Sunday, January 18, 2009

The most powerful political idea of our time

"The European imperial powers withdrew from their colonies after World War II not because their armies were militarily defeated but because their armies could not secure the political objectives of maintaining imperial rule and legitimacy.
At play is a fundamental issue of politics. In the post-World War II era, after generations or centuries of colonial rule, the forces of nationalism and self-determination became irresistible in the developing countries. The idea that human dignity requires freedom from foreign occupation has become the most powerful political idea of our time. All of this was immeasurably strengthened by the spread of literacy, mass communications, and a modicum of economic development. Yet even as the United States has proclaimed its fundamental commitment to human freedom, it has disregarded its own anticolonial history and the basic facts of modern history. Thus, the United States substituted for France in Vietnam's struggle for independence, and could not understand that the Vietnamese were fighting a war of national liberation. The United States replaced Britain as the chief outside meddler in the Middle East oil states - Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia - but could not understand that every U.S. manipulation of local Middle East politics ignited powerful anticolonial antibodies.
President Bush imagines that the United States has liberated Iraq, but to the Iraqis the United States is yet one more occupying power, indeed one that has partnered with Britain, Iraq's original imperial power. Moreover, the United States has not tried to understand the roots of Arab views of Israel as a colonial imposition. While compromise is the only productive approach for both parties to the conflict, the Arab view reflects Arab nationalism and anticolonialism. For these reasons, military adventures such as the Iraq War are bound to fail [...]."

Jeffrey Sachs, Common Wealth, Economics for a crowded planet, chapter "Rethinking foreign policy".