Sunday, March 23, 2003

Liberal Nationalism and Anti-Imperialism

I’d like to connect some of what I’ve written lately to the question of “what next?” which so many people have been (rightly) asking themselves over the last several days. Whether one opposed Bush’s immediate military aims in Iraq or supported them, it seems apparent that they will very quickly be achieved; hence, arguments about Iraq must change. The best summary of what is needed now that I’ve read appeared here, and I support whole-heartedly the authors’ claim that what is necessary is a movement which insists that this invasion, whether or not you believe it was strategically or morally justified, be conducted as every bit as liberal an invasion–in terms of the postwar occupation and reconstruction of Iraq--as what the best international, institutional understanding of the nation-building project (namely, in my view, Blair’s understanding) demands it ought to be.

A brief excursus: a close friend of mine has responded to my writings on the liberal nationalist ideal by suggesting that it hearkens back to the old concept of noblesse oblige, and suffers from the same drawback: namely, that no matter how much good one group of people may be able to do for another, the power imbalance which results sets up a dynamic that causes resentment and misunderstanding. The work of the liberator may liberate people, but by liberalizing them it also makes them, as my friend put it, “exploitable.” When slaves are freed by others, rather than by themselves, they are freed on someone else’s terms; and while those terms may be generous and noble, they are still someone else’s terms, which means that all of the social, economic and cultural ramifications and results of the slaves’ freedom will be more easily acted upon by the liberators themselves or their fellow-travelers rather than anyone else....including by the liberated themselves. (Think of Iraqi oil fields–who is going to be able to rebuild the pipes, upgrade the technology, get the tankers moving? Why, American companies of course; after all, they have the investment capital–which the Iraqis don’t–and they’ll be the first ones on site too. Anyone paying attention to the news of the last few days can see the beginnings of this dynamic already.) Hence my friend, who is Dutch Indonesian and thus speaks as a descendent of just such a colonial environment, concludes that “it is too easy for Westerners of mean spirit (or simply those accountable to a profit-maximizing board of directors) to convert the liberalizing works of the liberator to the oppressive machinations of the foreigner. And at that point, the native population begins to wonder if the original liberator wasn’t a duplicitous smooth-talker that had intended subjugation (be it economic or actual) all along.”

My friend’s observations really hit home with me, especially when he argues that this dynamic is exacerbated when societies with “strong non-Western traditions” are the recipients of interventions which are themselves through an appeal to firmly rooted Western values (as I have argued, with my communitarian language and sympathy for the “Anglosphere,” that they ought to be). The issue of cross-cultural dialogue and “interventions,” broadly understood, is something I’ve long thought and written about (though my focus is East Asia, not the Islamic world). One doesn’t have to give into some sort of easy relativism to acknowledge the enormous distance between Western and Islamic perceptions of political reality, and we owe a great debt to those (like Roxanne Euben) who have productively explored it. The short and simple reason why that distance doesn't paralyze my liberal intentions, however, is simply that I have a hard time believing that what lies on the other side of that distance is somehow already free of "interventions," thus making the question one of interference vs. non-interference. In truth, the question--as Benjamin Barber has persuasively argued--is one which asks us to choose between interferences; whether we shall act globally to preserve (and, presumably, build) communities, or refuse to intervene and, by such a refusal, allow the neo-liberal capitalist compromise to put all the communities in the world into a state of mutual, homogeneous inter-dependency. Unapologetic globalists see nothing wrong with the second option; to them, besides making the whole world a market, it removes the pesky cultural and philosophical problem of borders by, in practice, creating a kind of universal ideology or public world. Certainly advocates of this future may rightly affirm that their solution is superior to conquering all communities and simply forcing them to submit to a single imperium. No liberal can disagree with that; but no communitarian can believe such a homogenization of the world is either possible or desirable. So contemporary liberal nationalists (or liberal communitarians) like myself need, if we are to respond to my friend's challenge at all, to find some way to ground the Western liberalism on behalf of which we intervene in a sense of the world which allows for space, for diversity, for humility. Paradoxically, in order for what I believe we Westerners value (or at least ought to value) about communities and nations to be realized, we must intervene in such a way that the values of the liberated communities and nations are not prevented from developing differently from our own.

Is that an impossible demand? Difficult yes, but not necessarily impossible. Practically speaking, what it means is drawing a firm line between America and Great Britain and other powers acknowledging their national power and responsibility, and abusing it. This article, though I don't agree with all of its claims, comports with all I've been saying about the proper international role of the liberal nationalist: those of us who want the best for Iraq must work to form a "mainstream anti-imperialist movement" in the United States, one which recognizes that, for better or worse, we've crossed into an area which Americans haven't confronted since the late 19th century, and should borrow from the arguments of turn-of-the-century luminaries like Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie (how bizarre that such men were allies) to press the claim that American interventions must not become conventionally colonialist. John McCain has said much the same thing, though he doesn't describe his position as "anti-imperialist" in so many words. But that, I think, is the best way to put it. Bush has pushed through a policy which strikes many intelligent people as, simply put, dictatorial. If it had not been for men like Blair, who insisted that the best way to present the interests and aspirations of the American nation was through procedures that recognized (or at least gave a show of recognizing) all nations equally, that impression would be even more substantive than it already is. The obligation of liberal nationalists like myself, then, is not to congratulate the administration (which would only allow Bush & Co. to believe that the fears some express of his actions are groundless), but to get behind men like McCain and Blair in insisting that America conduct this intervention in an anti-imperialist manner; that it make room for the contributions of other nations, that it back away from a mentality which expects the native Iraqis and Kurds to feel obligated to their liberators, and that it be humble enough to allow its national work of liberation to strengthen international institutions (which after all, in the end, the sovereign nation of Iraq will be much more interested in than it ever will be in the United States, given that were not going to up and make Iraq the 51st state). This may not enable us to escape the noblesse oblige dynamic entirely, but I think it's a better route, I think, than whatever either the neocons or the bulk of the antiwar left are offering.