Why Americans Don’t (and May Never) Understand Nation Building

I’m taking a brief interlude from my travel blog to bring you some thoughts, once again, about foreign relations. Obviously, CA (see previous post for explanation of this term) has been on my mind a lot and I’ve been reading as much as I can, trying to educate myself on the region.

This is a note to the average American, I have a bone to pick with you. The term “average” is by no means an insult, what I mean by average is the vast majority of America that doesn’t have time or interest in learning the systems of international policy or the particulars of different regions, not that lack of time or interest is a valid excuse. This is a note for you to read before you go shooting your mouth off about foreign policy. Not that anyone will read it, but here goes anyway.

We come from a nation that formally is 200+ years old although one could make a case for more. However, even if you said somewhere between 500-600, this is still a drop in the bucket of world history. And for that matter, there is only a small segment of the population that can say their descendants are even from here. Now, go ahead and be offended if you must, if you’ve made it this far I guess I can allow you that. We are a nation of conquerors. Whatever you may think about what was done to the Native American population of North America… well, I don’t really care… we took it from them. Sure, they may have been sparsely populated, but that is still the case. Not my main point, but a valid one. We took this land, put down roots and here we are, such is life.

I’m not one to flaunt the idea of American exceptionalism, but America is at least unique from almost every other nation in several respects. One of those is that we, whether our families have been here since the Revolutionary War or got here yesterday, come from a gigantic variety of backgrounds, traditions, and heritage. As bad as you think racism may be here, at least in the past hundred or so years we haven’t massacred whole people groups because they were different. I digress. Backtracking, we have come from all over the place and have managed to build the richest nation on Earth. The thing that makes America so different, is that from the beginning we have been more committed to an ideology (freedom, rights, pursuit of happiness, etc. etc.) and to the system that promotes that ideology than we have been to our specific racial, traditional lineages, or political party. Again, the US is one of the few places where this has been true (or at least prominent enough) from the founding of our nation. Most areas on the planet, especially areas of the world that are emerging nations, do not think in the same terms that we do. They have been through thousands of years of turmoil, destruction, reconstruction, prosperity, conquest… yada yada, you get the picture. We have not been so. I count this a tremendous blessing.

Now, I have been asked several times by well-meaning individuals about my reasons for moving to CA (again, check previous post for explanation of this term if you’ve forgotten). After answering a follow-up question normally comes that is something to the tune of “why can’t those people over there get their act together after a decade of us helping them?” (Fortunately, most people aren’t this direct and do a better job at masking their ignorance than that.) That’s about the time of the conversation where I get frustrated and tend to change the subject. The truth is, without some basic understanding of how things are done over there, the history of the place, knowledge of the culture, and a lot of other variables, no wonder you ask such a stupid and bigoted question. So many Americans, and I’m included in this more often than I’d like, assume that if other people don’t think like us, they ought to be made to see the “American light”, get their act together, and join the civilized world. If you think like this, do the rest of us a favor and shut your mouth, especially if you’re a political commentator (on either side of the aisle).

I could go on and on about this but this post is already getting long, so I’ll just talk to you people who are calling the “Arab Spring” a total failure. First of all, WTF did you expect? That in 6 months a bloody revolution in some of the globe’s most dangerous areas would create a productive Western style democracy? Please, say it ain’t so. (For the record, with some obvious hiccups, Libya and Tunisia aren’t doing that poorly). Also, what did you think would happen in Egypt? In desperate times people cling to the familiar, whether it is the Muslim Brotherhood or other groups. Sure, I’m not super thrilled the MB has taken power, but at least they were elected… I see that as a step in the right direction. And what should the current administration have done differently? We were already propping up Mubarak with American aid money, should we have sent in troops to keep him in power? Cause that always works super well. I’m not sure if Egypt will succeed as a democracy, but I have high hopes. Democracies are made and remade in every election that they hold, even our own. So… for those of you touting the Arab Spring as a failure, blaming Obama (who I will not be voting for in the upcoming election, but not because of his foreign policy), and lacking any reasonable understanding of foreign culture or politics, I say again, please shut your mouths.

Now, I want you to imagine for a minute, if you will, that you live in a nation at least 5-10 times older than the one you occupy. Now, imagine that the land from which you derive your heritage is a major crossroads of trade routes from at least 3 significant regions, all of which rarely see eye to eye on anything… and even if they did, you probably wouldn’t agree with them anyway. Next, imagine that a group of people living in a region, maybe not adjacent but in your proximity, have had quarrels and feuds with your people that date back before your great-grandparents can remember. You are from different ethnic groups with different ideas on how the nation you live in should be run. The cultural divide between you and them, for all you know, could be as different as the one between the Romans and the Huns, not that you particularly think about it in those terms.

Now, since your geo-strategic location is no secret, especially to those who would like to run anything from camel caravans to gas pipelines through your country; land, water, roads, territories and other resources have been hotly contested in your nation since before your great-grandparents’ great-grandparents can remember. Civil wars, foreign conquests, blood-feuds, and other atrocities are as numerous in your history as the sand of the neighboring desert. Now, a new contender for dominance in your country has asserted itself and has allied itself with a segment of the population you may or may not like… I don’t know what you think, only you can make up your own mind on that. This is the same type of thing that has happened before, only the weapons and tactics are new. Now think of the 70+ different political groups vying for representation and a share of the power in the newly inaugurated democracy. Oh and yea, the closest thing you’ve ever had to democracy consists of the tribal leaders of your nation getting together to appoint someone King and that didn’t even work super well. And all of the feuds and wrongs (real or imagined) of that past are as real and present as they are in the minds of all your other countrymen. Imagine creating a system of cooperation and transparency in that climate.

Yea, a little more difficult than you imagined.

Understand, a culture is not changed in a decade, nor perhaps even in a generation. And, for that matter, the whole culture ought not to be thrown out anyway. Tweaked and repositioned, sure, but not gotten rid of (not that that would ever happen anyway). Democracy is a grassroots movement. It takes a people who are more committed to the system than to their own views on how the system is run. This is something that has been achieved remarkably well in the US and is not easily duplicated. I don’t have any answers on how it can be achieved in CA, maybe I will someday, but I’m trying to expose the intricacy of the situation and get people thinking in a more-correct manner, especially myself. Asking the right questions, even if there isn’t an immediate answer is always helpful (think Hitchhiker’s Guide 😉 ).

Ok.. If you’ve made it this far, I commend you. I hope the thoughts were coherent and that you’ve gleaned something useful and understand my frustration a little bit more. Anyway, please, take some time and read some books about what’s going on in the world around us. If you don’t know where to start, shoot me a message or a comment and I’ll give you some suggestions.



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