Sunday, September 25, 2005

Book review--Beyond the Age of Innocence

In this tantalizingly brief and well-balanced book, Mahbubani manages to sum up what is both good and bad about the US over the last few decades. The author, formerly the UN ambassador from Singapore, enjoys a unique and wonderfully qualified position from which to turn his analysis on this country and the effects our diplomatic policies have had upon the world. His aim is not to place blame on any individual Administration (to the chagrin of, most likely, any and all in our increasingly polarized socio-political landscape, but to the benefit of all), though, but rather to encourage a new dialogue based on a more enlightened perspective.
Mahbubani brilliantly begins his book by stressing what is good about what the US has done for the world. By doing so, he hopefully disarms those who would dismiss him as someone who wants to simply "blame America" for whatever befalls it in the wake of increasing terrorist attacks. His discussion of how the US has benefited mankind in general, and many nations around the globe in particular, will be familiar to anyone who grew up in this country and attended school here. Our participation in the World Wars of the 20th Century, the Marshall Plan and Truman Doctrine, and even our advancement of democratic principles in opposition to Stalinist Communism, all the while establishing and maintaining the highest standard of living in the world, are each applauded to some extent or another, allowing even the most hardened "patriot" to buy into his discussion.
The balance of the book, however, delves into the much thornier issues surrounding what America has done wrong, and it is here that the author dispels any simplistic jingosim the first main chapter might engender in its readers. Simply put, Mahbubani stresses that the US has forgotten its original "mission" as a symbol of fairness and decency. From Winthrop's vision of the New World as a "city upon a hill", through the Founding Fathers' construction of a republican democracy, to Lincoln's description of our nation being the "last, best hope on earth" for a nation meant to be "of the people, by the people, and (most importantly, imho) for the people", the US has meant to stand as a beacon of hope to the rest of the nations and citizens in the world that it is possible to have a strong nation dedicated to equality among its populace. The problem, as Mahbubani notes, is that over the last few decades, while Americans as a whole still believe in that mission, our elected officials have conclusively decided that other impulses are more important, and this disconnect between what the electorate believes about our country and what our country is actually doing in the world is becoming increasingly dangerous.
Mahbubani's main objection with American diplomatic policies stem from our behavior toward the Soviet Union and our allies after its collapse. During the Cold War, American diplomacy was geared to propping up any government that opposed the Soviets, leading us to ally ourselves with some very strange bedfellows and ignoring anti-democratic impulses in those countries where they interfered with that main goal. Especially toward the end of the War, where we maintained good relations with (or even helped put into power) despots such as Saddam Hussein, or the Taliban in Afghanistan, let alone our massive support of the incredibly corrupt House of Saud or the corrosive state of Israel, our mixed message of "we're the good guys" and "oppose the Commies or else" played poorly in countries not directly benefiting from our aid. The most salient features of this "diplomacy", though, came to the fore after the fall of the Soviet Union. Since we no longer had that overarching enemy to fight, our aid to many countries we had employed to fight alongside us has quickly and irretrievably dried up. Mahbubani's choice of a prime example is Pakistan, which had acted as a prime and relatively uncomplicated ally in South Asia. Even though the Pakistanis did nothing "wrong", we pulled our aid from them in as abrupt a fashion as we did less democratic nations such as Afghanistan, making our rationale obvious to any in the world looking on. Those countries left in the lurch felt both abandoned and betrayed, making them resentful of us and increasing the likelihood that they would become friendly harbors for any new enemies--Osama bin Laden, anyone?
Mahbubani makes the point that, by the 1980s and increasingly since then, we have no longer been acting as an emblem of any vision; we are "acting like any other country". His use of our treatment of the monetary struggles in Thailand and Indonesia in the 1990s makes this clear as well. While those countries struggled mightily to stave off bankruptcy or widespread inflation in the face of a regional economic collapse, the US used its influence (in the agencies designed to help in such crises--the IMF and the World Bank) to dramatically curtail assistance, asking instead that these faraway countries employ draconian and painful internal policies, leading to the devaluation of their currencies and an attendant decline in trading power for them. When a similar crisis hit our important partner next door in Mexico, on the other hand, we urged the IMF and the World Bank to bend over backwards to help them back on their feet.
That the countries we have actively prevented helping out have almost all been comprised mainly of Muslims has gone unnoticed nowhere in the world except on our own shores, and it is this lack of political/social/diplomatic awareness that Mahbubani sees as the greatest threat we pose to the world. Our almost willful ignorance of the consequences of our actions has gone on for far too long, and even friendly people like Mahbubani fear that it may be too late for the US to finally exit our "Age of Innocence" and become responsible members of the world community once again.
Mahbubani has done a remarkable job in making obvious what America faces in the real world--and what should have been obvious to us all along also; one quibble I have is with his attempt to distinguish between American "unintended" and "intended consequences". His discussion is almost irrelevant to his main point, since if we begin to do one simple thing--try to see ourselves as others see us and act to reconcile the two visions--we don't need to ascertain the difference between intent and actions. Will we do so? Mahbubani is unwilling to go this far, but it is clear that this has all been happening under the auspices of Republican Party, whether through the Executive Branch under Reagan and the Bushes overriding the Democrats in Congress if need be (think of Iran-Contra as an example of support for anti-Communist aid directed by the Administration in clear disregard of Congressional oversight), or in the Legislative Branch through their undermining of the power of the Executive Branch (pick any number of examples of Gingrich and all the goons in Congress who completely hamstrung any attempts Clinton might have had to pursue a separate agenda). Mahbubani might want to be generous, but voting Americans need to know who's screwing us, don't they?


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