the inevitability dodge
In the comments to ED’s post, Roland Dodds writes “First of all, the ‘meddling’ the United States engages in is the very thing any unipolar (or hegemonic) power would pursue”. Well, you might say that this meddling– the kind of military adventurism, aggressive expansion of the “sphere of influence”, and destructive, anti-democratic destabilization of foreign regimes through espionage and support of terrorism– is the kind of thing any unipolar or hegemonic power has pursued. Which is true. It’s just irrelevent to our moral and political evaluation of our country’s actions. Nothing, in fact, is inevitable, we can behave differently than the Roman Empire or the Mongol hordes, constantly tell everyone that we do, and for that reason alone should feel compelled to try. We say we’re the different country, the different superpower. Human morality, in my discrimination, tells us we should be. So lets.
This is something I’ve written at length about before, the tendency of people, when it comes to foreign policy, to argue from some sort of radically different standards of moral and righteous behavior than they would in any other context. So here. The fact that, say, no other child on the playground resisted the urge to walk up the slide instead of climbing the stairs is never taken as exculpating the next child to do it from guilt. Actions have moral content independent of the context of other actors, as I will say again and again. Those who have followed my writing at my other blog will know that I have a hard time getting off of this subject, but it is an incredibly confusing (even destabilizing) thing to encounter, when so many people swing wildly into pure moral relativism when the subject becomes American misconduct throughout the globe.
Dodds’s larger point, where he talks about the successes in the history of democracy building, I’m afraid has more than a bit of non-falsifiability to it. Yes, South Korea is in better shape than many other places in the world, and yes, South Korea was the beneficiary of American rebuilding. But to say that American rebuilding efforts caused South Korea’s ascension is to make a frankly enormous leap from correlation to causation. South Korea is a country with some enormous cultural and pragmatic competitive advantages compared to other countries. Those advantages would exist and help the people of South Korea regardless of American intervention. Crucially, North Korea does not share in all of these advantages, nor do many of the failed states or dictatorships of the world. To think that North Korea has a South Korea within it, that will flower into being if the ruling dictatorship is removed, is to take part in precisely the rank idealism that suggested that there was a little Swtizerland waiting to be born in Iraq.
Our cultural exports are tools in pushing for democracy overseas, but don’t assume they will succeed in all instances; in fact, North Korea is an excellent ying to the South’s yang. A society can block out and distort our cultural exports if it desires to do so, and thus in North Korea’s case, remains enslaved. I am thankful our nation did not cut off ties with China when they crushed democratic demonstrators in the late 80s; our continued cooperation has helped bring the country closer to democracy than if we had turned from them. But don’t assume such a strategy always works, and the force of the state is sometimes required to make it so.
This is not an accurate picture of the world or of history. To suggest that there is a dichotomy between countries that have access to American culture and are thus moved towards democracy, and those that don’t have access to American culture and media, and thus remain in darkness, is to engage in a very selective reading of world affairs. Indeed, Dodds has made the enormous mistake of eliding cultural and economic Westernization with great democracy or freedom. (Ironically for Dodds’s point of view, North Korean despot Kim Jong Il is an obsessive consumer of American media; it doesn’t seem to have made him any more amenable to the American way of freedom.) China indeed consumes a great deal of American culture; China has indeed undergone some liberalization of its market policies. To say that this represents in any way a movement towards genuine democratic reform is naive. The ruling junta in China is doing just fine, even with Western media and market reforms, and indeed, they seem to have recognized that they can placate their people with trash culture and widespread economic growth and thus won’t have to worry about that whole freedom and rights stuff. Or consider the people of Iran. American movies, music and television are wildly popular in Iran, and yet many people both consume that media and support Islamist theocracy, the suppression of women’s rights and the mullahs’ police state. The idea that Westernization in terms of culture leads to liberalization in terms of rights and democracy is just as wrong and as easily disproven as the claim that democracy leads to peace and stability.
This is the bare fact: the consequences of American interventionism outside of wars of defense, in the 20th and 21st centuries, have been on balance so skewed towards destabilization, destruction and assaults on human rights that it continues to amaze me that we act as though there is any question about it. The number of places that have been the subject of nightmares brought out of American destabilization and manipulation are legion; the number that have had their societies genuinely trasnformed for the better by American military or espionage influence, vanishingly small. Only in the funhouse of American foreign policy debate could a political ideology bat for such an absurdly low average as interventionism has and yet still not have been discredited utterly.