Volume 1, Number 25
11 October 2001

Just when Americans and British began bombing Afghanistan, I received the following from J.D. von Pischke, my good friend and editorial board member. It made me wonder how our incursions into the cultures of other nations — including incursions by Quakers — may have affected their liking (or hatred) for us.

— Jack Powelson

American Imperialists

J. D. von Pischke

Little by little, through peaceful official intervention (USAID and its servants the NGOs and the consulting firms, the World Bank, etc.) and through military adventures (Lebanon, Dominican Republic, Granada, Panama, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Haiti, Somalia, Serbia, Kosovo and still counting) the West, with the US at the top of the pile, has made extraterritoriality a reasonable proposition in the popular mind here at home. Is this contemporary imperialism?

What is being promoted by the US and by much of the rest of the West? That women should have the same rights all around the world, consistent with our standards. That everyone should be able to vote in free elections. That you should live up to our fair labor standards or we will not buy from you. That family planning should be an entitlement. That debts of corrupt rulers should be forgiven. That everyone should have health care. That all should have healthy diets, often supplied by others.

Still more: That structural adjustment engineered by technocrats in Washington can improve your poor economy. That sanctions are acceptable and even patriotic responses. That making certain types of narcotics illegal in the US gives us the right to intervene in controlling the crops farmers can plant in the Andes, and to help determine the size of the military in Colombia. That all banks of any reasonable size around the world have to meet our standards and report to our authorities. On and on the list goes.

While each of these efforts has a certain logic and may in certain cases — or even frequently — be just and useful, why do we make it our business? How are we, in these dimensions, promoting the do-it-yourself efforts of ordinary people that Jack credits as the one and only historical basis of prosperity? In his book, Centuries of Economic Endeavor, Jack attributes the remarkable development of the Western world and Japan to the fact that they not only did it themselves, they thought of it themselves.

By trying to make other nations model themselves after the United States and its values as suggested by the examples given above, are we changing their hearts and minds, or do we cause them — or those in authority — to hate us all the more? In all the above, I have intermingled ideas that come from Quakers (and the "Liberal Left") with those that come from our government. So, do not many Quakers and our military come from the same culture of extraterritoriality, equally insistent on imposing our ideas (good or bad) upon the rest of the world?

Exercising extraterritoriality is not at all what the Founders had in mind when our rights as Americans were defined. According to them, the President needed a Congressional Declaration of War to engage troops against a foreign state, whereas today a call from the White House to the Pentagon can do the trick. The original idea seemed to be that an independent nation open to trade with all on the same terms would be regarded as a good citizen among nations, and this would enable it to function peacefully without maintaining a large defense force. It would not attract others to attack us, nor would it attack except in extraordinary circumstances, which would be retaliatory (e.g., against the Barbary pirates). In short, the Founders wanted to take away the occasion for foreign wars and were quite clear on how to go about it.

Switzerland may be the closest to this model today. Canada likewise, but it may be a free rider in North American defense. New Zealand may be another approximation, and Costa Rica, too. Although the comparison can be overdrawn, the ideal role of such countries in the global community may be similar to the original role of Quakers: voices of conscience, providers of humanitarian assistance, searchers for peaceful means of conflict resolution, protectors of innocent fugitives, etc.

Would it be possible for us to remain a free nation (or to hold on to whatever may be left of it) by trading peacefully, without using official means to tell others how to live, and without having to bomb and invade? Could this be a Quaker vision, even though we as a nation (but not necessarily we as individuals) would have to stand by as innocent people in poor countries suffered? Or, are we willing to accept the use of force if force alone seems to protect innocent people? Under what conditions might some of these concerns be acceptable or objectionable to us?

If we could disengage from our current, taxpayer-funded, adventures in extraterritoriality — including those advocated by the Liberal Left and the Quakers among them, as well as the Pentagon — then I should think the hatred against us would diminish over some reasonable period, such as a century, i.e., roughly the length of time it took the US to forget about the Civil War. This period could also permit civil society in poor countries to move ahead through power diffusion and crafting institutions they could call their own, just as Jack calls for in Centuries of Economic Endeavor.

Please note: I advocate humanitarian assistance, at a level that keeps people alive, in all cases in which it can be delivered to ports or air fields by commercial or other private carriers and distributed by unarmed volunteers whose violent deaths would not constitute a reason for retaliatory military action, i.e., they would be a sort of suicide bomber in reverse, causing no harm except to themselves. This approach would constitute a minimalist extraterritoriality that attempts to impose no particular values while of course implying some very particular ones.

Readers' Comments

Please send comments on this or any TQE, at any time. Selected comments will be appended to the appropriate letter as they are received. Please indicate in the subject line the number of the Letter to which you refer! The email address is tqe-comment followed by @quaker.org. All published letters will be edited for spelling, grammar, clarity, and brevity. Please mention your home meeting, church, synagogue (or ...), and where you live.

JD's proposal is both inviting and thought-provoking, but a few questions bother me: (1) While a lot of trade has, I think, the beneficent effects that Jack and others mention, our purchases of oil to a large extent line the pockets of kleptocratic foreign regimes. There is little or no favorable spillover in terms of development of civil society. May we not have some responsibility to undercut the adverse effects of this (e.g., as manifested in Iraq's invasion of Kuwait)? (2) JD mentions the Barbary pirates. This seems to have been an early form of state-sponsored terrorism. (At least John Adams negotiated with a sultan who purported to be ready to prevent the pirates from attacking US vessels — for a price.) While the Barbary pirates seem to have been equal-opportunity thugs, unlike al Qaeda, the experience suggests that there may be quite a lot of international predation that in the natural course of events would threaten us (and others). I'm not sure that the current version is so different from that example. And, given our (and others') oil purchases, there is a lot of money floating around in ways likely to flow into the hands of the predators.

— Stephen Williams, Bethesda (MD) Meeting

Thanks for sharing von Pischke's letter. Some useful different perspectives on old questions and offering of some new ones.

— Don Marsh, Seattle (WA).

Maybe I am naive to think that extraterritoriality can also bring understanding between cultures. Maybe I am naive to think that this shouldn't necessarily mean Imperialism, but can also mean stepping closer to a one-world mentality. Maybe this is a bad thing, but I'd like to think we are one community. For example, I don't feel the need to make my neighbors become Quakers any more than they expect me to convert to Judaism, but I do expect that we learn from one another and practice respect for one another's faith, and I do expect that we will on some basic level of safety and decency, look out for one another. I'd like to think the same is true when we venture out into the world at large. And I'd like to think that basic human rights apply to everyone.

— Tracy Vanderhoop, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting

I have a long list of policies on which I would urge the USA to "mend its every flaw" and most of them are probably the same issues you and others would also change. Regardless of how full the a gunny sack of USA misdeeds is, as our critics emphasize, the basic liberalization of life the USA has assisted over the centuries is a welcome breath of fresh air, and it's a record I'd take over any other country's.

— Jim Booth, Red Cedar Meeting, Lansing ( MI).

Surely there are situations where intervention is necessary and just, regardless of the beliefs/culture etc on the other side: genocide, for example. International terrorism of the scale we are seeing today would seem to be another. Our problem as a democracy is that things have to get very bad before we are roused to action, and by then it is often too late. U Thant said, when he retired as UN Secretary General, that he felt the biggest problem for the world and the UN in the years ahead would be international terrorism — that was in 1972.

— Gordon Johnson, Episcopalian, Northern Virginia

I think to a certain extent, the key question I have about the proposal is: Are we expecting brutality to obey some form of reason? Is America hated because of its interventions, or is it hated because bin Laden has a screw loose? Would Hutu militias have been curbed by non-violence as well or better than by a swift military strike at the local radio stations and armories?

— Geoffrey Williams, Bethesda (MD) Meeting.

  1. A Saudi prince interviewed in "Frontline" explains that in his country a King must be balanced in his actions and rule fairly or he will (literally) lose his head.
  2. In an interview with a young Arab member of al Quaeda, the bin Laden organization, we are asked sincerely "OK, the US is now the world's superpower, so why can't you play fair?" Another good question.

Now that the cold war is over and capitalism has proved itself to be the most successful economic system in history — now that we have clearly won — why do we continue to back certain regimes and governments one-sidedly and thus perpetually create very real feelings of unfairness and resentment in those we do not back or back only nominally? Why do we continue to play the old and outmoded form of power politics that is no longer appropriate to our position? Why can't we become the balanced and fair-minded leader that both the Saudi prince and the young terrorist seek?

— Janet Minshall, Anneewakee Creek Friends Worship Group, Douglasvillle (GA).

In response to Jim Booth, who wrote: "Think of populations being left behind in some countries rather than being made poor by free trade, multi national corporations, the WTO, IMF and World Bank as the whipping boys the radical voices usually put forward."

"Left behind" seems to me an optimistic view for Africa, where in many places the lifespan has been going backwards since the spread of AIDS.

— Lynn Gazis-Sax, Orange County (CA) Friends Meeting.

In my opinion, these poor countries cannot overcome their poverty unless they have a government that promotes the institutions that have to be in place to make the economy work; we have producers, wholesalers, retailers, delivery systems, lending institutions, free markets, small and large businesses, government friendly to the free markets, all the local institutions , access to capital, stock markets, etc, etc. If these poor countries can't understand our system, how can they change their situation?

— Herb Clark, Homewood Friends Meeting, Baltimore (MD).

In "Who Says It's Not About Religion?" (New York Times, 10/14/01), Andrew Sullivan argues that we in the West may think that this episode through which we are going is only about terrorism and the events that may have fomented it, but that that view is probably not widely held in the Islamic world, and that we had better be prepared for something vastly more difficult.

— Tom Todd, Jamestown (RI).

I don't (and didn't) favor many of the actions mentioned in TQE #25, but I am willing to be enough of an imperialist to have both NGOs and the U. S. government oppose such things as

  1. Imposition of criminal sentences without some kind of due process.
  2. Denial of education to anyone.

I do not ask that they do everything our way.

With respect to banks and other economic institutions, I think it is fair to say, "If you want to do business with us we need a certain amount of transparency and confidence that you adhere to certain standards. If you cannot adhere to these standards our business will probably be limited to cash transactions."

— Vici Oshiro, Minneapolis (MN) Friends Meeting.

I am in general unity with your proposal for peace in the Middle East, with one small but important point to offer for consideration. The 1947 boundaries were not accepted by the nascent Jewish state's Arab neighbors. In fact, they (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan) declared war and attempted to destroy Israel. So, when you write, "they didn't have to go there in the first place", this is a bit misleading. In fact, to maintain a militarily defendable posture in the region, they did have to do some "going there".

1967 is a different story, and Israel has in fact since the 1967 war occupied territory not needed for its survival — in violation of international standards of conduct, and a constant provocation. I thus would use the pre-1967 boundaries as the norm for any Palestinian state.

It is interesting (and frustrating) to imagine: Had Israel's Arab neighbors simply accepted Israel and made a true peace (i.e. formally recognized and had normal commercial and diplomatic relations with Israel) after the 1949 ceasefire, chances are the next 50 years would have looked a lot different (and almost certainly more peaceful).

— John Rich, Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting.

Dr. Meeks, theologian and author of God the Economist, writes that pure capitalism is severe and "amoral" and that religious values need to be developed to temper it. Hence the reason for doctrines or codes like the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes which should be viewed as a type of broad economic provincial. He attributes rising international contempt for America to the world's increasing awareness of its general poverty through ever-expanding media and communication, perhaps similar to the racial violence that erupted in this country in the mid to late 1960s.

— Joseph Mills, Kalamazoo (MI) Friends Meeting

Reply to Don Green

In past issues, I have published responses from Don Green, an old friend who has defended the Israeli position. Here is part of a personal email I sent to him:

From your various messages, I deduce that there is no solution. The present policy, of Israel setting up cities in Palestinian territory as defense, is not working. The attacks continue. Any alternative solution that I (or others) suggest is rejected because it either didn't work when tried earlier or wouldn't work because of inherent flaws.

The idea of blaming Arafat for not making a counterproposal is flawed. Arafat has no power. If he were to present a counterproposal, either it would be one that the Israelis would refuse out of hand (being a complete surrender) or else his people would be so angry with him they would sweep him from power.

The real situation is one of polarization. Each side is so adamant about its own rightness that no solution is possible.

So, what do we do then? We can only think of the long run, say a century or more. Try to figure out the solution that will become "obvious" to both sides after they are so disillusioned, so weary, with thousands killed (if not millions) that they say to themselves, "This can go on no longer." Only then will they compromise. Let us seek the opportunity to put that solution into effect as early as possible.

To me, that solution is: (1) Establish a Palestinian state, with firm boundaries (the 1947 ones most likely, but not necessarily.) (2) Allow Israelis in Palestinian territory to stay or leave as they will. If they stay, they must do so under Palestinian sovereignty, and take the risks, whatever they are. (They didn't have to go there in the first place). Give them the choice of becoming Palestinian citizens. (3) The world do its utmost to defend whatever boundary is selected. That means condemning any guerrilla action anywhere; treat all guerrillas as striking against the United States. The aim would be that guerrillas become out of fashion in the Arab states as well as elsewhere. It also means Israel not retaliating for any guerrilla action taken by the Palestinians, but agreeing that the world (not just the Palestinians) has the peaceful power to seek them out wherever they are (just as I would propose for the World Trade Towers guerrillas).This will take some time; don't expect tomorrow.

With affectionate wishes from your good friend, Jack

With regard to Jack's response to Don Green:

Even if Israel were pushed into the sea, people in failed states, seeing everyone else live comfortable, productive lives, are not going to become friendly just because they'd succeeded in local genocide. So, while I agree with you on the proposition that we're talking centuries for a real solution, and that increased separation between Israelis and Palestinians is desirable, I think scuttling Israel would merely encourage the worst tendencies among the Arabs. And I think the Israelis will never in a million years accept the idea of relying on "the world" to defend it. The record on UN peace keepers cutting and running is too well-established.

— Steve Williams, Bethesda (MD) Meeting.


RSVP: Write to "tqe-comment," followed by "@quaker.org" to comment on this or any TQE Letter. (I say "followed by" to interrupt the address, so it will not be picked up by spam senders.) Use as Subject the number of the Letter to which you refer. Permission to publish your comment is presumed unless you say otherwise. Please keep it short, preferably under 100 words. All published letters will be edited for spelling, grammar, clarity, and brevity. Please mention your home meeting, church, synagogue (or ...), and where you live.

To subscribe, at no cost, visit our home page.

Each letter of The Quaker Economist is copyright by its author. However, you have permission to forward it to your friends (Quaker or no) as you wish and invite them to subscribe at no cost. Please mention The Quaker Economist as you do so, and tell your recipient how to find us on the web.

The Quaker Economist is not designed to persuade anyone of anything (although viewpoints are expressed). Its purpose is to stimulate discussions, both electronically and within Meetings.


Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Roger Conant, Mount Toby Meeting, Northampton, MA.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Janet Minshall, Anneewakee Creek Friends Worship Group, Douglasvillle (GA).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

This newsletter was formerly known as The Classic Liberal Quaker.

Copyright © 2001 by J. D. von Pischke. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

Previous Letter | Home Page | Next Letter