-- by Sara
Glenn Greenwald has a perceptive take on the new Pew global polling data which shows steep declines in worldwide admiration of America through the Bush years. Greenwald notes that some bloggers attribute this to better information networks ("the pre-Internet era was not the Dark Ages," he counters) or post-Cold-War shifts in perception; or to our own hubris in believing in a fantasy of America The Good that nobody else really ever bought into.
But, says Greenwald, none of these is quite right. America's high standing in the postwar world was indeed real. And the reason it persisted for so long was simply this: "the good that the U.S. did in the world outweighed the bad." Nobody ever really thought we were flawless or blameless; but they did tend to trust our essential goodness of heart, and admire our foundational values. We could be stupid and thoughtless on an epic scale; but even then, the rest of the world usually understood that we were, somehow, trying to accomplish something worthwhile. And, though our blunders were many and sometimes catastrophic, it happened often enough that our initiatives really did make things better for our intended beneficiaries.
The discussion around Greenwald's post might be amplified with another perspective: that of British futurist Ziauddin Sardar, an orthodox British Muslim of Pakistani parentage who is one of the UK's more visible public intellectuals. In recent years, Sardar has made a career out of explaining the Muslim world to the Brits, mediating and translating between the Western and Near Eastern cultures on the pages of the Observer and The New Statesman and frequently on BBC news shows as well. (It's interesing that nowhere in the US media do we have a similarly trusted Muslim media figure who can help us bridge the most important cultural chasm of our times. Wonder why that is?) A iconoclastic outsider, Sardar is unsparing in his critiques of both cultures, issuing insights, warnings, and alternatives on either side that have made him indispensable to a European audience that increasingly sees itself caught in the middle.
In 2003, Sardar (with co-author Merryl Wynn Davies) wrote a small book called Why Do People Hate America?. It was a rampant bestseller across Europe, and did much to frame the popular argument overseas for the current resentment people feel for this country. In the book, he explains the animus behind the 9/11 attacks to a wondering Western world, accusing the US of four kinds of imperialism which he describes as existential, cosmological, ontological, and semantic.
Existentially, he says, "the US has simply made it too hard for other people to exist. In economic terms, this is a stark reality for the majority of the world's population…the US has structured the global economy to perpetually enrich itself and reduce non-Western societies to abject poverty." The good intentions Greewald invokes were, with increasing frequency over time, exposed as not much more than a mask for a new form of colonialization -- and recently-liberated former colonies didn't take long to react badly to that piece of the agenda. This disenchantment accelerated through the 90s, as those who once admired our commitment to human rights soured on us, and as globalization proceeded apace and "democracy" increasingly became a euphemism for policies that supported multinational corporations in their rape of the non-American world. On this front, American credibility abroad started tanking during the Reagan years, and has been in free fall ever since. Too many people have figured out that their very existence, as states and as individuals, continues only at our pleasure.
Cosmologically, Sardar argues, America has essentially taken on the role of global God. "America is seen as the prime cause of everything. Nothing seems to move without America's consent; nothing can be solved without America's involvement." By its sheer overweening omnipresence, says Sardar, America has colonized the future of the entire world. Taking over the role of all-seeing, all-knowing planetary power, it has infused the country's actions with an unbounded hubris that has, in turn, created fear and loathing everywhere else.
Of course, we don't see ourselves this way. To Americans, "freedom" means, more than anything, the freedom to choose the future that you desire, and enjoy every opportunity to pursue it. Our Founders recognized that this "pursuit of happiness" was a fundamental good, and an essential quality of a healthy democracy. The suggestion that we've effectively foreclosed that option to the citizens of most of the other countries on earth seems incredible on its face.
But, according to Sardar, this is indeed how the small nations of the world experience us. They want our money and support in order to advance. They desire access to our markets, and stable, durable democratic governments modeled after ours. There was a time when we gave such aid generously, in the name of global stability and keeping Communism at bay. Now, it comes with so many strings attached that to accept aid from the US (or its proxies, the IMF and WTO) is to put your nation and its future generations into economic and political bondage. Even worse: like the Russians, even if you decide you don't like our terms and don't want us in your country, if you've got something we want, you won't have much choice about whether or not we're there. And even if we do leave you alone, don't ever doubt that Big Brother is still watching your every move.
Again, this cosmological imperialism started taking off in the late 80s, and has accelerated to this day. Now, in most of the rest of the world, you can't do anything -- build a dam, feed your peasants, protect your collapsing environment -- if someone in the US has other ideas about what should happen. If you can't justify it in terms of American interests, forget about it.
Ontologically, Sardar points out that America's tendency to divide the world into "good" and "evil" -- while holding itself up as the sole defining exemplar of "good" -- only exacerbates the hypocrisy other nations perceive when the US commits grave wrongs or fails to live up to its own ideals. At the same time, this unwarranted belief in our own perfection gives Americans a tin ear for valid criticisms coming from other quarters.
As Greenwald notes, this wasn't always the case. The world has never been particularly blind to America's flaws; but as long as the good we did outweighed the bad, they were willing to give us the benefit of the doubt. Besides, for most of the postwar era, the choice was between us and the Soviets -- and most people knew whose side they preferred to be on.
Ironically, the Cold War forced us to be our best selves -- if only to play up the very real differences between Us and Them. Taking the high road, whenever possible, allowed us to burnish our image as the international Good Guys, and thus project our soft power around the world. And the desire to keep other nations close and retain our influence encouraged us to listen to them closely, and treat them like more like family -- as successful empires have always done with their member states.
But, when the Cold War ended, we lost all our incentive to Do The Right Thing. As the world's sole remaining superpower, it was too easy to start just doing what we wanted, and justifying it anyway we pleased. The "family" aspect of our empire turned abusive and ugly. And, since we were deep in the conservative phase of our own political cycle at the time, there was also no shortage of power-hungry social dominators standing ready to capitalize on this historic opportunity by seizing the levers of power and aiming the US toward a future based on their own fear, hubris, and greed -- and no strong progressive side to stop them. The Cold War enemy was gone; but the imperative to carve the world up into "good" and "evil" persisted. We have now chased the conservative movement's demons all the way around the world; and, as so often happens when people pursue their own shadows, we have become the thing we most despise in the process.
Fourth and finally, Sardar says, America insists on wielding semantic power to control the very definitions of words like democracy, justice, freedom, human rights, fundamentalism, a free press, terrorism, and so on. In doing this, it deprives other nations of the right to envision and develop their own indigenous versions of these concepts for themselves. They're only allowed to use these words as we define them. And, as a result, the very discourse of human rights, both here and abroad, has become very pinched and narrow.
We find it hard to accept that Muslim nations might develop their own forms of religious democracy that include the imams as a fourth branch of government -- and yet such democracies have existed in the Muslim world for 1500 years. We've developed a view of justice that privileges property and capital; in other parts of the world, justice may be defined in ways that privilege other values, such the health of the community or its common holdings, or the rights of future generations. Even liberal Americans can be rather fundamentalist in their insistence that these words have only one meaning -- our meaning -- and anyone else who doesn't share that precise definition is wrong. If we are going to have any kind of productive discourse about our global future, Sardar insists, we're going to have to let go of this semantic hegemony.
Furthermore, Sardar points out, when the US imposes its definitions of these concepts on other nations, the results are usually wildly inconsistent, varying according to pattern that can only be interpreted as opportunistic. To American leaders, "human rights" means one thing when heroic Chechen "freedom fighters" are struggling against Russia; and quite another when an important trading partner like China brutalizes its own people. The hypocrisy of these fluid definitions has done much to destroy other nations' trust in America's vaunted moral authority. Sardar believes that by seizing the power to define the way core human ideals are both envisioned and expressed, and then corrupting those definitions, America has deprived other countries of the epistemological means to name and claim their own futures.
Based on Sardar's observations, it seems clear to me that Greenwald is right. There was an American Age in which our nation was held in very high regard around the world, trusted and admired in spite of its obvious flaws. The above arguments -- Sardar's and mine -- make it clear that much of our loss of standing in the world can be traced to the end of the Cold War, and the directions in which the right wing of this country has steered us for its own purposes in the nearly two decades since.
It was one thing when our errors were well-meaning, and people knew they could trust our intentions. But after 1990, our underlying good motives became far less clear; and, at the same time, the errors began to appear far more deliberate and egregious. And from 2000 forward, as the Bush years rolled on into 9/11 and then Iraq, the world's other nations were forced to abandon the fantasy that the American people, as distinct from their leaders, were basically of good heart and could be trusted to do the right thing eventually. Electing Bush -- twice -- has only confirmed what they had increasingly suspected through the 90s: that the amoral quest for global power they were seeing from American-backed institutions-- both governmental and private -- was proceeding with the full sanction and blessing of the American people. At that point, all confidence vanished.
It's been all downhill ever since. And the worst part is this: Our decisive role in fighting World War II earned us a run of global goodwill that we coasted on for the next 50 years, even as our actual policies grew increasingly less peaceable and benign. And, on the flip side, the bad karma of our decisive role in Iraq (and in trashing Kyoto, and abandoning the International Criminal Court, and the fact that we now build Soviet-style gulags and torture people in them) is going to cling to us for the next 50 -- no matter what or how much we do to make up for it in the decades ahead.
Those who remember America The Good are passing, leaving the world in the hands of those who only have memories of America the Evil. Any PR person can tell you that a good reputation lost takes Herculean efforts to regain. Of all the battles that await us, this one may be the hardest -- and, realistically, it's one we probably shouldn't expect to win in our lifetimes.