Concerned that a much-needed international perspective is missing from the debate in this country over the course of American foreign policy and US relations with the world, The Nation asked a number of distinguished foreign writers and thinkers to share their reflections with us. It is our hope that, as in the early 1980s, when a “letter” in these pages from the late E.P. Thompson expressing rising European concern about the Reagan Administration’s nuclear weapons buildup was instrumental in building common bonds beween antinuclear movements across the Atlantic, this series will forge bonds between Americans concerned about how Washington is exercising power today and the rest of the world. We begin with a letter to an American friend written by the South African writer Breyten Breytenbach, whose opposition to apartheid resulted in his spending seven years in prison.
This is an extraordinarily difficult letter to write, and it may even be a perilous exercise. Dangerous because your present Administration and its specialized agencies by all accounts know no restraint in hitting out at any perceived enemy of America, and nobody or nothing can protect one from their vindictiveness. Not even American courts are any longer a bulwark against arbitrary exactions. Take the people being kept in that concentration camp in Guantánamo: They are literally extraterritorial, by force made anonymous and stateless so that no law, domestic or international, is habilitated to protect them. It may be an extreme example brought about by abnormal circumstances–but the criteria of human rights kick in, surely, precisely when the conditions are extreme and the situation is abnormal. The predominant yardstick of your government is not human rights but national interests. (Your President keeps repeating the mantra.) In what way is this order of priorities any different from those of the defunct Soviet Union or other totalitarian regimes?
The war against terror is an all-purpose fig leaf for violating or ignoring local laws and international agreements and treaties. So, talking to America is like dealing with a very aggressive beast: One must do so softly, not make any brusque moves or run off at the mouth if you wish to survive. In dancing with the enemy one follows his steps even if counting under one’s breath. But do be careful not to dance too close to containers intended for transporting war prisoners in Afghanistan: One risks finding one’s face blackened by a premature death.
Why is it difficult? Because the United States is a complex entity despite the gung-ho slogans and simplistic posturing in moments of national hysteria. Your political system is resilient and well tested; it has always harbored counterforces; it allows quite effectively for alternation: for a swing-back of the pendulum whenever policies have strayed too far from middle-class interests–with the result that you have a large middle ground of acceptable political practices. Why, through the role of elected representatives, the people who vote even have a rudimentary democratic control over public affairs! Except maybe in Florida. Better still–your history has shown how powerful a moral catharsis expressed through popular resistance to injustice can sometimes be; I have in mind the grassroots opposition to the Vietnam War. And all along there was no dearth of strong voices speaking firm convictions and enunciating sure ethical standards.
Where are they now? What happened to the influential intellectuals and the trustworthy journalists explaining the ineluctable consequences of your present policies? Where are the clergy calling for humility and some compassion for the rest of the world? Are there no ordinary folk pointing out that the President and his cronies are naked, cynical, morally reprehensible and very, very dangerous not only for the world but also for American interests–and by now probably out of control? Are these voices stifled? Has the public arena of freely debated expressions of concern been sapped of all influence? Are people indifferent to the havoc wreaked all over the world by America’s diktat policies, destroying the underpinnings of decent international coexistence? Or are they perhaps secretly and shamefully gleeful, as closet supporters of this Showdown at OK Corral approach? They (and you and I) are most likely hunkered down, waiting for the storm of imbecility to pass. How deadened we have become!
In reality the workings of your governing system are opaque and covert, while hiding in the chattering spotlight of an ostensible transparency, even though the ultimate objective is clear. Who really makes the policy decisions? Sure, the respective functions are well identified: The elected representatives bluster and raise money, the lobbyists buy and sell favors, the media spin and purr patriotically, the intellectuals wring their soft hands, the minorities duck and dive and hang out flags… But who and what are the forces shaping America’s role in the world?
The goal, I submit, is obvious: subjugating the world (which is barbarian, dangerous, envious and ungrateful) to US power for the sake of America’s interests. That is, to the benefit of America’s rich. It’s as simple as that. Oh, there was a moment of high camp when it was suggested that the aim was to make the world safe for democracy! That particular fig leaf went up in cigar smoke and now all the other excuses are just so much bullshit, even the charlatan pretense of being a nation under siege. This last one, I further submit, was a sustained Orson Wellesian campaign to stampede the nation in order to better facilitate what was in effect a right-wing coup carried out by cracker fundamentalists, desk warriors proposing to “terminate” the states that they don’t like, warmed up Dr. Strangeloves and oil-greedy conservative capitalists.
I do not want to equate your glorious nation with the deplorable image of a President who, at best, appears to be a bar-room braggart smirking and winking to his mates as he holds forth his hand-me-down platitudes and insights and naïve solutions. Because I know you have many faces and I realize how rich you are in diversity. Would I be writing this way if I had in mind a black or Hispanic or Asian-American, members of those vastly silent components of your society? It would be a tragic mistake for us out here to imagine that Bush represents the hearts and the minds of the majority of your countrymen. Many of your black and other compatriots must be just as anguished as we are.
Still, Jack, certain things need to be said and repeated. I realize it is difficult for you to know what’s happening in the world, since your entertainment media have by now totally blurred the distinctions between information and propaganda, and banal psychological and commercial manipulation must be the least effective way of disseminating understanding. You need to know that your country has made the world a much more dangerous place for the rest of us. International treaties to limit the destruction of our shared natural environment, to stop the manufacture of maiming personnel mines, to outlaw torture, to bring war criminals to international justice, to do something about the murderous and growing gulf between rich and poor, to guarantee natural food for the humble of the earth, to allow for local economic solutions to specific conditions of injustice, for that matter to permit local products to have access to American markets, to mobilize the world against hunger, have all been gutted by the USA.Your government is blackmailing every single miserable and corrupt mother’s son in power in the world to do things your way. It has forced itself on the rest of us in its support and abetment of corrupt and tyrannical regimes. It has lost all ethical credibility in its one-sided and unequivocal support of the Israeli government campaign that must ultimately lead to the ethnocide of the Palestinians. And in this it has promoted–sponsored?–the bringing about of a deleterious international climate, since state terrorism can now be carried out with arrogance, disdain and impunity. As far as the Arab nations are concerned, America, giving unquestioned legitimacy to despotic regimes, refusing any recognition of home-grown alternative democratic forces, favored the emergence of a bearded opposition who in time must become radicalized and fanaticized to the point where they can be exterminated as vermin. And the oilfields will be safe.
I’m too harsh. I’m cutting corners. I’m pontificating. But my friend, if you were to look around the world you would see that America is largely perceived as a rogue state.
Can there be a turn-back? Have things gone too far, beyond a point of possible return? Can it be that some of the core and founding assumptions (it is said) of your culture are ultimately dangerous to the survival of the world? I’m referring to your propensity for patriotism (to me it’s an attitude, not a value), to the fervent belief in a capitalist free-market system with the concomitant conviction that progress is infinite, that one can eternally remake and invent the self, that it is more important to be self-made than to collectively husband the planet’s diminishing resources, that the instant gratification of the desire for goods is the substance of the right to happiness, that the world and life and all its manifestations can be apprehended and described in terms of good and evil, finally that you can flare for a while in samsara, the world of illusions (and desperately make it last with artificial means and California hocus-pocus before taking all your prostheses to heaven).
If this is so, what then? With whom? You see, the most detestable effect is that so many of us have to drink this poison, to look at you as a threat, to live with the knowledge of cultural and economic and military danger in our veins, and to be obliged to either submit or resist.
I don’t want to pass the buck. Don’t imagine it is necessarily any better elsewhere. We, in this elsewhere, have to look for our own solutions. Europe is pusillanimous, carefully though hypocritically hostile and closed to foreigners, particularly those from the South; the EU is by now little more than a convenience for its citizens and politically and culturally much less than the contents of any of its constituent parts.
And Africa? As a part-time South African (the other parts are French and Spanish and Senegalese and New Yorker), I’ve always wondered whether Thabo Mbeki would be America’s thin globalizing wedge (at the time of Clinton and Gore it certainly seemed so) or whether he was ultimately going to be the leader who can strategically lead Africa against America. But the question is hypothetical. Thabo Mbeki is no alternative to the world economic system squeezing the poor for the sustainable enrichment of the rich; as in countries like Indonesia and your own (see the role of the oil companies), he too has opted for crony capitalism. Africa’s leading establishments are rotten to the core. Mbeki is no different. His elocution is more suave and his prancing more Western, that’s all.
What do we do, then? As we move into the chronicle of a war foretold (against Iraq), it is going to be difficult to stay cool. Certainly, we must continue fighting globalization as it exists now, reject the article of faith that postulates a limitless and lawless progress and expansion of greed, subvert the acceptance of might is right, spike the murderous folly of One God. And do so cautiously and patiently, counting our steps. It is going to be a long dance.
Let us find and respect one another.