A World on Fire

In 1793, Revolutionary France sent Edmund Genet as minister to the U.S. Finding the Washington Administration determined to remain neutral between England and France, Genet threatened to take his case to the American people. Americans were offended. We don’t stand for foreign meddling in American politics.

It is a position we still uphold. Our laws forbid candidates from accepting funds from foreign sources. Many Americans don’t notice the parallel when we try to influence the domestic politics of other countries. American or any foreign support is an embarrassment. It conflicts with national pride. Each nation needs to choose its leadership on patriotic grounds. Pleasing a foreign power seems almost treasonous. That’s a universal reaction. Our good intentions don’t overcome others’ instinctive national pride.

The protests in Tunisia and Egypt bring to mind Amy Chua’s fine book, World on Fire. Chua showed that globalization and democratization could be on a collision course in much of the globe. Financial elites have diverted much of the benefit of globalization to themselves, leaving most people as poor as ever. Rising tides don’t lift all boats when some can pay lobbyists in this country, bribes in other countries, or exert family influence to steer the contracts and the tax rules for their own benefit.

Too many leaders have done too little for their people and too much for themselves. It is easier for Americans to see that abroad than to recognize it here too. But it has been a nearly worldwide phenomenon. There are many here and abroad who should be cashiered.

So we, as citizens, must cheer the Egyptian and Tunisian people on. And support free and fair elections. But the risks in those two countries also reflect a deeper failure to respect their aspirations. U.S. support of their dictators severely tarnished America’s reputation and the willingness of others to show us respect. Our government has put the financial interests of major international corporations (they’re not even really American any more) above the interests of ordinary people, increasing popular frustration with values we proclaim. If American policy appears to drive poverty and repression, people will look elsewhere for models.

Egyptians and Tunisians will decide based on their national interest, not ours. The democratic principle we proclaim demands that we accept their choice. And we will pay the price of obvious hypocrisy if we refuse yet again.

Forbearance is a hard lesson for Americans to learn. Keeping our hands, and arms, to ourselves is a necessary lesson in the internal politics of other countries. Nationalistic reactions limit the ability of foreigners to predictably influence events. And a strong American presence will make us targets. Now that some of the most destructive weapons are becoming more available to many paramilitary groups, influence is not the same as protection.

Our respect for the democratic rights of other peoples meshes with our own self-interest. We need to stay out of other people’s business. There are limits on what any nation can accomplish. Nations that ignore the limits squander their assets and soon lose their power.

While Americans and American support are often welcome, the most constructive thing America can do is to stop shipping arms to dictators, and stop assuming that we can interfere in the choices of other peoples. That applies to Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 8, 2011.

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