When I was traveling in Europe over the holidays, it was almost impossible to avoid hearing American music or to see advertisements for American movies. Cowboys boots are big in Europe. Everyone speaks English with more of an American accent than a British accent.
I’m told that the same phenomena can be seen throughout Africa, in China, even in Iran. These are areas which probably lead most people’s sense of who our “enemies” are, but however much they resent American hegemony or disagree with our current leadership, America means something to them.
When you talk with people from Europe, here or there, you hear one story over and over. A person who had been anti-America, disliked the spread of Coke, McDonalds and Starbucks across the nation, railed against our arrogance had finally visited the States.
He would travel, meet people, see the great cities and the stunning natural wonders. And that visit would give a glimpse, however skewed, of what America is and can be. That glimpse makes converts of many people.
Sometimes it doesn’t take a visit. Here’s an account from the New Yorker’s recent article about Iran:
For Arash, who has never been to the United States, being truly modern was all about being American. Born the year after the revolution, he speaks profane but excellent English, littered with slang he has gleaned from contraband hip-hop. The rappers 50 Cent and The Game surely never imagined that the line “the underdog’s on top,” from “Hate It or Love It,” a gleeful rap about their own success, would capture the frustration of the onetime Iranian élite under the rule of backward mullahs. But, to Arash, American hip-hop is rich with Iranian social criticism.
Arash told me that he hated living in Iran. “These mullahs fucked up this country. The country is sick right now. I can’t live in a sick situation. For that reason, I couldn’t vote yesterday. I’d give my life for America, but not for Iran. Because, if I work a lot there, I may achieve something. In Iran, when you want something, plan for it, work your ass off for it, you cannot make it and have no clear future.”
he wanted to see the world, and in order to go almost anyplace other than Turkey he’d need a visa, which was hard for an Iranian to come by. Arash complained bitterly that foreign embassies would assume that he was a terrorist. He longed for contact with foreigners, but he quit a job as a tour guide when he discovered that he was required to spy on his clients.
This is the future of Iran, just as it is the future of so much of the world.
One incredibly simple thing we could do reduce our threat from terrorism would be to make it easier for people to come visit us. That sounds counterintuitive to some, since it might allow more terrorists in. But many of the barriers being raised by the INS are more about theater than security. It pisses people off that they have to jump through meaningless hoops. People have to wait months or even years to get a tourist visa, the procedure for even getting to apply is needlessly elaborate, and there’s pointless hoops at the borders. Denying people of good faith access to this country hurts us all.
Elsewhere in the article, a student activist says
“Foreign powers like the United States want democracy for the Middle East not because of the people but because they want to locate the terrorist bases,” he told me. “They want to install a government they’ll find predictable. They aren’t interested in the national dignity of Iran.”
Now, no one should expect us to be interested in the national dignity of Iran. But if we act in ways that are obviously in more than our own narrow interests it pays off. People are smart (the TfK credo). They recognize when our actions are self-serving, and they aren’t interested in that. We do more to promote a stable and free Iran by sitting on our hands than by invading.
That makes this survey from the Boston Review intriguing (via Crooked Timber). Republicans favor the idea of war to promote democracy (53.2%), while Democrats and Independents (Indycrats) are less sanguine about it (6.5% and 17% respectively). By contrast, all parties show a slight preference for war to end genocide and strongly favor war to protect an ally or destroy a terrorist camp.
The wars that divide the nation (wars for oil, promoting democracy) are self-serving, those that enjoy broad support serve moral goals.
Why doesn’t a war to promote democracy serve moral goals? If it would promote democracy in fact, it would be. But “promoting democracy” usually means exactly what our student activist above says, installing a predictable government. But doing that tends to backfire. For evidence, refer to Iran and our history of interference there.
What should we do instead? When we act through coalitions or multilateral organizations, we insulate ourselves from these accusations. When the actions actually help people, it pays off. Africans don’t need us to tell them about AIDS, they know about it. They need resources and professionals, not ideology or moralizing about abstinence. Accountability is fine, but results oriented, not ideology oriented accountability.
The same holds for promoting democracy and human rights. In China, we’re seeing that open markets are producing a more open government and a freer society. Is it perfect? Hell no. Is it getting there? Yes.
There’s a lesson there about the way to promote an agenda without being seen as interfering. The future of China, like the future of Iran, Africa and Europe, are in the hands of young people who like us, but don’t trust us. And unilateral bombing isn’t what builds trust.