Reasons to be unilateralist

ZIAUDDIN SARDAR

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WE should not be too surprised by the growing unilateralism of America. The United States is simply following a natural course – a path that reflects its worldview, has deep roots in its myths and history and is an outcome of its economic and political structure. Things could not be otherwise.

America was heading towards unilateralism long before Nine Eleven. This process was accelerated first by the fall of the Berlin Wall and then by the collapse of the Twin Towers. These two events – one external, other internal – brought America’s own perception of itself, and hence its outlook on the world, into sharper focus. The corporate security state’s foreign policy, its behaviour towards the rest of the world, its jingoism and wrapping itself in Stars and Stripes, and, to use the words of Zbigniew Brzezinski, its persistent ‘semi-religious’1 approach to terrorism, are based on four fundamental reasons. To understand America in a post-Nine Eleven world, we need to appreciate these reasons.2

The first reason is cosmological. In the conventional cosmological argument for God, derived originally from Aristotle, God is described as the cause of everything; this is why some versions of this argument are called the first cause argument. In today’s globalised world, America has become the prime cause of everything. Nothing seems to move without America’s consent; nothing can be solved without America’s involvement. Only America can resolve the conflict between Palestine and Israel; only America’s intervention can lead to some sort of resolution between India and Pakistan over Kashmir; and it was America’s involvement in Northern Ireland that brokered a political settlement. Without American ratification the Kyoto Treaty on carbon dioxide emission is not worth the paper it is written on; without an American nod nothing moves at WTO or World Bank; and without America the UN ceases to be the United Nations. At the global level, America is both the first cause and the sustaining cause.

What this means is that America is no longer a conventional superpower. It is the first hyperpower in history: its military might is now greater than all the empires of history put together;3 its reach is not only global, but has firm control of all global institutions such as the IMF and WTO; its culture has penetrated every minute segment of the globe. Western empires – Roman, British, Spanish – did not set limits to their physical reach but their ideology of empire concerned sustaining and enhancing their control of subject populations. America has taken this dictum to a new quantum level: in a very real sense, America has not only colonised the present, it has also colonised the future.

The cosmological dominance of America extends to a total consumption of all space and time – so America is now engaged in rewriting history, changing the very stuff of life, our genetic structure, shifting weather patterns, colonizing outer space, indeed, transforming evolution itself beyond recognition. Given its cosmological status, it is not surprising that its arrogance has a cosmological dimension too.

 

 

This hubris is demonstrated by the fact that while the rest of the world was attending the recent Earth Summit in Johannesburg, President George Bush was on holiday, playing golf, in Texas. Yet, even from there, he was able to veto one of the least contentious issues in the Summit: that safe drinking water and sanitation should be available to poor people of the world by 2015. The rest of the world, including all the European states, realised that dirty water and poor sanitation are the biggest killers in the world and were all too willing to sign the agreement. But America’s belligerence led to its collapse.

The second reason is ontological which, once again, takes us back to standard arguments for God. The ontological argument for God’s existence, attributed to St. Anselm, goes something like this: God is the most perfect being, it is more perfect to exist than not exist, therefore, God exists. It is, of course, a circular argument. Ontological arguments infer that something exists because certain concepts are related in certain ways. Good and evil are related as opposite. So if evil exists there must also be good.

America relates to the world through such circular, ontological logic: because ‘terrorists’ are evil, America is good and virtuous. The ‘Axis of Evil’ out there implicitly positions the US and its allies as the ‘Axis of Good’. But this is not simply a binary opposition: the ontological element, the nature of American being, makes America only Good and virtuous. It is a small step then to assume that you are chosen both by God and History. How often have we heard American leaders proclaim that God is with them; or that History has called on America to act?

The ontological goodness of America is a cornerstone of its founding myths. America is a society of immigrants: what immigrants know is that the country they left behind, for economic, social or political reasons, is a bad place. They escaped an unworthy place to start afresh and create a new society in a barren frontier, ‘the last best hope of mankind’ in Lincoln’s famous phrase, and succeeded. They succeeded because right, virtue, God and History were on their side. The Founding Fathers incorporated the new state’s right to possession and appropriation of ‘virgin land’, its claims to righteousness, its self-image of total innocence and its use of violence as a redemptive act of justice through which American civilization is secured and advanced, as integral parts of the very idea of America.

 

 

American rhetoric and the American narrative has been shaped by this mythic vision which is diligently taught to all new citizens who would be Americans. At a crucial period in the making of American society, this mythic vision and the ethos it contains found expression in the cinema. In the early 20th century, when the largest influx of immigrants were in the process of becoming Americans, silent movies provided a common language for this myth to be enshrined into American consciousness. Later, the western became a key genre through which the history, idea and themes of America are explored and propagated.

Films like Shane, a nostalgic elegy on how the nation, America, came to be, often described as a ‘coming-of-age’ myth, advanced the myth that evil is intractable and can only be eradicated, that justice eventually comes down to the willingness to spill blood, that liberty resides in the right to make armed response, that the use of violence is the legitimate and only secure way to resolve a conflict, that innocence and righteousness is preserved by violence.

 

 

The American film theorist Richard Slotkin, Professor of English at Wesleyan University, has examined the way in which the western genre has been used in succeeding phases of American history as a powerful metaphor for the nation’s political communication and policy. This metaphor developed through three phases, and Slotkin examines them in considerable detail, each one clearly reflected in the titles of his books: Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier 1600-1860; The Fatal Environment: The Myth of Frontier in the Age of Industrialisation 1800-1890; and Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of Frontier in Twentieth Century America.4 In each phase, he argues, violence is central to appropriation, legitimation and the self-identity of America.

Ontologically good folks need constant reaffirmation of their goodness. This is why America always needs a demon Other; indeed it is incomplete without its constructed Other. The current demon is, of course, Islam. But as Johan Galtung and his colleagues show Searching for Peace America has constantly generated evil Others to justify its military interventions.5 The first focus of US intervention was on East Asia (Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, but also Iran), and was extremely violent. The second was on Eastern Europe (including the Soviet Union) but, due to the presence of a counter superpower, the interventions were not overtly violent. The third phase was in Latin America, starting in Cuba and reaching most of the continent. The violence this time was both micro and macro but did not reach the extent of the violence in East Asia. The fourth phase focused on West Asia, starting with Palestine and Iran, then Libya and Lebanon/Syria, and moved on in the 1990s to Iraq and, in the beginning of the new century, to Afghanistan. So the interventions move from Confucian-Buddhist societies to Orthodox Christian and Catholic Christian cultures and finally to Islamic civilisation. Where can they go next? To South Asia? To Europe?

 

 

America, the political and corporate entity, and Americans in general are so deeply entrenched in their mythic vision that they can neither see nor hear the outside world. America may be an open society but it is an ontologically closed circle. Outside concerns and voices cannot penetrate the impregnable ontological walls of America: what could others, ontologically removed from being good, possibly have to tell good, innocent and virtuous people chosen by God and History? And it is only natural for the good and virtuous Americans to preserve their innocence, and their interests, by the use of violence. Everyone that is against America, for whatever reason, is by definition bad and thus deserves, like the baddies in western movies, to be gunned down by a faster, righteous nation.

 

 

If you think of yourself as #1 then everyone else must be lower or invisible. And if America does think of others at all, what other formula can there be than the self-evident dictum that what’s good for America must necessarily be good for everyone. It is not surprising that Americans are perpetually wrapping themselves in the flag, the symbol of their ontological goodness. Since the flag represents everything that is Good it must, in American eyes, attract reverence from all eyes. The fact that it is just a piece of cloth, wrapped around the self- illusionary ideas of innocence and goodness, and shrink-wrapped in the cling-film of violence and American corporate capitalism, does not enter the equation.

The third reason is existential. Like God America exists for, in and by itself. All global life must, willingly or unwillingly, pay total homage to the de facto existence of the US. For America, nothing matters except its own interests; the interests, needs, concerns and desires of all nations, all people, indeed the planet itself, must be subservient to the interests of the US and the comfort and consumption of American lifestyle. This is why Americans are happy to consume most of the resources of the world, insist on exceptionally cheap petrol, and expect to be provided with an endless variety and diversity of cheap, processed food, because for them only their existence matters.

If the Kyoto Treaty imposes too many constraints on US business, it must be ditched. If the nuclear nonproliferation treaty interferes with the US strategic defence initiative, it must be ignored. If an international court might take action against US citizens, it must be subverted. If US farmers need subsidies then who cares about WTO rules and regulations that the US itself imposed on the world!

Because America is the world and the world is America, the US has been able to structure the global economy to perpetually enrich itself and reduce non-western societies to abject poverty. ‘Free market’ is simply a euphemism for free mobility of American capital, unrestrained expansion of American corporations and free (unidirectional) movement of goods and services from America to the rest of the world. Since the US dollar is the world’s main reserve currency, the medium everyone needs to finance its trade, there is no restraint on the US’s ability to print its own currency to finance its own trade deficits, which currently stands at $1.5 billion a day, with the rest of the world.

 

 

Since international lending is carried out in dollars, crisis-ridden borrowing countries saddled with trade deficits always have to take on a dollar debt burden greater than their capacity to repay. Couple this to the US control of international financial institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank and WTO and we see how the world economy functions to marginalise the rest of the world. We are moving towards a world where global markets in such basic things as healthcare, welfare, pensions, education as well as food and water are supplied and controlled by American corporations. The ability of developing countries to provide universal access to basic social services has been systematically and ruthlessly eroded. This is why absolute poverty has increased over the past decades, and the gulf between the rich and poor has now reached unimagined depths. In a very real sense, America is taking bread out of the mouths of the people of the developing world.

Politically, two simultaneous processes are enhancing the existence of America and reducing the existence of the rest of the world to abject economic and cultural poverty. The process of enlargement, the expansion, reach and influence of America, through transnational economic regimes and multinational capital as well as aggregation of power from supposedly multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and WTO to the United States, is simultaneously, in effect a process of hierarchical integration of the rest of the world. The world is being integrated in the shape of a rigid, iron fisted, pyramid. Those at the bottom of the pyramid are not just economically excluded, they are also politically contained. So their political existence is as perilous as their economic reality.

 

 

Moreover, American led globalisation is shrinking the cultural space of non-American societies, including those of Europe. Even the most economically and politically disadvantaged people seek cultural expression and fulfilment. But the pyramid shaped globe allows little room for other cultures to exist as other cultures, let alone permit the full expression and flowering of non-western cultures. Quite simply, the space left for difference to exist on its own terms and within its categories is rapidly shrinking.

The fourth reason is definitional. American is not just the lone hyper-power, it has become the defining power of the world. During the last few centuries it was the West that defined democracy, justice, freedom, human rights, reason and all those things that makes us human and shape a society. The rest of the world had little choice but to accept and follow these definitions. At the beginning of the 21st century, America has become the sole repository of definitional power. Now America defines what is ‘international law’, ‘free market’ and ‘multiculturalism’, who is a ‘fundamentalist’, ‘terrorist’, or simply ‘evil’. The rest of the world, including Europe, must simply accept these definitions and follow the American lead.

 

 

While western definitions were attached to some notions of liberal absolutes, America defines everything in a uniquely self-interested way. Moreover, the definitions depend on context and change when expediency demands. So the Shariah (the so-called ‘Islamic law’) is barbaric and inhuman in the Sudan which has a clear anti-American policy but humane and acceptable in Saudi Arabia which is fanatically pro-America. Not all ‘terrorists’ are terrorists: American ones, like Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, can be tried in American courts, but non-American terrorists have to be tried in specially established military courts.

Similarly, the struggle of the Muslims in East Turkestan against China is a ‘human rights issue’, but the struggle of Chechen Muslims against Russia has nothing to do with human rights. Muslims happen to be in majority in both Chechnya and East Turkestan and are fighting for independence in both places. On the whole, the US has ignored human rights violation in China because China is a trading partner of increasing importance. But when US intellectual property rights were at risk, human rights came quickly to the fore, and even a trade war was threatened to induce Chinese cooperation. The US defines human rights as it wishes and then uses the emotive language of human rights as a stick to beat any country that does not fall in line with its economic policies.

The much-vaunted universal precept of ‘freedom of press’ gets a similar treatment. When it comes to other countries, it is defined as a universal imperative. When freedom of the press ends up as criticism of America, it becomes a dangerous value. So the US went out of its way to stop Qatar based Al-Jazeerah, the only independent satellite television station in the Arab world, broadcasting from Afghanistan. It placed enormous pressure on Qatar to ‘rein in’ Al-Jazeerah and eventually bombed its office in Kabul.

 

 

The definitional power of America has two other vital components. America is the storyteller to the world: through Hollywood films and television shows, America presents a specific self-definition of itself as well as represents the rest of the world to the rest of the world. For the most part the stories it tells are either based on its own experiences or, if appropriated from other cultures, are given a specific American context. So the rest of the world also sees itself in American films and television as America sees them or the way it wants to project them. Thus the foreigner in global American media, news as well as popular entertainment, is always a pastiche of hackneyed stereotypes because that’s the way America thinks about the rest of the world.

But, the stereotypical representation is not limited to Hollywood or the media; it is also an integral part of the knowledge industry. Other peoples and cultures are thus constantly pigeonholed – in newspapers, magazines, television, films, textbooks, learned journals and ‘expert opinion’ – and their identity and humanity are regularly compromised. This power to define others in terms of American perceptions and interests through representation often leads to the demonisation of entire groups of people. Consider how all Arabs are seen as ‘fundamentalists’, all those who question the control of science by American corporations are projected as anti-science, or those who question American foreign policy are dismissed as ‘morally bankrupt’ or ‘nihilist’ or ‘idiots’.6

 

 

These four fundamental reasons why America is increasingly becoming unilateralist provide a conceptual framework that serves as the basic structure of the American worldview. They have become axiomatic for America: they are as integral to American self-identity as the ‘self-evident truths’, such as ‘all men are created equal’, that the founding fathers spoke about, but also provided Constitutional warrant to deny in practice. America is the cosmos, everything originates from America, everyone looks up to America, the world outside America does not exist and therefore does not matter.

The function of History itself is to lead to the apex of human existence: the ontologically Good American who deserves simply to be loved. Indeed, who defines love as self-love. Just as all stories, all human experiences, are the precursor to the establishment of the US, so all futures are essentially the future of the United States. It is on the basis of this rationality that newer immigrants to America are made, and have conventionally been made, into US citizens. So, it is hardly surprisingly that America wants to use the same model for how the rest of the world should be inducted into the world order run by the lone hyper-power. In the final analysis, America regards the rest of the world as it perceived the Red Indians – natural children that can be taught and brought to civilization in the American way.

So, what we are actually dealing with is a corporate, security state gone pathological. Just consider what has happened in the year since Nine Eleven. America has dumped the Kyoto Treaty, subverted the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, dismissed the chemical and biological protocols, activated the Strategic Defence Initiative (the so-called ‘Star Wars’ programme that builds weapons in space) and introduced a host of draconian homeland security laws. The ‘USA Patriot Act’ now defines ‘terrorism’ in such broad terms that an American citizen who, for example, made a donation to a foreign anti-abortion group could be found guilty of aiding terrorism.

 

 

It gives sweeping authority to police and security agencies to search the homes of citizens, tap their phones, check their bank accounts and even examine public library records to see what they were reading. It deprived some 20 million non-citizens of all their rights; and many found themselves indefinitely detained on a mere hint of suspicion. Operation TIPS, the terrorism information and prevention service, encourages janitors, construction workers, delivery personnel and individuals to spy on their neighbours and report their actions. Not to mention a string of corporate scandals – World-com, Enron, Xerox, Qwest – involving astronomical sums of money.

All this, of course, has a profound impact on Americans themselves. For example, when Enron collapsed, its workers and average stockholders lost an estimated $25 to $50 billion worth of pension funds – meaning their futures were brought down to a bleak horizon. America may think of itself as a land of equal opportunity and plenty for all, but one in three Americans earn $8 or less an hour; some 40% of American children live below or near poverty level. While half of all Americans invest in the stock market, around 90% stock is actually owned by the richest 10% of American households. By 1999, Bill Gates alone owned as much wealth as the bottom 40% of Americans.7

 

 

Pathologies have an uncanny habit of destroying their hosts. Americans are widely considered to be deeply ignorant. But there is little justification for their ignorance in a country with the world’s most advance education system and institutions of learning. The pathological condition of America has been frequently and recurrently highlighted by increasing numbers of American writers. William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s novel The Ugly American, a slashing expose of American foreign policy, was published in 1958 and became a best seller.8 Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men9 exposing corporate greed and the racist nature of American society, topped the bestseller lists in America this summer. The real question is why abundant evidence fails to stir American public consciousness. Why despite all the evidence Americans refuse to question their lifestyle and refuse to accept responsibility for how their corporations behave and their government operates in their name. Why does criticism fails to dent American policy, shape its public discussion, let alone prompt change. This is the real enigma Americans need to ponder – for their own, and everyone else’s sake.

 

Footnotes:

1. Zbigniew Brzezinski, ‘Confronting Anti-American Grievances’, The New York Times, op-ed, 1 September 2002.

2. For a more detailed exploration of these reasons, see Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies, Why Do People Hate America? Icon, London, 2002.

3. Paul Kennedy, ‘The Eagle has Landed’, Financial Times, Weekend section, 3 February 2002, p. 1-2.

4. Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of Frontier in Twentieth Century America, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1998; Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier 1600-1860, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Conn., 1973; Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of Frontier in the Age of Industrialisation 1800-1890, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1998.

5. Johan Galtung, Carl G. Jacobsen and Kai Frithjof Brand-Jacobsen, Searching for Peace: The Road to Transcend, Pluto Press, London, 2002.

6. The Guardian, G2, 17 January 2002, p1.

7. Mark Hertsgaard, The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World, Bloomsbury, London, 2002.

8. William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, The Ugly American, Norton, New York, 1958.

9. Michael Moore, Stupid White Men and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation, Regan Books, New York, 2001.

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