The Agenda

America and the United States Government Aren’t the Same Thing

Via Julian Sanchez, also known as @normative, I came across the following observation:

@CineversityTV: Egyptian protester says American gov’t gives our dictators tear gas and guns, but American friends gave us proxies #jan25

This reminded me of a Samuel P. Huntington essay published in Foreign Affairs in 1997, “The Erosion of American National Interests.” Though information wants to be free, the Council on Foreign Relations doesn’t want the information in which it has a proprietary interest to be free, so you’ll have to buy the article to read it. I often think back to the ideas Huntington introduced in that essay, which made a big impression on me at the time, yet I take a far more sanguine view of the developments that he astutely identified.

From the slightly overheated summary:

A nation’s interests derive from its identity. But without an enemy to define itself against, America’s identity has disintegrated. This breakdown intensified with the rise of multiculturalism and the ebbing of assimilation. Lacking a national identity, America has been pursuing commercial or ethnic interests as its foreign policy. Instead of putting American resources toward these sub-national uses, the United States should scale back its involvement in the world until a threat reinvigorates our national purpose.

“Disintegration” is rather strong, but those of you who are familiar with Huntington’s broad views on the evolution of American national identity will recall that, later in life he saw its Anglo-Protestant ethno-religious core as vitally important. (For a good sympathetic account of Huntington’s views, I recommend this excellent review essay by Ross Douthat. Briefly, I think that while Ross’s perspective is less dour than Huntington’s, I still think it’s too dour.) He believed that this core was losing its cultural hegemony due to the rising self-assertion of culturally distinct minority groups, including, most significantly, Hispanophone migrants from Latin America and their descendants as well as smaller so-called “diaspora minorities,” which he described as follows:

The growing role of ethnic groups in shaping American foreign policy is reinforced by the waves of recent immigration and by the arguments for diversity and multiculturalism. In addition, the greater wealth of ethnic communities and the dramatic improvements in communications and transportation now make it much easier for ethnic groups to remain in touch with their home countries. As a result, these groups are being transformed from cultural communities within the boundaries of a state into diasporas that transcend these boundaries. State-based diasporas, that is, trans-state cultural communities that control at least one state, are increasingly important and increasingly identify with the interests of their homeland. “Full assimilation into their host societies,” a leading expert, Gabriel Sheffer, has observed in Survival “has become unfashionable among both established and incipient state-based diasporas . . . many diasporal communities neither confront overwhelming pressure to assimilate nor feel any marked advantage in assimilating into their host societies or even obtaining citizenship there.” Since the United States is the premier immigrant country in the world, it is most affected by the shifts from assimilation to diversity and from ethnic group to diaspora. [Emphasis added.]

Think of the affluent South Asian migrants Devesh Kapur describes in his new book Diaspora, Development, and Democracy, who retain a strong identification with their native country, are embedded in “brain circulation” networks that transfer knowledge capital and cultural practices across borders, and are willing to use their economic muscle to intervene in the U.S. political system on behalf of what they perceive to be Indian or Pakistani national interests. In a similar vein, Americans of Armenian, Irish, Lebanese, Palestinian Arab, and Jewish origin have often served as activists on behalf of states with which they feel a strong ethnic and ideological affiliation. It is also true that this brand of diaspora activism has been by no means monolithic, e.g., the U.S. Jewish community is divided over Israel along many dimensions. Most Jewish Americans aren’t deeply engaged in issues surrounding Israel, just as most Asian Indian Americans are not deeply engaged in India’s nuclear program. And those who are deeply engaged find themselves on different sides of the same issues.

Regardless, Huntington’s main point was that a large and growing number of “ethnic” Americans, i.e., Americans who don’t identify primarily with the Anglo-Protestant core, are part of cultural networks that extend beyond the borders of the U.S., and that this will shape our foreign policy in ways that he finds less than salutary. He came up with a characteristically great way of describing his essential anxiety:

During its first phase as a hegemonic power, the United States expended billions of dollars each year attempting to influence government decisions, elections, and political outcomes in other countries. These efforts clearly exceeded those of any other government, except possibly the Soviet Union, and almost certainly exceeded the total resources expended by foreign governments to influence American politics. Now this balance has changed dramatically, and the shoe is on the other foot. American activities designed to influence foreign governments have either stopped or been greatly reduced. Foreign aid is down and is concentrated on a few countries. Covert intervention is rare, and the money spent trying to influence elections and other outcomes in foreign countries is only a vestige of what it once was. The efforts of foreign institutions to influence American decision-making, in contrast, have increased significantly. The United States has thus become less of an actor and more of an arena. [Emphasis added.]

There really is a sense in which foreign commercial interests invest in shaping political outcomes in the United States. While the president and his allies sowed hysteria about the supposed foreign control over the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its affiliates, multinationals that invest in the U.S. exercise considerable indirect influence through their employees, clients, and customers, and there is a sense in which foreign debt-holders have implicit influence over U.S. policymakers.

But the real fragmentation that has made the U.S. less of an actor and more of an area — a dead-on description, in my view — actually isn’t ethnic in nature. It is normative in nature, which brings us back to that tweet Julian pointed me towards.

In the contemporary United States, the entire population does not feel as though the national security apparatus speaks for them. This was always true, of course. But now the dissenting minority can actually exercise “soft power” of its own, through the deployment of philanthropic resources, knowledge capital, etc. Americans aren’t just embedded in diaspora-based “brain circulation” networks. They are embedded in free software “brain circulation” networks, the WikiLeaks movement,  social enterprise networks, increasingly cosmopolitan evangelical religious networks, and many other networks that are based on shared affinities, ideologies, etc., and not on shared ethnolinguistic background or nationalist loyalties.

Here is the bigger question: Is it obvious that this is a problem to be solved? Do we want the United States to be an agent rather than an arena? In some respects, the answer is yes. I can imagine someone replying to this post by saying, “Well, Al Qaeda is a trans-national network too. Indeed, it is arguably the paradigmatic stateless ideological network, you nincompoop.” And there’s some truth to that. But Al Qaeda and other networks of deranged fanatics aren’t, in my view, the paradigmatic example. One could argue that they “engage” in the arena of American public deliberation by sowing fear, and by drawing us into quagmires and other massive policy overreactions. So we want to be enough of an agent to effectively combat Al Qaeda and groups and movements like it.

That doesn’t mean, however, that re-transforming the United States into an agent (if we ever were an agent, pace Huntington) by achieving and enforcing a broad political consensus is the way that we will defeat the Al Qaeda movement. We can’t do that. We aren’t going to get any less diverse or any less embedded in global networks, because doing so would make us vastly poorer.

And that is also why it’s not just the United States that has gone or will go from agent to arena. I’d suggest that all of the advanced market democracies are in various stages of doing the same, and indeed that sprawling emerging market democracies like India and Indonesia and Brazil have been arenas for a long time. While many in the Asian Indian community in the U.S. lobbied Congress for the U.S.-India nuclear deal, Communists in India’s parliament fought hard against it. India and Indonesia are countries with far more ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity than the U.S., and Brazil has its own fault lines relating to ethnicity, color, and historical levels of development, etc. An authoritarian government can create the illusion of agent-ness for a while, but markets, density, and free elections will inevitably undermine that.

While midcentury markets were homogenizing — that is one of the reasons nostalgists of the left like Jeremy Rifkin lament the death of the Golden Age of postwar consumer capitalism — contemporary markets drive differentiation by catering to and helping to articulate and manufacture niche desires, and, in a similar vein, novelty-seeking infovores do something similar by creating non-commercial ways to consume. This also creates new ideological possibilities.

So when idiots on the Internet tell me that America is to blame for Hosni Mubarak, I have to ask, which America and which Americans? The America that Egyptian authorities are blaming for sponsoring and protecting a handful of young Egyptian democracy activists who may well be at the center of the disturbance? U.S. think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute that publish books like Reuel Marc Gerecht’s The Islamic Paradox that make the explicit case that (a) democratization in the Arab Middle East will lead to anti-U.S. and anti-Israel governments and that (b) this is nevertheless a crucial first step to more decent, humane societies in the region that the United States government should support?

Or is the slow-moving machinery of diplomacy, which, to preserve a diplomatic triumph of 1979 and fearing the political and security consequences of rapid change, hasn’t been able to respond as nimbly and quickly as civil society? Indeed, it’s the very fact that government is so slow-moving, consensus-oriented, and resistant to change that I think it is so important that we reduce its carbon footprint, mindshare, and power.


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