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Culture and Foreign Policy

Culture and Foreign Policy

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Published by NathanielWhittemore
An essay about how perceptions of global cultures did (and didn't) effect Foreign Policy.
An essay about how perceptions of global cultures did (and didn't) effect Foreign Policy.

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Published by: NathanielWhittemore on Jun 17, 2011
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Nathaniel Whittemore Feb 15 2005 American Foreign Policy #2 In the immediate post-WWII period, the US was poised

to assume world leadership. Policymakers had begun to formulate a world-view which not only identified enemies and threats, but delineated the necessary and proper role of non-super power nations and their leaders. Both the overarching international outlook and imagined power rubrics relied on a set of cultural assumptions, which were more often than not infected with racist, imperialist, and ostensibly antiquated ideas. Yet it is essential to recognize that the function of “culture” or cultural considerations in foreign policy and diplomacy was much more nuanced than simply identifying American administrations as racist or not. That exercise is practically irrelevant; almost without exception, they were. What is more important is to tease out the way in which cultural rubrics that located different groups in relation to each other on a continuum of civilization and capability came to shape thinking about international relations. This paper will examine the case of Nasser’s Egypt and Vietnam as exemplary. It seems that while geo-strategic objectives and exigencies played the most important role in the creation of specific responsive policies1, the ideological frameworks by which those objectives were arranged were in large part colored by cultural hierarchies. Additionally, the roles assigned to Third World nations and their leaders were intricately related to power-differentials imagined in culturalist thinking as “natural” or fundamentally derivative of a civilization’s deficits. Indeed, American administrator’s tended to underestimate the abilities of leaders and groups to prove themselves politically, socially, and militarily resilient to the place created for them in the US policy mind. Alternately, they located this resistance to outside factors. Perhaps most importantly, indigenous cultural lenses, which were almost entirely misunderstood by post-war administrations, had a powerful effect on the popular perception of policy.

1

Perhaps the best example being the Eisenhower administration’s response to the Suez crisis, in which America “sided” with Egypt against its great power allies.

These perceptions often had ramifications lasting much longer than the policies themselves. Creating the World (View) As an allied victory became increasingly assured, the landscape of the post-war world seemed to be largely up for grabs. America and to a lesser extent, the Soviet Union, appeared to be positioning for leadership roles, while the colonial enterprise looked to be on its last legs. To a large extent, American thinking about this environment involved placing counties in relation to each other in terms of a variety of factors, including the political and economic clout they would exert, their geographic and ideological placement between the US and its “free world” allies and the increasingly worrisome Stalin regime, and, of course, assessment of the immutable characteristics of the population. Just as colonialism had been self-justifying in asserting that certain civilizations were less-advanced and in need of tutelage, so too did American policymakers imagine a continuum with America as the ideal and the backwards2 countries somewhere behind. If the United States rejected the colonial enterprise, it had more often to do with either a feeling that the great powers hadn’t fulfilled their obligations as leaders or the idea that the US could be a paternalistic tutor with out the burden of an economically exploitative past. For example, “wartime American policy makers believed the Vietnamese were innately incapable of self-government,” and that this was largely the fault of “French rule [which had] done almost nothing to correct these deficiencies.”3 Where the French in Vietnam and British in Egypt had failed, however, America, “infused with an unwavering belief in the superiority of [its] political, economic and social models,”4 could succeed. As McCalister suggests, this belief was nothing new and indeed, found roots in American Christian missionaries who functioned on “the assumption that all peoples were capable of civilization and should thus have the cultural opportunity of “benevolent” Americanization.”5 On the same page, she traces this history
2 3

And often brown Bradley, Imagining Vietnam and America, 75 4 Bradley, 71 5 McAlister, 30

into the modern post-war period, saying that administrators believed that “the United States [would be able to] begin to frame its global goals as something other than, and very different from, the old-style imperialism.”6 What seems particularly relevant in this discourse is to note that, more so than any particular cultural antagonism, the US administration tended to lump the developing world together. There tended to be a boilerplate model of desired political atmosphere, leadership, and economic development that relied on a set of assumptions about a nation’s inherent inabilities to govern themselves and develop productive and equitable indigenous systems. Speaking on early American imagination of Vietnam, Bradley notes that the “persistence of fin de siecle assumptions about non-white peoples and the superiority of Western civilization” represented the general “ubiquitous faith in racialized cultural hierarchies.”7 Similarly, Yaqub suggests that it’s difficult to locate a particular antagonism or disregard for Arab civilization because of the “blanket condescension with which top administration officials regarded Others in general, be they Arabs, Jews, Europeans, or US congressmen.”8 Yaqub’s most important argument is that “the use of the term “culture” can be misleading.”9 He suggests that the relevant factor was the power dynamics between small countries “not permanently dominated” and the big powers. While this is in many ways true, it fails to account for the way in which those big powers justified economic and political disparities with cultural hierarchies. Still, it is important to recognize the salience of his argument, especially in attempting to understand the relationship of US administration’s with Third World leaders. Creating the Third World Leader In the post-war American vision, national leaders were assumed to and moreover supposed to fulfill certain roles. These prescriptive roles generally did not involve guidance, insight, and indigenous vision, but rather implementation of the American development plan. Markets were to be opened, and not just domestically but internationally. Specifically, markets,
6 7

ibid Bradley, 50 8 Yaqub, 11 9 Ibid, 16

cheap labor, and resources were to be opened to American or allied firms. Additionally, traditional political and social structures were to be ostensibly liberated and improved by creating a new, democratic accountability. The imagined ideal leader was not an autonomous agent but a bridge between America and the native masses. This ideal was inflected with American machinations to inculcate strategic resources, but also with a belief in the West’s exceptional ability to govern and as such, a believe that the post-war situation was a zero-sum game in which developing nation’s would naturally find one patron or another. The problem was, of course, that this type of person was not always the one who found their way to power and indeed, almost never the leader who gained legitimacy with his people. Gamal Nasser and Ho Chi Minh are connected if for no other reason than they greatly confounded this American model. Yaqub notes that the American experiment in the early Cold War Middle East was seriously hampered by the autonomy and free will demonstrated by Arab leaders.10 While the Eisenhower administration had initially courted Nasser as a potential regional ally, it soon became uncomfortable with his rhetoric of Pan-Arabism and Nasser’s incredibly appeal that made some sort of widespread cooperation less unbelievable. As such, they soon began courting alternate figures. Nasser was a man largely respected by the Eisenhower administration. While they would increasingly turn to King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia as a counter balance to Nasser’s extending influence, the Egyptian leader was, as Yaqub points out, much more cultural contiguous with American values. Additionally, Nasser was extremely tough on communism at home. Indeed, what threatened the Egyptian-American relationship was Nasser’s resilience to official US patronage that foreswore dealing with the Soviet Union. His idea of “positive neutrality” was totally out of line with the Manichean (and really, simple) choice ostensibly facing the leaders of developing nations. Moreover, his willingness to hold the threat of Soviet influence in the region ensured that it was not long before Nasser was on political outs with the Administration. Yaqub traces this development, writing that
10

Yaqub, 5

Throughout the summer of 1955, Nasser pressed the United States to sell heavy arms to Egypt, threatening to turn to the Soviet Union if his request was denied.11

It was not only Nasser’s unwillingness to publicly denounce the USSR that made Eisenhower nervous, however. In an extremely vocal way, Nasser represented the nationalist voice of post-colonial developing nations who sought self-determination in rhetoric and reality. His nationalization of the Suez would represent a threat to the open an open economic system, and even more dangerously, his call for Pan-Arabism threatened to undermine the American ability to work bilaterally. A unified Arab front was much more nerve wracking than one in which seeds of dissent could be sown and regional power struggles encouraged in order to undercut anti-American instigation. Ho Chi Minh was threatening for similar reasons. Despite his clear interest in cultivating American friendship, US Administrations were uneasy with both his intense nationalist and Marxist credentials and his appearance of rouge uncontrollability. In many ways, Ho Chi Minh was not the type of leader who could be considered a quantifiable asset to American strategic interest. What was clear what that he had his own agenda, and in many ways, this represented liability number one for would-be Third World American allies. Underestimating and Misidentifying Third World Protest Cultural rubrics and hierarchies functioned not only in crafting world views and imagining ideal leaders and allies, but also were integral to the US response and understanding of opposition. In most situations, American administrations underestimated the ability of opposition to successfully organize and resist American political, social, and economic hegemony by offering a salient alternative. Even when it did recognize dissent, the US was quick to fit this unrest into its over-arching frameworks. Moscow was the easiest scapegoat, and the Kremlin connection fit acceptably into power grids and continuums of civilization. The idea that native peoples could successfully resist, much like the idea that native peoples could successfully govern themselves, was anathema to the American world view.
11

Yaqub, 39

In Egypt this underestimation was represented in part by continuous shock at the resonance of Nasserist ideas in the greater Middle East and additionally, the US administration’s inability to build up alternate powers (such as Saudi Arabia) to counterbalance the president’s influence. Additionally, Americans located the greatest potential for instability in their own Communist Other, rather than identifying potential indigenous forms of dissent. Even as the Eisenhower Administration rallied the Mid East against the threat of “Communist attack”12 it failed to recognize emerging strands of Islamic dissent. This represents an interesting duality of the role of culture in foreign policy. In this case, the US misunderstanding of actual dynamics was less reflective of specific cultural antagonism and instead found its roots in the general American vision. In Vietnam too, resistance was misunderstood and misidentified. Bradley writes that “American observers wrongly attributed the emergence and organization of most large-scale anticolonial protest movements in Vietnam to the work of external agents.” Indeed, failing to recognize the deep long history of and national pride in having expelled foreign aggressors, American observers located the dissent in the “increase[d] exposure to intellectual currents in France, Japan, and China.”13 Perception The final and most hidden role of culture in foreign policy was the way in which cultural lenses affected the interpretations of specific actions. It is clear today that American’s have a very different understanding of our support for Israel than do Muslim countries. Likewise, Eisenhower’s actions in the Middle East were viewed through our ideas of “benevolent Americanization” at home. Abroad, they were often seen in the light of a clouded history of Western imperialism and domination. Additionally, American misunderstanding of the cultural histories and narratives which shaped national identity often led to miscalculations of local sentiment and underestimation of political will.

12 13

Yaqub, 77 Bradley, 69

One of Nasser’s most appealing ideas was call for a pan-Arab united front. As Yaqub writes, “the first principle was that the Arabs were a single people sharing a common destiny,” and “the second…was that the Arab nations had to rid themselves of all vestiges of European imperialism.”14 This transnational Arab identification had deep roots. For some five hundred years, the Ottoman Empire had bound disparate countries under common jurisdiction and in common faith. That empire, as scholars have noted, gained legitimacy from its laissez faire attitude towards local tradition and its ostensible upkeep of the Islamic Caliphate that the European experiment could never match. It seems that while the Eisenhower administration recognized the threat to their policy in Nasser’s call, they failed to understand just how deeply it might resonate in that part of the world and what sort of political capital the Egyptian leader might derive. Similarly, the French colonial discourse from Vietnam had tended to color the American perception of Vietnamese citizens as “lazy and primitive,” and “by nature, liars.” These assumptions of cultural inferiority failed to note a number of legitimate national characteristics. Most notably, they failed to recognize the deep mythologized Vietnamese history of resistance to outside aggression. Children grew up with stories of the Trung sisters and the expulsion of the Chinese thousands of years earlier. What’s more, the anticolonial “new intelligentsia” that emerged in the 1920s worked actively to make contemporary parallels with these cultural histories as well as revolutionary figures appropriated from other countries.15 *** What seems clear is that while “culture” did not function as a monolithic device in foreign policy, cultural imaginations, hierarchies, and (mis)perceptions were often at the root of the frameworks created by postwar American policy makers. Indeed, as the United States attempted to implement these visions, their understanding of Third World response was inflected by the same sorts of (often mistaken) assumptions that had been embodied in their world-view in the first place. Ironically then, actual cultural differences had a much smaller effect on international dynamics than did
14 15

Yaqub, 31 Bradley, 26

cultural assumptions and imagined rubrics of power and civilization. The legacy of this confusion and nuance persists today. American actions colored by these mistaken ideas or dismissive suppositions have left legacies much deeper than any particular objective. As the US attempts to sort out its place in the Middle East today, we face both a history of perception and a question of how future Arab generations will interpret our actions and promulgate those interpretation’s into their own set of policies.

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