How Dissent Constrains a Superpower like US

A month ago, I was asked what I thought of Arundhati Roy and others demonstrating against American bombing of Afghanistan. I replied, “How very American of her”.

This might sound paradoxical. After all, the demonstrations were aimed against the US. But protesting against the US government is quintessentially American. The US is the pioneer of and top specialist in anti-war demonstrations.

The minor demonstrations we see in India are pale imitations, representing the globalisation of American traditions. Noam Chomsky, professor at MIT, has long denounced his country as an imperialist power-grabber. This is a minority view, but he is nevertheless an American celebrity, since the country celebrates dissent.

I get a left-wing view of Afghanistan by e-mail from the Infotimes Network. Typical headlines in Infotimes are Bush-Blair forces massacre Afghans, and Bush-Blair war against all Muslims.

Another, guaranteed to tickle the Indian palate, is General Pervez Musharraf, the corrupt dictator, tyrant, terrorist and human-rights abuser, shuts down all anti-tyranny printing presses. Does this vitriolic anti-American tirade come from some Afghan or Muslim outfit? No, Infotimes is an American outfit.

Some critics think that force is the main characteristic of America, and list the countries it has bombed. In fact there is nothing particularly American about a major military power using force.

All major powers have done so through history—Alexander, Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Chandragupta Maurya, Akbar. What sets America apart from other great powers of history is that it gives space, even honour, to those who lambaste the government in times of war, when patriotism is supposed to be the prime virtue.

Dissent apart, the US has a tradition of isolationism in foreign policy. While major powers throughout history saw wars of conquest as a key national interest, American isolationists wanted to avoid entanglement in the constant wars of Europe. Wars were inescapable in Europe: gobble others or be gobbled, was the rule. Alliances were essential for strength.

But the US differed in both geography and history. Thanks to the Atlantic Ocean, it was safe from attack. Far from seeing strength in alliances with European powers, it saw them as threat to its own sovereignty, because of its colonial past. The right of citizens to oppose war became part of the American tradition, and was never equated with treason.

In Europe or Asia, rulers could demand endless sacrifice from citizens for the holy cause of war. Not in America. Some US leaders would have loved to conquer territories and create large empires like Napoleon or Alexander. Some did indeed grab territory from Mexico and colonise assorted Pacific islands.

But the traditions of isolationism and anti-colonialism always generated resistance to imperial adventures. The notable fact about the US is not that it conquered some territories and created spheres of influence, but that it made so little imperial use of its awesome military capability.

This had little to do with morality. In the 19th century, empires were equated with greatness, not immorality. The US went isolationist because of geography. It came into existence in 13 small states in the eastern fringe of the continent.

To the west lay vast territories as big as Europe. Expanding into this area, sparsely inhabited by a couple of million American Indians, became the main aim of nation building. Greatness in America was seen lie in internal conquest, not in external conquest.

Isolationism mixed well with the US tradition of dissent. Many European migrants to the US had fled religious persecution, and so prized the right to dissent. This was reinforced by the war for independence from British rule, and formalised in the US Constitution. Unlike in most other countries, anti-war demonstrations became honourable, almost fashionable.

This has now created an unprecedented situation. Although it is a superpower, the US is very reluctant to accept military casualties. This would haveastonished superpowers of past eras, who used their subjects as cannon fodder. The US unwillingness to accept casualties marks a turning point in superpower history. I welcome it.

Even so, I worry about the way the US throws its weight around. President Bush has unilaterally walked out of the Kyoto Treaty on climate change, the convention on biological weapons, and the anti-ballistic missile treaty. Yet when it suits him, he calls for every country to join his crusade against global terrorism, or else.

This is both arrogant and hypocritical. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Will sole superpower status convert the US into as callous an imperial power as Genghis Khan or Alexander? The comforting answer seems to be no.

Because, for the first time in history, the main constraint on a superpower is not an external rival but internal dissent. And internal dissent has proved a more powerful brake on this superpower than the balance-of-power games played through history.

The US retreated from the Korean War, from Vietnam, from Lebanon after the killing of marines, from Somalia after the killing of a few troops, from Iraq in 1991 without overthrowing Saddam. Why? Because it was unwilling to suffer large casualties, which would stoke immense internal dissent.

That is why I believe protests against US militarism remain important. The protestors may be ideologues with private agendas. But even when their protests are misconceived or exaggerated, they help check excesses that a superpower can easily slip into.

Demonstrations in India may seem irrelevant. Yet they are part of global dissent that is most strongly rooted in the US itself.

Such dissent will not, and should not, prevent US military action to protect its legitimate interests. But it will check excesses.

Internal protests have already obliged the administration to go easy on curbing civil rights, and try a terrorist in a civil rather than military court. Dissent will also check external excesses against 50-odd countries have cells of Islamic terrorists.

I personally support the US action in Afghanistan. I believe many demonstrators underestimate the threat from Islamic terrorism. Yet I say to them, please keep demonstrating. You achieve something useful even when you are wrong.

What do you think?