Thursday, February 29, 2024

America is unilateralist, not isolationist


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By M.J. Akbar

When the incredible litany of silly reasons for great events is written, top billing must surely go to this rationale from the 1950s for American policy towards Pakistan. I owe the anecdote to an excellent new book, The Brothers, by Stephen Kinzer. For eight years during the Dwight Eisenhower administration, John Foster Dulles, as a puritan secretary of state, and Allen, as the rather more amorous CIA chief, constituted the most powerful sibling partnership in American history. They went about saving the world with the passionate commitment of a virtuous wrecking crew, and turned large parts of the map into a black and white movie coloured with bloodstains.
To be fair, they had just emerged from a barbarous war in which millions were killed in the name of patriotism, and a genocide occurred in the heart of Europe. They were fearful of repetition. But the cloaks they wore, and daggers they flourished, did almost as much damage to America as it did to its foes.
Nothing, however, quite explains the naiveté of John Foster, at least in this instance.
Dulles was very keen to bring Pakistan into yet another of his regional alliances against Communists. This one was SEATO: the South East Asia of this bloc stretched, on the Dulles drawing board, from Iraq and Iran to Indonesia. Having given up on Pakistan’s fractious civilian politicians, Dulles wooed the new nation’s generals with a gift they could not refuse: weapons, with a finesse through civilian government, a legacy that has contributed to ambitions in the barracks and consequent coups.
Dulles explained to the journalist Walter Lippman in an interview. “I’ve got to get some real fighting men into the south of Asia. The only Asians who can really fight are the Pakistanis. That’s why we need them in the alliance. We could never get along without the Gurkhas.”
A puzzled Lippman pointed out: “But Foster, the Gurkhas aren’t Pakistanis.”
“Well,” said the sanguine Dulles, “they may not be Pakistanis, but they’re Moslems.”
“No, I’m afraid they’re not Moslems either.”
“No matter!” exclaimed Dulles imperiously, and carried on for another half an hour with a suitable sermon on how to stop reds from menacing our beds.
Today’s secretary of state John Kerry knows geography, history and religion much better than his predecessor, but incidents arise, minor or major, that still leave one wondering: how far is Washington from the rest of the world? Or how far are the rest from Washington?
A curious aspect of American foreign policy in the American century – the twentieth – has been the oft-mentioned tendency to retreat into isolationism. This is not quite correct. America has been neither isolationist nor interventionist, as much as unilateralist. It is a world view that emanates easily from the fact of military supremacy and the gradual imposition of superpower culture through the wings of trade and mass entertainment. The Romans believed that their empire was good for the defeated with as much sincerity as Americans believe that their forms of government, and their values, are synonymous with civilisation. In a variation, America would prefer to co-opt nations into its umbrella, rather than seize them, because democracy and liberty are its fundamental values. But when persuasion fails, responsibility for the expansion of civilisation is so easily transferred to the Pentagon.
The superpower model becomes inarguably superior, whether it is in the macro functioning of legislatures, or micro arrangements for domestic service. Any alternative is dismissed as unjust, inadequate, or illegal. This logic does not, however, always travel in both directions. An American working in India earns an American salary, but is highly unlikely to pay by American norms for cooks in the Delhi embassy [technically, American soil].
It is not the financial difference that grates upon the rest of the world, but the implicit sense of superiority, the feeling that there are always two laws, one for a superpower and one for the rest of the world. America can, for instance, demand, and get, diplomatic immunity for Raymond Davis, a spy masquerading as contractor, who killed two men in Lahore’s broad daylight. Islamabad accepted this fudge as the price of relations with Washington. Other nations might not be able to comply with equal felicity, not least because their elected governments have to factor in public opinion.
Governments, as we have seen, can sometimes get things right for the wrong reasons. This is more difficult when it comes to the street. In the case of Devyani Khobragade, the Indian diplomat who was treated harshly by a pompous American law enforcement officer, tensions will cluster around popular opinion long after they have eroded in government. Washington and Delhi need to recognise this, quickly. A ship cannot be lost for half-penny of tar.


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