named for a notorious cooker of the threat-assessment books, Paul Nitze, whose brainchild, the Committee on the Present Danger, contributed to three misguided military buildups, from the nonexistent "missile gap" in the 1950s through the "Team B" exaggerations of Soviet power in the 1970s and 1980s to today's latest causus belli, "Islamo-fascism." Yet these daily reminders must have some relevance to his orientation to the academic study of American power.

It is certainly comforting for Americans to be told that "the alternative to the role the United States plays in the world…would make the world a far more dangerous and less prosperous place," but this false dichotomy neglects the dangers that already exist, particularly among the substantial share of people living in poverty, without safe water and solid housing, including large numbers of children who have to work, hustle, or beg rather go to school. A more meaningful dichotomy would be between U.S. dominance and solidarity with other peoples and nations. Choosing solidarity would require a dramatic reduction in U.S. military power and covert programs, an end to support for dictators, and an acceptance of economic strategies that may, in the short term, help poor countries at the expense of some of our citizens. As for the goal of prosperity, empire's dominance generally enriches some, and at times many, of the citizens whose country is the dominator, and impoverishes some, and at times many, of the citizens whose countries are the dominated. However, empire also can be costly to the dominator and can provide benefits to the dominated.

From a moral viewpoint consistent with the creed of Jesus, which is rightly accepted even by the atheists among us, that "man does not live by bread alone," the fact that an empire provides some benefits to the dominated is irrelevant. As an Indian student of mine replied after listening in amazement as an American student called the British Empire a "net plus" for the subcontinent because it built a solid railroad system, "We beg to differ." Also begging to differ, Ho Chi Minh rejected Lyndon Johnson's lachrymose offer to build a Mekong Delta Authority that would bring the two impoverished Vietnams electric power and hope for the future as the Tennessee Valley Authority had for impoverished Appalachia. This act of charity, of course, was to be contingent on Ho accepting U.S. suzerainty over the southern part of his country. It is a measure of the power of the human spirit that conquered people want independence, not social services. The peace of mind brought by freedom from foreign domination simply cannot be bought.

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