Sunday, March 29, 2009

They May Speak English, But We're Still 'The Other'

Quoting an unnamed government source, Spencer Ackerman notes:

The official believes that U.S. diplomats in Pakistan accept Pakistani claims of maximal warfighting efforts at face value: “They don’t speak Urdu, they don’t speak Pashto, and they eat it all up.”

Matthew Yglesias responds:

This sort of thing is, in my view, really the achilles heel of the American imperial project. The economic and military might of the United States gives us enormous power to influence events in distant lands. But having a lot of ability to influence events is unlikely to achieve anything useful unless you actually understand what’s happening...Note that during the FDR and Truman years, American elites were generally more familiar with Europe than European elites were with the United States. I think that’s an important element in understanding why the institution-building of that era largely worked.

I agree that asymmetrical information was a significant advantage to the U.S. in rebuilding Europe, post-WW II, but I don’t think it’s the most important, by any means. To leave it at that is to leave the impression that, regardless whether the object of institution-building efforts has been, as was the case with Europe, closely tied culturally, politically and economically with the U.S., or, completely devastated by a war culminating in the use of nuclear weapons, was subsequently controlled by direct U.S. military rule (Japan), is irrelevant to the probabilities of a successful outcome. Apologists for imperialism like Niall Ferguson overlook the fact that the post-WW II conditions enabling successful U.S.-led reconstruction were sui generis. The history of imperialism is replete with examples of societies resisting, in any way available, the efforts by external powers with whom those societies had little or no prior contact, influence or mutually perceived self-interest. It is not merely a matter of information. I think Yglesias overlooks the importance of the perception on the receiving end that the life of a given country and its people are being altered more or less arbitrarily by some alien external force. And whether the rulers of a given country speak English or not, we are still perceived, as imperial powers have always been, as The Other. Louis Coser famously theorized that externally generated force leads to in-group cohesion. History provides us with endless examples reinforcing that observation. I think we overlook them at our peril. To put it another way, "the achilles heel of the American imperial project" is--imperialism.

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