FOREIGN AFFAIRS (AND, NO, I DON'T MEAN ROMANTIC ONES)
AMERICA’S PLACE AMONG THE WORLD OF NATIONS
Back in the day, the Dark Ages of my youth as my daughter reminds me, I was a Peace Corps volunteer building houses in the former West African French colony of Cote d’Ivoire, then known as the Ivory Coast. Stationed in the Moslem north near the borders of neighboring Guinea and Burkina Faso (then Upper Volta) and not far from the Sahara Desert, I was welcomed everywhere I went, whether down to glitzy Abidjan or up north to Mopti and Bamako in Mali and even in Timbuktu as a representative of the most admired nation on the planet, the United States of America. During my travels in the mid to late 1970’s to Ghana, Nigeria, Morocco, Tunisia, India, Italy, France and England, I never felt uncomfortable being identified as an American. In fact I was proud to be identified as such. Well, in France the reception was a bit cool but then France acknowledges no nation’s superiority over France in anything.
Back then it wasn’t just America’s military or economic superiority that made it a pleasure for me to travel; the United States also had an inherent moral superiority established by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy – second in the world only to Mahatma Gandhi as a force for freedom and equality - and our struggles in the cause of Civil Rights as well as with applauding the demise of colonial empires and the subsequent democratization of former English, French, Portuguese, and Dutch colonies. America was seen as the world’s beacon of freedom, democracy, fairness, honesty and good naturedness. Nowhere, not even when I inadvertently sparked a mini-riot at a bus station up in Ouagadougou on my way to Timbuktu, did I ever feel threatened in the least.
Fast forward to 2015. The intervening forty years have not been kind to America’s worldwide reputation nor to its once top-of-the-heap moral and ethical standing. Things have changed and not for the better. Today as I travel around the world, on occasion I will don my “CANADA” tee-shirt with its big, red Maple Leaf (and I mean doesn’t that tell you something when a leaf is a national symbol?) when I feel that being identified as an American would not help me in my travels or my relationships with other human beings. We, us Americans, are now seen as the world’s biggest bully. Let me refine that statement: our government is seen as the worlds biggest bully, not necessarily us individual Americans but the black tar of national identity and guilt-by-association does rub off.
For all of our cold war “victory” over Reagan’s Evil Empire that used to be the Soviet Union, now known as Putin’s Russian kleptocracy, the indomitable spread of McDonald’s, KFC and Subway into the tiniest of the world’s nooks and crannies; the near ubiquitous use of the English language as the language of commerce and global communication; and all the other facets of Americana that have seeped into most of the planet’s cultural enclaves, we are no longer seen as the future hope and promise of the world. This is an odd position for me since, when we were that beacon, we were deeply enmeshed in the useless war in Vietnam, secretly overthrowing democratically elected governments throughout Latin America, undermining liberation movements in Africa. In short, there was a lot of bad shit we were doing around the world and yet we were still admired.
Today? I’m not sure how much nefarious bad shit we are into without our knowledge but, Iraq aside, I would guess that when it comes to international relations, we are still wont to favor stability over democratic messiness just like in the past. Venezuela, I think, is the perfect example of our diplomatic vicissitudes to legitimately elected regimes that we don’t like for one reason or another. (Typically the “reason” is the threat of nationalization, which basically translates as a sovereign nation wanting to regain control over it’s own natural resource extraction, processing and distribution from foreign domination, that foreign domination being typically ours.) In the Middle East, a region of the world we still seem to know nothing about or how to “manage,” volatility is constantly thrashing around like some hydra-headed monster. The Obama Administration has done a better job than our last one simply by rejecting the dictum that “bombing them back to the stone age” is not the sole diplomatic strategy we can avail ourselves of in the settling of disagreements.
The invasion of Iraq, combined with the U.S.’s longstanding and uncritical support of Israel, has heightened animosity towards the U. S. and the West, ISIL being only the latest in a series of groups that have rebelled against U.S. hegemony and dominance in the world. In my conversations with my Middle Eastern friends and associates, these two items are always at the top of their “what’s wrong with America” list. But there is a third, I think, that probably has as much, if not more, influence on how people view us than these two and it’s the spread of “free market capitalism” forced upon nations by the West and it’s instruments of same, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund who serve the world’s private banking and finance industry.
Just a few weeks ago in Tanzania, I was talking to our guide and recalling a beautiful coffee plantation where I stayed for a couple of nights back in 2000. He knew of the place but told me that it had closed down. I was shocked. It was a thoroughly magical, peaceful, and restorative place, one of the most wonderful places I have ever visited. “Yes,” he said “coffee is no longer a viable crop here in Tanzania due to the collapse of coffee prices on the world market.” I’ve run into the same situation in India where large scale construction projects – dams, mining operations, tree harvesting – are throwing villagers off their land and thus endangering their livelihoods with not a thought towards their future. All done, of course, with government approval at the behest the free market activities of private corporations. Naturally the government gets a piece of the action so it’s all quite legit and the displaced villagers are minimally compensated but then left to figure out new lives and livelihoods on their own.
The effects of the world economy on local people and their lives at the village level can be very severe: life changing, and radically disruptive. Farmer suicides in India have been on the rise – steeply so – over the past two decades. Those who are not a part of a nation’s salaried economy, and this cash wage sector is growing everywhere, have little recourse to fend off these economic upheavals and even slimmer chances of surviving them. Most often, folks blame their own governments but seeing the big machines with labels such as Massey Ferguson, or International Harvester and Siemens and the barbed wire surrounding the GM, Hyundai or Suzuki car factory that encloses what had been their cropland, they get the idea that foreigners too are somehow responsible for their plight even if they may not understand exactly how.
There are, as a matter of course, plenty of politicians ready to score points by blaming foreigners for every problem their constituents face. Villagers may still be illiterate in many parts of the world but they are not stupid particularly in our internet, cell phone, and television age. They may not “get” the direct connections between decisions made by commodity traders in New York, London and Singapore and the plummeting price of coffee, rice, wheat and sugar cane, but they know that such calamities are the result of circumstances beyond their control. And often they are only too aware of “foreign” influences, decisions made by foreigners in foreign lands, due to the ubiquitous nature of telecommunications and the spread of information at the speed of microwaves today.
End of Part I