Wednesday, May 17, 2006
America's Place in History
5th March 2006
The Position America Will Receive When History of Our Age Would be written
No doubt, America is today's dominant power in world economy and world polity; consequently American policies affect virtually each and every nation of the world. The all-pervasive influence of America on the lives of billions all over the world, as we know, evokes extreme responses in both the extremes - hatred against America and admiration for its work - from different regions of the world. My sympathies lie with the people who criticise America; but in this article I shall refrain from indulging in U.S.-bashing. Instead, I shall present a dispassionate analysis, from the way of a historian, about what position and reverence the USA of today will receive when history would be written.
History is a witness that warring, sturdy and abrasive races have never been respected, they have only been feared. When Europeans write of their own history, then they use the most hideous and the most demonic of words to describe the races of Vikings, Huns, Goths and Mongols. All these four races were great military strengths in their own right - the Vikings repeatedly troubled England in middle ages; the Huns, under their fiery King 'ATTILA The Hun' brought ruin upon the Western Roman Empire in 5th century A.D. and reached the gates of Rome itself; the Goths (especially the Visigoths, under the leadership of Alaric The Goth) were a fiery people and were a constant trouble for the Roman Empire. The Mongols merit special attention because of their unparalleled savagery in warfare; they relished massacring citizens. The Mongols surprised their enemies with the sheer swiftness of their cavalry and therefore his enemies called Genghis Khan 'The Scourge of God'.
The military might of present day USA is comparable to the relative might of the Mongols in their own era; however more than military power, what matters is the attitude of the military or of the nation. It is well known that India was militarily very powerful during the times of Alexander and Selecus owing to the extensive use of war-elephants in Magadh (a powerful state in ancient India) and other north Indian armies. To testify this Jawaharlal Nehru, in his panoramic 'Discovery of India' wrote, "...Selecus Nikator obtained 500 of these war-elephants from India for his campaign against Antigonus in Asia Minor in 302 BC...these elephants were a decisive factor in the battle which ended in the death of Antigonus..." Also, in the same book Nehru has discussed about the high quality and fame of Indian "weapons of war, especially for the quality of her (India's) steel, her swords and daggers." Despite such a military prowess, no historian can ever accuse India of being an aggressive or savage people at any point of time in history. The reason is simple - for Indians, as a race were never abrasive, never eager to intimidate other peoples with her military power, in fact never proud of military might (it is quite a pertinent fact that traditional Indian folklore records and preserves more of those Kings who were embodiments of benevolence, justice, kindness, honesty, sacrifice than of those Kings who were mere conquerors - Asoka The Great is revered in India for he gave up violence; Harshvardhan is remembered for his knack of sacrifice and giving alms to the poor; Akbar is revered for his sense of religious tolerance). The major difference between Indian culture and American culture is the pride the latter takes in a pompous show of 'shock and awe' (recall, the 2003 'Operation Iraqi Freedom' of the US-Army or the Iraq War was described, by President Bush, in these very words of 'shock and awe'). To me, the contemporary America seems nearer to medieval Mongolian Empire than to India; but the Indian media is engrossed in a hypocritical campaign to project India and USA as natural allies in today's world.
True indeed it is a fact that cannot be denied, that American contribution to science and technology and to (potential) betterment of living standards is overwhelming, but what use is all this of if Americans cannot value and respect human life (especially if the human beings are not Americans)? It should not be a problem - especially for us Indians - to understand that the measure of a nation's greatness or benignity does not lie in what it does for its own people, but in the extent of its fair and honest dealing with other peoples (or nations). I am writing 'especially for Indians' because we Indians have been well accustomed to such kind of a thought - it was on these very grounds that (pre-1947) Indian leaders dismissed British contribution to parliamentary democracy as a farce for Britain denied that very right to her colonies and indulged in double standards. Similarly, American ideals of democracy, respect for human life and human rights remain confined to Americans only. A very analytical, yet short, article appeared in The Times of India, New Delhi, Friday, March 3, 2006 titled "Blood On His (Bush's) Hands"; by Peter Singer which accused American policy to be indifferent to civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. The article talks about one incident when "...(American) military forces... aimed a missile at a house in Damadola, a Pakistani village near the Afghanistan border. Eighteen people were killed, among them five children. The target of the attack... was not among the dead..." According to the author, and rightly so, the more appalling fact is that Bush did not care to apologise for the attack, nor did he reprimand those who ordered it. Moreover, USA has as yet not apologised despite confirming that it shot down an Iranian civillian airline carrier (although mistakenly), killing 290 people on board. The list is endless... These, according to me, testify the fact that American culture is not benevolent or morally high-grounded but guided by 'enlightened self-interest', a term - however practical and good it may sound - that has been derided by our own Father of The Nation Gandhiji.
'Enlightened self-interest' as a phrase has become quite popular today when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh justifies pro-American leanings in India's foreign policy by declaring that India's foreign policy should be guided by 'enlightened self-interest'. It is not clear what the PM means by this term - anyhow, the term is open to many conflicting interpretations. Perhaps, the PM never thought it important to answer his critics and therefore gave an obscure answer, which betrays the obstinacy and self-righteous attitude of the Congress-led Government with respect to its foreign policy. Again, this policy is reflected when two reputed Congress-members-of-Parliament - Natwar Singh and Mani Shankar Aiyar were removed from their ministries for the apparent reason that both these politicians weren't 'overtly pro-USA'; and in fact, Mani Shankar Aiyar was very keen to see the Iran Gas pipeline project take practical shape. Coming back to our discussion on 'enlightened self-interest', it is a concept that defines modern (or Western) civilization and makes it different from other ancient (or Oriental) civilizations by replacing the concept of 'true morality' (which was the basis for Ancient Indian and Chinese civilizations). The modern Western civilization is founded on 'materialism' from which have derived capitalism, industrialization, imperialism and 'neo-colonialism' more or less in the same chronological order. Mahatma Gandhi was one of the best critics of modern civilization, and to prove that it was firmly grounded on materialism, he brought out the fact that in modern civilization "...man was defined as a creature of infinite desires... the constant satisfaction of his apparently endless wants and the accumulation of wealth acquired moral legitimacy..." (Quoted from Bhikhu Parekh's book 'Gandhi's Political Philosophy', Macmillan, 1989).
Now, let us come back to the question as to what position would be accorded to present-day America when history of our time would be recorded? It is my firm belief, that in the distant future, when today's passions (which influence the contemporary observers and politicians) settle down, then it would be possible for a dispassionate analysis of USA's contributions. And at that time in distant future when the power of USA would get somewhat neutralised, people would not find much difference between the military might ('shock and awe') of (present day) USA with the military savagery of medieval Mongolia. People will scoff at American culture and values, for they lay embedded in self-interest, hypocrisy and double standards, quite the same way as Indians ridicule the contributions of Great Britain towards democracy and Parliament.
When history would be written, the self-righteous attitude of USA (which explains its self-arrogated role of 'International Policeman') would be equated to the nineteenth century colonial attitude of 'White Men's Burden' (which hypocritically legitimised Europeans' claims to colonial empires). Today, within fifty years of the start of the process of 'decolonisation' there is certain unanimity in condemning all the colonial beliefs and practices; therefore it is not unlikely to presume that history will never forgive USA for arrogating to itself the role of an international cop. During the colonial times, the colonial powers like Britain and France gave fantastic arguments and excuses to show that their colonial rule was benevolent and beneficent to all; but all such arguments have been well forgotten within a fifty years, and what remains in public memory is nothing but the cruelty and brutality of colonial rule. Going by such a trend, it is very likely that the reasons that the USA gives for invading (or liberating!) countries will soon be forgotten and people will only remember the savagery of the American military (recall Abu Ghraib).
Even with reference to American contribution to science and technology, America would be bitterly criticised because of the simple reason that while USA presses for free trade in the market for finished goods, the USA doesn't approve of free trading in input markets (inputs for production) - whether in free movement of labour from one countries to another or whether in free trading of technology between different countries. USA wants free trading only in the market for finished products for it is confident of its competitiveness in this market; on the other hand, USA is sure of its lack of competitiveness in the labour market, therefore its policy has been that of 'protectionism' with regard to USA's domestic labour market. In the matter of technology, USA wants it to be confined within USA so that USA does not lose out on the competitiveness it has acquired in the market for finished goods, consequently America is averse to the idea of free trading of technology. Thus, as history will record, we see that America's policies are guided only by self-interest not by morality or truth.
Today, some people in India are convinced that the pursuance of self-interest is 'nothing wrong'. But one thing these Indians forget is that the reason for which we Indians are able to take pride in Indian culture and ethos is not because India was very rich or India once possessed colonies in South East Asia. In fact, it is quite a remarkable fact that Indian tradition did not glorify the Chola Empire over S.E. Asia to the extent it glorified the humility in a mighty ruler like Ashoka. We are able to revere our past for the fact that our ancestors preserved a high degree of morality stressed on non-acquisitiveness. Gandhiji who helped the Indian masses to rediscover themselves reminded this fact to us. Apart from Gandhiji, a practical statesman like Jawaharlal Nehru also expressed his anguish against the prevalent 'opportunism' in politics, repeatedly in his writings. It would be a pity if we Indians of this age doubt the ideals of those two leaders who practically gave birth to present-day India, and instead emulate America and American ideals.