Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why Contemporary Western Elites Don’t Understand the World

by Barry Rubin

One of the benefits of spending much of my time talking to people from around the world is getting an original, fresh perspective on the United States, its policies, politics, and political culture.

Recently, I had a discussion with a brilliant academic who had grown up in a Communist country, has spent a lot of time in the United States, and studies this kind of thing. To explain how the U.S. conception of the world is shaped, he used the phrase “engineering mentality.”

The “engineering mentality” is one of the main factors in America’s brilliant success. I take it to mean that one approaches problems with a can-do (another American phrase) style. One rules out extraneous, distracting cultural and historical factors in order to figure out a practical way to fix things. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! Construct buildings, roads, and bridges; invent new products; revolutionize production methods. Don’t be intimidated by the traditional; don’t be afraid of change; just because it has never been done before doesn’t mean it cannot be done now. Forget about ideology or preconceived notions. Just get the job done as quickly, cheaply, and efficiently as possible.

Such energetic and fearless pragmatism conquered a continent, industrialized an agrarian nation, and won wars. A century ago it allowed America to turn disparate ethnic and religious groups into a single nation. In recent decades, with remarkably little violence or disruption it broke down long-prevalent racial, gender, and other barriers.

In the face of all of these achievements, the currently prevalent view that America has a shameful history and is a failed society is ridiculous, notwithstanding past shortcomings.

But how does this “engineering” approach deal with the outside world? Not so well. By ignoring historical, cultural, ideological, religious, and other factors, one isn’t going to understand other countries. You can try to understand them or get them to change (“just do it!”), but these interpretations don’t work and the efforts to change fail. The idea that American know-how will go into a country like Iraq and Afghanistan and succeed in “nation-building” is, to say the least, greatly exaggerated.

How have American leaders in the past found ways to overcome this “engineering” bias? By acknowledging differences, comprehending that other countries and peoples have their own orientation, worldview, and culture. Far from being something objectionable, the idea of American exceptionalism was a very useful concept; knowing that the United States has been more successful than other countries was an important element in dealing with reality because one then had to ask why America had done so well which also implied why others had not followed this pattern.

For example, the burden of tradition in other societies was too powerful to permit easy change. Class distinctions were more rigid. Ideas and institutions that might have worked in the past were now blocking development. Change had to come from inside. Backwardness was not the result of external oppression but internal stagnation. All of these points are the opposite of the radical ideas currently prevailing in the West.

In contrast, America was a new society, an experiment, a relatively blank canvas on which, for example, the Founders had learned from the failures of democracy elsewhere and created a totally new kind of system.

How, in this context, can we understand the problem of racism? Racism is not thinking you are better than others. It is thinking that you are innately and forever better, that others cannot better themselves for reasons eternally set by biology. Racism is not thinking your society is superior. It is in failing to understand that others can take the elements that have worked for you, adapt them for themselves, and combine them with the best indigenous elements.

Racism is not believing there are differences, it is in failing to understand that up until now, at least, there are valid reasons — rooted in conditions, history, and many other factors — for those differences. Or, to put it graphically, racism was in thinking that Japan or China or others could not become modern, developed, and even democratic countries. But not in understanding that such success required time and change.

Racism would be to believe that Muslims are innately doomed to have unstable, undemocratic societies. But to understand that dramatic change — including in the ways Islam is effectively interpreted — is needed to achieve those goals is in no way racist.

And despite the importance of recognizing differences, it is perfectly appropriate and not the least bit racist to advocate a long-term convergence in terms of general goals. To hope that all of humanity can some day enjoy real human rights, freedom of speech, true democracy (and not just electing a dictatorship at the ballot box), equal treatment for women, and other such features of modern Western civilization is also not the least bit racist. It is the road that many in the Third World — and especially outside of the Middle East — want to take. Incidentally, if they yearn for such a society — with whatever adaptations to local history and improvements to avoid the problems faced by the West — isn’t that the best endorsement of all for Western democratic, free enterprise-based societies?

Today, however, racism has been so defined by the official culture and ideology as outlawing Americans’ pride in their own society or policymakers taking ideological-cultural-historical differences into account. In other words, it is supposedly “racist” to say that change is needed at all for progress or to suggest that only a victory by real moderate and liberal forces can bring better lives for people. This distortion encourages forgetting that there are powerful reactionary forces — often pretending to be leftist or legitimate or “progressive” — that favor stagnation or, worse, intensifying the mistakes that are holding back these societies.

When combined with America’s “engineering mentality,” this produces blindness and hence disastrous policy.

Ironically, the ”highly sophisticated” politically correct, Multiculturalism (how ironically named since it basically denies the conflicts among cultures) view has much in common with the worst American provincialism of the past. Everyone in the world is “just like” us — to think otherwise is a thought crime — which often means in practice to assert that they only care about their material well-being.

Yet in sharp contradiction to this supposed homogeneity, you are not allowed to challenge their customs. Treating women like chattel, for example, is their equally valid way of life that we cannot criticize. A Muslim Brotherhood leader must be moderate and pragmatic, because to define anyone in the Third World as bad must be racism! Only we are eligible to be the “bad guys.”

In the past, American thinking was far more sophisticated. Take “modernization theory.” In the 1950s and 1960s, Western social scientists asked how Third World countries could go from being poor and underdeveloped to becoming prosperous and stable. That was a totally “anti-racist” viewpoint. Anyone could succeed if they were only willing to implement the proper combination of internal reforms and changes.

There needed to be urbanization, better education, more democracy and citizen rights, a larger degree of private enterprise, and more equal treatment of women. Along with this were a series of economic steps, starting with import substitution and leading to industrialization. While modernization theory wasn’t completely accurate, it did offer a good description of what happened first in Japan and then in places like South Korea, Singapore, India, and China.

Today, the main theory — and one that Barack Obama wrote in his books — is that “underdevelopment” is merely the result of Western exploitation. Such a view, aside from its political implications, will do nothing to help countries improve themselves.

It makes the West a cheerleader for stagnation and reactionary forces. Endless aid is handed over to go either into subsidies to keep regimes in power or into the elites’ Swiss bank accounts. Such an approach is the welfare state on a global basis, with all the failings of that system.

So while America’s engineering approach — just do what works best — may be part of the problem for the United States in dealing with Third World countries, the far bigger problem is the contemporary refusal to discuss what’s wrong with other societies. That also implies understanding what’s right about America and the nature of America’s own problems.

As with so many issues, neither academia nor the mass media nor the policy elite is even discussing the need for an honest discussion of differences among countries or the road to development for the Third World. Yet without doing so, the world becomes incomprehensible and U.S. foreign policy fails.

Barry Rubin


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