America and the World

Back in the early ’50’s, when I was a junior officer in the American Embassy in Damascus, Syria, I had a talk with a prosperous Syrian farmer, Nadim, who had studied in the USA, and had come back to his family’s extensive landholdings in the foothills north of the capital. He told me something that has stuck like a burr in the back of my mind. I think perhaps the time has come to pull it out and dust it off.

“You Americans have it all wrong with this foreign aid business, this Point Four you call it. What you are doing is sending your farmers over to teach all the farmers here to grow things the way you do. That’s not the way it works, that’s not the way you get people to adopt your methods, to modernize. You do it like you did with me. You take the Syrians that have real initiative and brains, and maybe some capital to start with. You let us come to the United States to live there long enough to see how you make things work, then we go back and figure out how to use what we have learned, in the context of our own local attitudes and politics and all that. We adapt your know-how to our conditions and make a lot of money and pretty soon everyone else is imitating us…you send some American over to teach us, nobody believes him, nobody wants to imitate him…”

I spent much of the next thirty years watching our efforts to help traditional societies modernize. I watched us send retired Iowa wheat farmers over to teach people who already had five thousand years experience in how to grow wheat, and saw how they took our seed and fertilizer and said thank you and ignored our advice. We had a lot of problems along those lines. Generally we were less successful at meeting our goals than we were at explaining to Congress and the US public why what we were doing was important.

There were two major problems. One was the “one size fits all” approach, that there was some magic formula for development that worked everywhere. This usually involved a new theory that evolved in an American university or think tank, that was picked up by a central bureaucracy in Washington that was more concerned with Congressional opinion than with what was happening in the field. These theories had a life cycle, like women’s fashions, that lasted several years. Out in the field they were mostly irrelevant. When you had an intelligent aid director and Washington left him alone good things sometimes happened, but when headquarters insisted on doing everything their way, much of the effort tended to be wasted. This was true in spades when Congress got in the act, with its insistence on general rules and procedures that even they could understand.

The other problem was even more basic: the assumption that we were omniscient. Technological diffusion across cultures has always been a two-way process, but for us it was strictly top down, teacher to pupil. So it took us a long time to learn why we weren’t successful, and the learning process is still far from complete.

There was a a glorious exception, the Peace Corps. Our volunteers went to the hills and learned to squat with the natives. There was no condescension, no assumption of inerrancy. They learned as they went along, and hybridized what they learned with their previous knowledge, much like Nadim did, when he studied in America and then applied what he had learned back home. They did well where they were posted and when they went home they were better citizens.

I kept in touch with what our PCV’s in Nepal were doing, during my two assignments there. They were magnificent. Then, when some PCV’s who had previously served in Nepal reenlisted as AID personnel, we sent them to the Rapti Valley in an integrated rural development program. They understood the local dynamics and how to get things done within the local system, and they soon had a program going that left all previous efforts along that line in the dust. Things happened.

Of course, the Maoist insurrection started in that same area, ten years later. Go figure. At least you can say our boys and girls helped wake the place up.

When the Cold War ended, it unfroze many things, including our attitudes toward the rest of the world. Political theories of how we might best cope with a newly unshackled world’s regional and ethnic problems proliferated, at least partly replacing the theories of economic development I described during the earlier period. The most insidious, and until recently the most successful, of these theories was based on the notion that America should use its military dominance to remake the world along democratic lines. During the current administration, as we all know, the so-called neo-conservatives assumed power and, acting on this dubious premise, dragged us into the misadventure in Iraq. Now that most of us recognize the folly of our Iraq experiment, we find ourselves at a historic turning point: neo-conservatist adventurism is on its way out, discredited in the eyes of most Americans, and a debate is starting about what will replace it.

The first candidate to replace the idea that we sell democracy at the point of a sword is the idea that we can use modern merchandising techniques to sell it instead. Karen Hughes’ recent expedition around the Middle East demonstrates pretty conclusively that this approach is a non-starter, but many Americans remain obsessed by the odious idea that if you package something attractively and spend enough money, it will sell. Never mind what’s inside the package. Tail fins will triumph, as General Motors used to maintain. Madison Avenue diplomacy will have, I predict, a short life cycle among the powers in Washington. I certainly hope so.

A more serious candidate lurking in the wings is a return to so-called Kissingerian “realism’. Throw the baby (democracy) out with the bath. Policies based on tough-minded geopolitical assessments of our national interest. This appeals to many conservatives, but is it enough?

We really are an exceptional nation, and not just because of our present (and probably temporary) military supremacy. Nor are we exceptional because we are democratic. Many other countries are too, and some seem on present form to be better at it than we are. We are exceptional because we have managed to create a functioning political structure that allows very large numbers of disparate groups of people to coexist and cooperate peacefully. This is what most of the rest of the world desperately needs. This is what we have to export. Put this commodity in an accessible package and we won’t need to advertise. It will sell by itself.

How do you “export” our success as a multicultural nation? This is where I come back to Nadim’s wise advice. You don’t sell it by sending evangelists to tell the teeming multitudes “out there” that they should be like us. You sell it by bringing people here and letting them pick whatever appeals to them and take it home, and hope they are successful enough so they will be imitated. And this is where I fall back on the Peace Corps example. You sell our best product by sending people out around the world who will stay long enough, and get to know people well enough, so they can serve as exemplars for others around them.

We have it all backwards when we assume that regional harmony and cooperation will flow from democracy. When we help disparate groups learn to live with each other in some kind of rule of law, and enjoy the material and other benefits that will flow from cooperation on the newly enlarged scale, one can reasonably expect that some form of democracy will evolve, over time, in an organic and durable fashion.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how an intelligent foreign policy could be constructed on these premises. Active diplomatic support for international and regional cooperation and the evolution of institutions to consolidate this cooperation. Keep our military power in the background as a hidden force to give weight to our diplomacy; take the velvet glove off the iron hand only when absolutely needed, and when that need is recognized by most of the rest of the world. Strong support for Fulbright-like exchange programs and the Peace Corps. And, finally, an essential ingredient I have only touched on so far: humility.

The rest of the world sees America under the present administration as drunk with the arrogance of power. If we can shake that image it will go far to restore our standing and our ability to shape the way humanity as a whole evolves in the critical period that lies ahead. We should internalize the fact that we are not an exceptional nation by divine right, we are a nation that, historically, has been exceptionally lucky.

There was a time when at least some Americans were wiser about these matters than most of us are today. In 1871 Daniel Bliss had the following to say, when he laid a cornerstone for the new Main Building of the new American University of Beirut:

“This College is for all conditions and classes of men without regard to colour, nationality, race or religion. A man white, black or yellow; Christian, Jew, Mohammedan or heathen, may enter and enjoy all the advantages of this institution for three, four or eight years; and go out believing in one God, or in many Gods, or in no God. But it will be impossible for any one to continue with us long without knowing what we believe to be the truth and our reasons for that belief.”

We live in a more secular age, but the thought is there. Amen.

Carl Coon 2/22/06

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