American Foreign Policy and European Imperialism: Pax or Pox?

What is wrong with United States’ policy in the Middle East?

The pundits and policy wonks argue that it’s complicated. But it’s actually fairly simple: Since World War II, the United States has continued the colonial enterprise abandoned by the European imperial powers, particularly England and France, who were too weakened and bankrupted by the war to continue that enterprise themselves.

We have not done a very good job of it, perhaps largely because we deny that that is what we are doing. There is an element of split personality in our simultaneous orientation towards, and disdain of, Europe which causes us to cite other factors as motivation for our continued interference in the affairs of that region: during the Cold War, containing the Soviet Union and communism; always, of course, protecting the flow of oil (apparently under the assumption that independent and autonomous Arab states would not be interested in selling to us the one thing they have to sell), more recently, fighting terrorism and supporting clearly rickety and not widely popular “democracy” movements.

That we have not done a good job is evident in the mistaken and botched invasion of Iraq, in the rapidity with which Iraq has broken down since our troops were withdrawn, in the persistence of Hamas despite decades of American efforts to broker some kind of lasting agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and the creeping back of the Taliban as we draw down in Afghanistan. Not to mention the so-called “Arab Spring,” so named in a rush of misplaced optimism and misunderstanding of the real situations in those regions.

Although we tend to view the various insurgent groups as motivated by religious fanaticism, age-old hatreds, and plain old evil, even as enemies of the United States who want to impose Shariah law on us (how in the world would they do that?), what they are “insurging” against are the artificial borders drawn by England and France (somewhat with the collusion of Russia) after World War I and the Allied defeat of the Ottoman Empire, through such instruments as the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, the British Mandate under the League of Nations, and various policies and actions flowing from them, without regard to the wishes or traditions of the native populations.

After World War II, the old European imperial powers were no longer able to maintain their colonies and areas of “influence,” and the natural course would have been for these artificial entities to quickly break down and sort themselves into new entities more natural to the history, geography, and ethnicities of the region—except that the United States, the new superpower, stepped in to try to continue what England and France had begun. Yet American involvement in the region has always been conflicted, likely in part because the despotic regimes that were necessary to keeping artificialities like Iraq intact went against the grain of American ideals, as encapsulated by President Wilson at the end of World War I—but we should perhaps have been forewarned by the defeat of Wilson’s program at the negotiations over the Treaty of Versailles, a defeat which showed just how reluctant Britain and France were to let other nations and people alone. And so, here we are, one hundred years later, no longer unable to stop the final unraveling of the old imperial structures of the Middle East.

The question is: Why has the United States allowed itself to become entangled in problems created by a defunct European imperialism?

Since its inception, the United States has been oriented towards Europe, more than to any other region of the world. We began as the thirteen British colonies, and since the Revolution we have traded, negotiated, and imitated Europe. Culturally, we have looked to Europe for inspiration and models. Our museums are filled with European art, our symphony orchestras perform largely European music, during the 19th century our scholars and intellectuals pursued European university educations, our own artists and writers have traveled and lived in Europe (T. S. Eliot, Hemingway, etc.), and we remain today fascinated to the point of unseemly obsession with such things as the British royal family and Downton Abbey, French fashions and wine culture, and Italian cuisine. More Americans travel to Europe than to any other overseas destination. We are truly Europhilic, likely because, until very recent times, our population has been predominantly of European descent.

Yet at the same time we hold Europe in contempt, as a conflicted teenager both loves and rejects his parents. Donald Rumsfeld was speaking for a lot of Americans when he dismissed our reluctant allies (during the Iraq War) as “old Europe”—worn out, weak, declining, cowardly, impotent, prevaricating, intellectual and effete! And though he spoke crudely, his sentiment was not new. In the 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson and others called for a new American literature and culture, and artists and writers since have struggled to define themselves both in terms of and against European models. There is a tint of inferiority complex coloring our attitudes to the “Old World” in our politics and foreign policy as much as in our culture, and in much of the self-congratulatory rhetoric of our politicians and pundits, particularly following the collapse of the Soviet Union (remember “The End of History and the Last Man”?). We were the sole remaining super-power, the triumphant heirs of the West that had triumphed over the rest; we could step in and repair and regain what the Europeans had lost and thereby lead the world towards a democratic/capitalist utopia, for once and for all. We had finally and definitively replaced Old Europe!

It is therefore with existential chagrin that we now confront the fact that we are as impotent to maintain the old European imperial structure as Old Europe itself. What dangers this humiliation may bring remain to be seen.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: