If more Americans could get unplugged from the myths that have been used historically to engineer public acquiescence in US foreign policy, how much could that help us reform US foreign policy in the future?
Oliver Stone’s ten-part documentary series on the history of US foreign policy is currently running on Mondays on Showtime. Stone documents that the US has not been noticeably more altruistic than other countries that have tried to exert global power: It’s a fairy tale that “other countries have interests but we only have values.”
Suppose that more Americans knew the real history of US foreign policy. Suppose that more Americans were more aware of the many times that the US has actively intervened in other people’s countries against democracy and against respect for human rights. Suppose more Americans understood that these US interventions were not mostly cases of “good intentions which went astray,” but were mostly cases in which the US government never intended to promote the interests of the majority of people in the countries where the US intervened, nor to promote the values and interests of the majority of Americans. And suppose that more Americans realized that, far from merely being the distant history of a bygone era, there was an unbroken line to the present, in that the US never stopped actively intervening in other people’s countries against democracy and against respect for human rights; against the interests of the majority of people in these countries, and against the values and interests of the majority of Americans. Wouldn’t that have an impact on US foreign policy today?
In the case of wars, the answer should be totally obvious. Wars need soldiers to kill and die and be maimed in them, and if Americans don’t believe that a war is just, they are not going to support it, and soldiers and their families are not going to sacrifice for it. The fact that unpopular wars seem to keep going can sometimes lead people to think that this dynamic doesn’t matter, but that’s not true, and it’s crucial that it’s not true. It doesn’t matter as quickly and as decisively as we want and as we deserve and as will be the case in the future when our government is more accountable to majority opinion on foreign policy. But it does matter, and that’s crucial.
The war in Afghanistan is on a path toward ending in no small part because the majority of Americans are against its continuation. The path toward ending is much slower than it needs to be and should be, and the Pentagon will likely try its best to keep the war going, and defeating the Pentagon’s plans and ending the war should be an urgent public priority; but the distinction between “doesn’t matter” and “doesn’t matter enough yet” is absolutely crucial. A person who really believes in “doesn’t matter” is almost certainly a person who is going to remain inert. A person who believes in “doesn’t matter enough yet” is someone who is likely to be open to taking action.
Because of this, it is crucial that when people tell history, they don’t just recount terrible things that happened, but call attention to what people of conscience tried to do to stop the bad things from happening, and how those efforts sometimes worked, or came close to working, and how things might have been different.
Oliver Stone shows this in his documentary series – how people tried to make things happen differently, and how they nearly succeeded. History was never Fate: It could have been different. And if history could have been different, then the future could be different.
Although wars of intervention have been the most spectacular examples of US foreign policies against the interests of the majority, you can’t tell the history or the present without talking about how the US has used “foreign aid.” And the overall story of how the US has used “foreign aid” has been basically the same: a means of intervention against the interests of the majority. This is not to say that all foreign aid is intrinsically bad by nature, only that in the context of foreign policies designed to defeat popular aspirations, the use of foreign aid overall has served the same interests that the wars have, of seeking to defeat popular aspirations.
If you don’t know anything about the history of Haiti, or the relationship of US foreign policy to that history, it might be easy and comfortable to think that Haiti is somehow a poor country by its very nature, which the US has tried with the best of intentions to help, and that if the US has failed in its noble efforts to help Haiti, it’s not for want of trying.
But if you realize that it has actually been the norm in US foreign policy to work to defeat popular aspirations, then if someone tells you that in Haiti the US has altruistically tried to promote the interests of the majority, what they are telling you is that for some reason Haiti policy has been an outlier, not the norm. And it’s reasonable to ask yourself: Why would Haiti policy be an outlier? What special circumstances would cause the US to behave more altruistically toward the interests of the majority in Haiti than it has behaved elsewhere?
And then you would realize that there is no such special circumstance in Haiti, quite the contrary.
The general rule has been that the more a country has been able defend itself against the US, the more the US has left that country alone. So what you would expect in general, since Haiti is a relatively powerless and defenseless country against the US compared to other countries, is not for US policy toward Haiti to be better, but for it to be worse. And after you take the red pill, that’s the world that you see: Even compared to US foreign policy in general, US policy toward Haiti has been worse.
And a spectacular example of this has been the inadequate international effort to address the cholera crisis in Haiti since cholera was introduced to Haiti by cholera-carrying UN troops using reckless sanitation in 2010.
Given that cholera did not exist in Haiti until it was brought there by UN troops, you might think that the UN would feel a special and urgent responsibility to move decisively to eradicate cholera in Haiti. But that’s not what has happened so far. And of course the main reason that hasn’t happened so far is that Haiti is relatively weak compared to the big powers.
When one says “the UN” in this context one especially means “the United States and France and other powerful countries that have historically called the shots on UN policy in Haiti.” It’s mainly because of the US and France that there are UN troops in Haiti in the first place – the people of Haiti never asked for the UN to send troops to their country. The US and France wanted to send UN troops to “stabilize” Haiti following a coup against Haiti’s democratically elected President Aristide – a coup backed by the US and France. Thus, the “stabilization” that the US and France sought was a “stabilization” of popular compliance with a government imposed by foreigners.
And if the US and France and the governments that run with them decided that the UN should decisively step up to the plate to eradicate cholera in Haiti, that’s what would happen. But this is not what has happened so far.
Now, however, there is an opportunity to turn the page. The Guardian recently reported:
Haiti is to call upon the international community for more than $2 billion to fight cholera amid growing evidence that the world’s worst epidemic was started by UN peacekeepers [sic].
The government’s ten-year plan to improve sanitation and water provision will be unveiled with the backing of foreign aid groups and the UN, which is accused of one of the greatest failures in the history of international intervention.
It follows reports of a recent spike in cholera cases in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and warnings from NGOs that the US and other big donors are cutting back on funding for disease control.
An announcement could come as early as Tuesday.
But as the Associated Press noted:
It’s still unclear who will pay for what would be the biggest endeavor yet to develop Haiti’s barely existent water and sanitation system.
This is where context and understanding of history matters. If you didn’t know that the UN brought cholera to Haiti, if you didn’t know that UN troops were never invited by the people of Haiti but were imposed on them by the US and France, then maybe you might not see the case for action as so urgent and compelling. You might think: Sure, people in Haiti need some things, but other people in other places need things, so the people in Haiti will just have to take their place in line.
But if you know that the UN troops brought cholera to Haiti – UN troops that the Haitian people never invited to come to their country, but were imposed on Haiti by the US and France – then maybe you see it differently. Maybe you don’t see any need for Haitians to get in line, because it’s a slam-dunk just demand that the UN should take responsibility for the harm that it caused, and that means that the governments that are driving UN Haiti policy – especially the US and France – need to get out their checkbooks right now and follow through, not out of charity – although I have no dispute with charity, as far as it goes – but in response to a just demand for restitution.
And, it should be noted, in terms of US foreign policy expenditures, $2 billion is a pittance. If the US paid half and other countries paid half, the US would be spending what it spends on the Afghanistan war every three days. And, in contrast to the Afghanistan war, no-one would get killed; on the contrary, human beings who have the right to live and prosper would be kept alive and healthy.
Oliver Stone – the same Oliver Stone – has initiated a petition through Avaaz, calling on the UN to take decisive action to eradicate cholera from Haiti. At this writing, the petition has more than 5000 signatures. You can sign that petition here.