Marketing Democracy and the Empire

It is a strange thing to witness the students at our esteemed universities. This year, I had the opportunity to participate in classes at Columbia University as I was a professional fellow at an Asian institute. As expected, the students were extremely bright, conscientious, and motivated.  But as a radio producer and journalist, what struck me was the ease with which they accepted the mantras and revisionist history being promoted subtly throughout the institution.

Take for example the discussion with the former ambassador to Venezuela. Around thirty of us sat in the room as he discussed the issue of US-Venezuelan relations. Now one does not expect candor from a former ambassador unless of course he has a book to sell, is on his deathbed with an axe to grind, or has taken leave of his senses in an uncharacteristic moment of moral perspicuity and decided to right the historical record. The carefully leaked ‘autobiographical’ revelations about their activities are normally sensationalist, often light fiction with a carefully veneered truth and mostly dismissed by all those with a passing knowledge of the events at hand. Nonetheless, year after year these ‘Memoirs’ are passed onto an unwitting public, buttressed by solemn praise from an ‘esteemed’ colleague and digested as if indeed, this were The Truth.

But 2006 was an extremely special year – there was revelation after revelation regarding the Bush administration’s corruption and ineptitude in Iraq, and as a result the Bush administration was rightly routed in Congressional elections. The internet and ‘blogs’ were seen as the tool of the ‘new generation’ a technological ‘tabla rasa’ that would be used to signal discontent with ‘The Empire’ through innovative collaboration, and force change in the small powerful circles of decision making where the seeds of complacency and hubris had clearly started to sprout some pretty rotten fruit.

Alas, this is not what I saw during the talks at Columbia University or during the talk with the Venezuelan ambassador. For example, when the Ambassador denied any American involvement in the coup that first attempted to oust Hugo Chavez in 2002 there was complete silence. There was not one protest, not one slight correction in the room.  His statements were, as I wrote them, along these lines…

‘Oh there were reports that we helped the people protesting against Chavez…but that is all they were – reports ….. we had nothing to do with this…this organic protest’.

That is not the view of many reporters who have detailed the role of the US in attempting to remove Chavez then and now.

(A few of these reports can be viewed here:,6903,688071,00.html,3604,706802,00.html . Also recommended is Bentley Dean’s excellent ‘Anatomy of a Coup’, SBS TV’s ‘Dateline’ October 16 2002. )

All of this information is readily available over the internet. What has happened to the new revolutionary tool? Have these international students decided to take a political SOMA leaving nothing but lovely thoughts of American benevolence? Are these our future leaders? Could a room full of young (albeit conservative, but nonetheless potentially influential) students from around the globe really choose not to challenge such a statement? Do they see this historical amnesia as highly irrelevant and not at all controversial?

In a lecture to an audience of Asian professionals and students, a prominent Asian studies professor claimed ‘the US had recently been distracted from Asia, and while Asia was ‘back in focus’ the new found United States visibility in Asia was simply about the ‘War on Terror’.

Excuse me? The ‘War on Terror’? Ah – what about China? You know, the peer competitor? Since 2001 we’ve had the United States popping up in almost every Asian country on a diplomatic and military mission to rout the economic upstart, and the US in Asia is about the ‘War on Terror’? Did no-one here read the recent Pentagon Report? The Quadrennial Defense Review? Sit in on the 2006 hearings on China’s Military Modernization? Listen to either Condoleeza’s or Rummy’s China comments this year? Fail to attend any one of the numerous conferences, meetings, and lectures on ‘The Rise of China’? Anyone looked at a map recently?  How could the War on Terror in Asia be overshadowing the rather gargantuan topic that is determining the 21st Century, the economic battle between the United States and China?

Instead, there was polite silence. (Although an elderly Japanese man did challenge speakers at the institute over the visits by Japanese leaders to the Yakasuni war shrine, remarking on the dangerous nature of these symbolic visits as Sino-Japanese tensions increase. This is an obvious point and not at all controversial, but his exhortations nonetheless provoked unease throughout the largely Asian audience. )

In this case, it was my turn to storm out of the room, shocked that not one of the Asian students (older or younger) chose to raise this incredibly significant subject, one that has rather serious ramifications for everyone in the region. Whilst reporting in Australia I expected the conformity to the ‘China’ line out of Washington – Australia is, if nothing else, a very pragmatic nation. But here, so close to the seat of power, with the very public present that will be affected by every whim of US policy? Is public dissention among the educated and privileged completely passé when it comes to the ‘US versus China’ scenario? Why is there no argument over whether an aggressive US foreign policy in Asia will work in the regions, or in America’s favor?

(For those of you that don’t know, China, is ‘on the rise’ and while a ‘big economic player’, the US and the West still want to be ‘buddy buddy’, good friends and all that. However the boys at the Pentagon and Andrew Marshall’s outfit – the Office of Net Assessment – are a bit worried about its military – read ‘submarines’ read ‘trading power’ read ‘let’s try and contain the competitor that is set to take over the US economically by the middle of the century’ but nudge nudge wink wink, say no more, let’s pretend its all hunky dory so we can all reap the economic benefits.)

I am not saying that every student at a prestigious university would be aware of Washington’s agenda, nor assume that everyone has read the foreign policy tomes that come out of ‘think tanks’ such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institute, the Cato Institute or the Council of Foreign Relations, all of which can give you a pretty good idea of how China’s rise is determining Washington’s global positioning. I am not assuming that everyone has to be critical of the geo-political machinations in the Empire’s capital. I am not assuming that everyone has read strategists that help understand this battle, such as Halford Mackinder, Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, or Alfred Thayer Mahan.

No, I am simply suggesting that if people wish to really pretend that they are interested in ‘other regions’, if they wish to be employed by a large NGO’s in Africa, Asia or Europe, and truly wish to create relationships based on trust (or take up any job in the field of international relations) then they had better realize that people in these local regions have a good idea of what is going on and are extremely suspicious of US motives throughout the political process. They will remember those that chose to stay silent and those that spoke out; they will remember those that looked after their local needs and fears whilst great power politics were being played out on their turf; they will remember, above all, leadership.

Perhaps America is not ready. Perhaps this is Generation Y, Z or whichever random letter you wish to ascribe to it, and economic security is the most pressing issue for their lot. But one would have thought that considered dissent could reap some interesting benefits, not least give US policymakers something to think about in terms of negating the bad publicity that has been generated in many different countries over the last few years.

Asia is and will continue to be a vital sphere for American and Western ambition. But marketing ‘democracy and the empire’ to the new generation while waging a silent war is not the way to win loyalty among your subjects. Try listening to their fears – or deal with the inevitable backlash on the ground.

Maryann Keady was recently a professional fellow at Columbia University and is an Australian radio producer and journalist. Her radio station will start broadcasting in February 2007.

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