Sunday, June 10, 2007

Modern and anti-modern: The West and the rest

Decolonization - the dismantling of the overseas Western empires in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s - was one of the most important developments of the postwar era. Ideally, this process required newly independent countries to adopt Western forms of government, even while demanding the removal of the physical presence of Western armies and governments as controlling authorities, which seems like a paradox.

This paradox is only apparent. Although not all former colonies were fully successful at this, decolonization and independence had a simple logic that should lead to newly independent countries not being dependent on outside powers for either government or external protection. The Asian countries were most successful in this. Some Asian countries (like Japan and Thailand) had never become weak enough in the first place to allow or force Western powers to become the local sovereigns. In the 19th century, the rulers of these countries saw what had happened in India and what was about to happen in China and decided to unify and modernize themselves - lest they become historical roadkill.

The least successful at this were the African and Middle Eastern countries. The African countries have largely been abandoned. The Middle Eastern countries, from World War II on, however, have been of enough strategic concern - for their oil resources and crucial location during World War II and the Cold War - to trigger intervention by outside powers. Since the end of the Cold War, the essential weakness of these countries - the fact that they don't really have modern states or modern armies - means that they have to rely on outsiders for protection - and nowadays, that means us. They needed to be protected from outsiders - first the Germans and Italians, later the Soviets - and now they need to be protected from themselves. The expectations on the US have grown in parallel, from providing more limited protection from outsiders to more ambitious goals - protecting current regimes, policing borders, and resolving the region's problems.

Failed successor states are the flip side of successful decolonization and empire-dismantlement. Stronger, better organized external powers with a stake in the outcome inevitably get sucked into providing at least some of the functions of sovereignty in such situations. In the Middle East, the major problem is the combination of tribalism and religion that prevents many of these countries from becoming modern. The US intervenes to keep these governments from collapsing (which would create a whole other set of problems), but generates resentment with its ultimate origin in the fact that such outside intervention violates the Islamic-tribal ideal of closure and self-sufficiency. But it's precisely this condition that necessitates outside support in the first place.

The first scenario - successful decolonization - creates a virtuous circle. Former colony and imperial power (like Britain and the US, Britain and India, the US and the Philippines, and in some ways, the US and Japan) can re-approach one another as equals or near-equals.* The latter scenario - unsuccessful decolonization, followed by political and social regression - creates a vicious cycle by contrast. Former colony (or former tribal monarchy, like Saudi Arabia, which was never anyone's colony) becomes dependent on an outside power - which generates resentment, which stimulates the need for more outside intervention.

The 1991 Persian Gulf War was an earlier stage in this cycle of dependency, although it marked a large breakthrough in that trend. It led to the long-term stationing of US troops in Saudi Arabia and then to a pissed-off Osama plotting to overthrow the Saudi monarchy and creating a private army. The Oslo peace process of the 1990s represented another policy based on false expectations and assumptions about the Middle East - that it was ready for opening up, globalization, "normalcy." The 2003 Iraq War was an extreme and poorly thought-out response to the earlier stages of this dialectic, partly based on the wrong idea that the Middle East, or at least Iraq, is "ripe" to join the modern world. The Middle East is not eastern Europe in 1989, Latin America in 1980, or even Germany and Japan in 1945. If countries are not ready and willing to make the needed changes to themselves, outsiders cannot do it for them. But it's also important to recognize that all of these policies - up to and including the 2003 Iraq War - are based on faulty thinking with a long history. The Iraq War just took a mistaken logic much further in what was already a wrong direction to begin with.

This conclusion has some simple but startling implications for the pro-globalization policies pursued by the US, in widening circles, since 1945. An upcoming posting will explore some of them.
* A good example of this virtuous circle is that happy Japanese face of globalization, sushi, as described so well by Sasha Issenberg in his new The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy. Like Adam Smith in the pin factory, Issenberg uses sushi to demonstrate the nuts-and-bolts of the globalized economy.

And unlike pins, you can eat sushi - I just had some today: another small but telling sign that World War II had a successful outcome.

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