Guest editorial: Stumbling in the ruins

In his 1993 article in Foreign Policy titled “The Clash of Civilizations?” Samuel Huntington posits that “in the future … countries with large numbers of people of different civilizations … are candidates for dismemberment.” In this context, “civilizations” are defined by language, history, religion, customs and institutions.
Much of the world is made up of individual countries that contain people of such different “civilizations.” Iraq and Afghanistan are on our plate on an unremitting basis today, but the fact is that much of the world, particularly that part of the world that once existed under the arbitrary and self-interested umbrella of imperialism, is made up of “countries” that contain populations of people from different civilizations that generally have little in common and that often are overtly hostile to one another. Ultimately, we will not be able to keep them all intact.
The Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, Russia, China and much of Asia fall into this category. With their origins based on early and competing tribal societies, these civilizations might never have coalesced into “countries” without the controlling intervention of imperialism.
Nevertheless, it is what it is. As the world’s only current superpower, we have to live with this complicated situation. So how does this translate into the world of American foreign and military power?
We are on the horns of a nasty dilemma. We live in a world that is less than a century removed from centuries of imperialism. That’s barely a historical heartbeat, and the result is that many of the world’s peoples have not achieved their societal goals in that period.
Most Middle Eastern and African countries have rid themselves of imperialism, but now have repressive regimes that continue to deny their peoples’ aspirations for a freer, better life, however they may define that. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran cover the spectrum. Saudi Arabia has evolved from imperial Ottoman occupation to its own anti-democratic kingdom.
We Americans need to know precisely what it is we want for the world’s former imperial colonies. When we say we want democracy, we are simply pushing our own American exceptionalism. “Democracy” may be well suited to us, but close examination of the world as it is, rather than as we would like it to be, will show the difficulties in exporting it lock, stock and barrel to countries with no experience in self-rule, no free press and no rule of law.
What America should be interested in is stability through self-determination. We need a world that is not constantly in turmoil. The way you reach such stability is to make as many people as content as possible.
Yet our foreign policy over the last 50 years has been to create “stability” by keeping repressive rulers in power.
As a nation, America has not, as Huntington says, “develop(ed) a more profound understanding of the basic religious and philosophical assumptions underlying other civilizations and the ways in which people in those civilizations see their interests.”
Over the last 50 years, Americans as a group have not been able to develop a sufficiently broad and deep grasp of the complexities involved outside our own ethnocentric world to permit such understanding. Since most foreign-policy decisions are based on the domestic political needs of our elected leadership (their view of what we want), our policies will not change until Americans in general have attained a more nuanced grasp of world complexities.
In the meantime, we will flounder about the old colonial world, making mistake after mistake by applying our political and military power in defense of repressive, unwanted regimes.
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff.

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