Even though the United States has plenty of good ideas about how to run countries, many countries don’t adopt them. This frustrates Americans. We have learned a difficult truth that makes modern wars so difficult to win: Many people don’t like to side with foreigners, no matter how good their ideas may be.
The main reason people in other countries often reject American advice is it comes from somebody who is “not from here.” This cripples any interventionist project. It means that no matter how hard we try to create friendly regimes in countries we invade or occupy, in the long run we are destined to fail simply because we come from far away.
We imagine that our ideas will attract people to us. In fact, ideas are often secondary. More important is: Be from here. People often prefer solutions made at home, even bad ones, to those imported from the other side of the world.
In some countries, patriots are more eager to be free of foreign influence than to have good government. This is difficult for Americans to grasp. We don’t know the humiliation of living under a government dominated by a foreign power. Yet this is part of recent historical memory for millions around the world — and for many, “foreign power” means the United States.
If the bad news is that most of our military adventures are doomed to failure, there is also good news. We have another way to influence foreign countries. The triumph of American popular culture in the world is total. With sneakers and pop stars come ideas we want to promote. These ideas transform societies. Cultural imperialism, sometimes called “soft power,” is one of America’s most potent weapons. We should let it do its slow work.
American interventions aim to unite foreign peoples behind our vision for their country. Often they have the opposite effect.
The coalition that deposed the Shah of Iran in 1979 included groups that hated each other, but shared a burning desire to end United States control of their country. Some Afghans support the Taliban not because they favor its program, but because the Taliban is from Afghanistan and they see the other side as a tool of the United States. In Iraq, former officers of Saddam Hussein’s ultra-secular army have joined with religious fundamentalists to fight the American-backed government.
People in countries that the United States invades, occupies, or dominates may flock to our side for a while. In the end, though, many come to see us above all as foreigners — because that is what we are. It is folly to assume that the United States, or any outside power, can use military power to win “hearts and minds” in a faraway land.
For centuries this didn’t matter. Instead of trying to win the friendship of local people, big powers simply crushed them. Only when that went out of fashion did we invent the fantasy that an invading army can win hearts and minds. Generations of wise Americans have sought to purge it from the American soul. Among the first was William Graham Sumner, the renowned Yale professor who invented the term “ethnocentrism.”
“We assume that what we like and practice, and what we think better, must come as a welcome blessing to Spanish-Americans and Filipinos,” Sumner warned more than a century ago as the United States prepared to take its first overseas territories. “This is grossly and obviously untrue. They hate our ways. They are hostile to our ideas. Our religion, language, institutions, and manners offend them. They like their own ways, and if we appear amongst them as rulers, there will be social discord.”
This is as true today as it was then. Yet the illusion that people around the world are eagerly awaiting our guidance is deeply rooted in the American psyche. In the wake of the Cold War, some went so far as to claim that all nations were finally concluding our way of life is best for everyone. It isn’t. Nations and peoples want to find their own way, not follow formulas from the other side of the world. We win friends by letting them do so.
Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.