America and the Third World

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Scott Edwards’ contribution to the Public i of August
2004 V4#6 on the relevance of the 2004 American presidential
election for the humanitarian crises in postcolonial
Sudan raises the need to, once again, expose the ahistorical
assumptions underlying a persistent American creed for
intervening in Third World countries.
To be clear, my aim is not to detract but indeed contribute
to the urgent need for American subjects and citizens
to negotiate a mutually acceptable image of imperial
America. To this end, I am concerned with the way in
which an ahistorical image of the Third World is once
again creeping back into the debate on imperial America’s
national purpose and the liberal left’s self-assumed global
mission to save an assumed undemocratic Third World.
To simplify, the arti cle is prem i s ed on the libera l
assumption that while Americans are not the global cop on
an imperial beat, as the neo-conservatives would have it,
they must unite to resume their once glorious role as the
global humanitarians, social workers, peace brokers and
rescue heroes for the sake of saving a genocidal Sudan.
With the retreat of the post 9-11 “they hate our freedoms”
rhetoric of the freedom-loving and war-mongering neoconservatives,
it seems that the liberal self-representation
of i m perial Am erica as the harbi n ger of econ om i c
progress, democracy and human uplift is in ascendance.
To be brief, my point is that from the situated perspective
of an Africanist long subjected and opposed to first
European colonial and nowAmerican imperial power, it is
not the purpose of Third World countries to mirror and
help solve the ‘identity’ and sociopolitical problems of a
polarizing, post cold-war and post 9-11 imperial America
– be they democracy-loving and guilt-driven neo-liberals
or freedom-loving and war-mongering neo-conservatives.
The oppressed and exploited people of the Third World
need neither neo-liberal nor neo-conservative missionaries.
Instead, given imperial America’s long and complex
political, economic and cultural involvement in the underdevelopment
of the Third World, especially after WW2, it
is probably more urgent to reflect on what imperial America
should not do in the Third World. To be sure, while I
am not certain what imperial America can do for the Third
World, I am convinced by historical evidence that there are
a number of things imperial America has been doing to
ThirdWorld countries that it should stop doing. Indeed, a
recent historical precedent for this proposition, clearly
worth reemphasizing, was the seismic shift in domestic
reappraisals of America’s missionary self-image as the vanguard
of modernit y after its disastrous 1960s invasion of
Vietnam and Indochina policy. In this turbulent phase, a
range of subordinate social and cultural counter-movements
cogently exposed the hidden side of imperial America
as grounded in the violence of racism, sexism, ecocide
and genocide and dehumanizing in its basic values. However,
as Edwards’s essay demonstrates, it is not yet safe to
assume that the old optimism and self-confidence of
republican America’s founding creed and sense of global
mission has been disturbed even among a college-educated
u pper- m i d dl e – cl a s s . Nevert h el e s s , as evi den ced by the
strenuous resistance of a re-conquered Iraqi people, imperial
America’s continuously shifting sense of a global mission,
even under the banner of humanitarian relief and liberal
democracy, is not uncontested in the Third World.
So how does America matter for the ThirdWorld? To be
clear, American experience is very important to the development
of Third World societies. However, its salience is
not as a liberal lead to follow. Instead, its lessons are best
illustrated when considered as the most modernized historical
theatre in which the social-political upheavals and
contradictions wrought by a neo-liberal capitalist trajectory
to modernity has developed furthest. More directly, it’s
the territory where the social, cultural, political and economic
costs and benefits of a colonial and now imperial
capitalist transformation to modernity are most visible, to
be either embraced, avoided or rejected.
So, by way of a conclusion, the American experience is
most significant to the Third World when Americans, as a
poly-vocal and asymmetric nation of conquered native
peoples, freed slaves, migrant workers and immigrant settler-
citizens work out for themselves their many different
and often contradictory self-perceptions without the need
for a rhetoric of transatlantic rescue missions to postcolonial
African countries, often the products of imperial
America’s foreign policy.
Third World legal scholar at UIUC

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