A few days ago I was up in the early hours of the morning studying for my Economics exams. Whilst delving into the theories of the likes of John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman, I was also listening to a popular radio station which specialises in current affairs and often has the most lively discussions and debates on a plethora of topical issues affecting the world today.
On this particular morning, the topic of discussion was the death of Osama Bin Laden and whether America was justified in assassinating him in a foreign country without even having the decency to inform the host country of its intentions. Whilst many of the callers agreed that America had a right to avenge the death of so many of its citizens on September 11 2001, many took issue with the fact that America had violated the sovereignty of another country and seemed to be unapologetic about it. For many of the callers to this radio station this was typical American arrogance which was the reason why Americans are so loathed the world over. There was the typical round of Yankee bashing which has typified so much of the discussion amongst the thinking classes in South Africa since the USA assassinated Bin Laden in Pakistan. (Make no mistake about it, it was a planned assassination)
As I listened to the very heated exchanges I began to think about America and its role in global affairs over the last century. There are some, like Iran’s late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, its current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini and its current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad amongst many others who believe that America is the “Great Satan” of global affairs. Others like the late American president Ronald Reagan, James Baker, George Bush Senior, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and their like would have us believe that America is the “Great Saviour” of the world.
The truth is that America is like all of us, neither completely good nor completely evil but somewhere in-between. The USA, like all human beings is capable of incredible acts of compassion and humanitarianism yet at the same time it is also capable of committing extreme acts of subterfuge, evil and brutality. Remember that nations are made up of people, who are mostly driven by self-interest and as such nations themselves are primarily driven by self-interest in their interactions with each other. Hence it shouldn’t surprise us that the USA is driven by self-interest and self-promotion in its interactions with the rest of the world. All nations are the same just as all individual human beings are the same.
It is unfair and unrealistic to expect the USA to be any different, because this is contrary to our nature as human beings. Like all individual human beings the USA is capable of acts of altruism alongside sustained acts of selfishness, self-centredness and self-promotion. We see the American government giving billions of dollars per annum in aid to needy countries and worthy causes, yet at the same time engaging in covert activities that destabilise certain nations and cause the deaths of so many innocent lives, all in the name of protecting and advancing US interests. We see great American entrepreneurs who have built some of the greatest corporations the world has ever seen and introduced products and services that have made life much more comfortable and pleasurable for humanity, ruthlessly advancing their business interests abroad with the help of the US government and allowing their products to be produced in countries and settings that have no respect for humane labour standards in the pursuit of profits at all costs, yet at the same time giving away billions of dollars of their own money to fight diseases and poverty in the most impoverished parts of the world.
We see the US promoting democracy in some parts of the world and doing a great service to the citizens of those affected countries by promoting openness, transparency and freedom and yet at the same time we see the US propping up dictatorships in other parts of the world and siding with tyrants, all in the name of protecting and promoting US interests. In other words, America is a nation of many contradictions.
However a diligent study of human nature would clearly show that all human beings share the same traits. We take a principled stand on some things and then compromise on the same issues when it suits us. We are all as individuals capable of incredible acts of goodness at times but most of our lives and our daily decisions are driven by self-interest and self-promotion. We are capable of extreme good and extreme evil at the same time as humans. This is what William Golding’s epic novel; The Lord of the Flies was all about. There is good and evil within each nation, just as there is good and evil within each individual human being. No nation is completely good or completely evil, just as no individual human being is completely evil or completely good.
By the same token no nation is completely altruistic or selfish, just as no individual human being is completely altruistic or selfish. With that in mind we should not be surprised to see the contradictions and hypocrisies that often characterise the US, because an honest look at ourselves as individuals and our nations will show the same phenomenon to be inevitably true of us as well. What characterises humanity more than anything is self-contradiction, selfishness and self-promotion and hence that is what we will see in international relations where nations interact with one another.
As we seek to construct a new world order this needs to be our starting assumption. To assume a world of nations that are driven primarily by altruism and “good” is to set ourselves up for failure. It is no secret that the nations that have been the most economically successful are the ones that have learnt to harness this desire for self-advancement and self-promotion for the greater good through the ordering and structuring of society in such a manner that this doesn’t get out of hand. They haven’t tried to stifle this tendency to promote self, they have just harnessed it in such a manner that whilst the self is benefitting, society as well can gain. This needs to be the kind of world order that we construct as we march forward in the 21st century, with hopes of a better world.