The Real World


On 20th December 2005 a former Bolivian farmer Ivo Morales, after obtaining a number of votes exceeding those of all the other candidates combined, was elected president of his country.  He became the latest of a succession of socialist presidents in South America.  One by one the South American republics have elected leftist presidents, and the trend has been accelerated by strong anti-US feeling, upon which the candidates openly traded.  Morales boasted during his campaign that he was ‘the United States’ worst nightmare’.  Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has been even more outspoken, calling president Bush ‘a madman, a killer and a mass murderer’.  At the Mar del Plata summit of the Americas in November, 33 leaders walked together towards the seaside spot chosen for the group photo, while one, George Bush, walked alone.  

Socialist Michelle Bachelet is favourite to take over from socialist Lagos in Chile, with a second round of voting in January.  Argentina has leftist president Nestor Kirchner, in Brazil is socialist Lula, in Uruguay is Tabare Vazquez, leader of a left-wing coalition and, most famously socialist of them all, Hugo Chavez, firm friend of Fidel Castro, is current president of Venezuela. Right wing governments in Peru and Mexico look vulnerable in coming elections.

The search for reasons for the South American reaction against their powerful northern neighbour does not need to go back far.  US interference in its ‘backyard’, Central and South America, has been well documented.  It was prompted by both ideology (the cold war made the US very touchy on the subject of socialist neighbours), and self interest (in terms of exploiting Central and South American wealth).  The decisions to intervene were made at the very top.  All the US presidents became embroiled in clandestine actions that resulted in entrenching dictators and undermining democratically-elected governments (and, more than incidentally, in tarnishing their own reputations):  Truman (authorised CIA to undermine President Arbenz of Guatemala), Eisenhower (authorised assassination attempts on Castro, and organised CIA actions in Guatemala that resulted in overthrowing a government and the subsequent murder of thousands of civilians), Reagan (organised the famous Iran/Contra scandal), Kennedy (authorised secret US backing for the invasion attempt in Cuba at the Bay of Pigs), Carter (authorised military aid for El Salvador dictator), Nixon (covert actions that resulted in the overthrow and murder of Allende in Chile, and installation of Pinochet), and Bush (attempts at undermining Chavez in Venezuela). All these covert and murderous actions seemed like a good idea at the time, though which, when they became known, undermined the reputation not only of individual presidents, but also of the United States.  Successive US administrations clearly did not believe in the image they fostered at home and abroad of a democratic country ruled by law, benign in its instincts and actions, and an example to the world. (We must exempt Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who initiated a genuine “Good Neighbour’ policy of no-strings economic aid to Central and South America, the good intentions of which became trusted by all recipients.)

Anti-Americanism is not the present point.  When Spain dominated in South America, its actions were worse, openly contemptuous of indigenous rights.  The present aim is to consider an alternative scenario.  

Consider the case of a United States that had once taken the poor, huddled masses of Europe.  A United States whose pioneering efforts to install a government by the people, for the people, of the people attracted the attention of intellectuals worldwide.  The US government was once low-key, transparent, a matter for justifiable pride and an example and a beacon of hope to the rest of the world, best described in words written at the time.

O! ye that love mankind!  Ye that dare oppose not only tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth!  Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression.  Freedom hath been hunted round the globe.  Asia and Africa have long expelled her.  Europe regards her as a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart.  O! receive the fugitive and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.

Such a United States would not have dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but instead would have readily accepted Japan’s offer of surrender some three months previously.  In the Cold War that was perhaps inevitable afterwards between the competing ideologies of democracy and communism, democracy would have shone the more brightly.  The enormous cost of nuclear bomb research would have deterred other nations researching the unproven technology, and the world would have been, and probably would have remained, non-nuclear. 

Such a United States had the self-confidence to be a good example.  It emerged from the second world war as a strong military power, a position which it seemed wise to maintain, but in the absence of a credible threat the American people saw no need to spend one sixth of each tax dollar on a mighty military machine that dwarfed every other nation’s.  Instead large amounts of the budget were laid aside every year for international aid – a long-term, carefully-directed Marshall-type plan that excited the gratitude and admiration of all recipients.  Large development projects were initiated in the US’s ‘backyard’:  Central and South America were the greatest beneficiaries of US largesse.

There were no deals done with dictators, even though some pointed out that dictators, being in total charge, were the ideal bulwarks against communism.  Dictators saw communism as a personal threat, and were in a position to grant bases indefinitely to US military.  But strong though these arguments were, the US administration viewed dictators as being quite the opposite of the US system of government, and so would have nothing to do with oppressive ruling elites.  As a result, and not surprisingly, such a United States became everywhere perceived as the favoured alternative to communism.  And it is most unlikely that such a United States would ever have become the object of a terrorist attack. 

This alternative scenario did not in fact happen, but it could have happened.  That is the point. When ‘realists’ attack peace movement attitudes, and declare that the real world needs pragmatists willing to do secret deals and order murderous operations that seem like a good idea at the time, they are not necessarily right.  Our own personal experience suggests that better outcomes are more likely from openness, generosity, and there is no need to adopt a permanently aggressive attitude towards the rest of the world.

It really does appear that the peace movement has got it right, that cooperation works better than confrontation, that the arms race has been a stupid mistake.  True realists will look at today’s world and consider that the system of sly diplomatic deals, murderous covert actions in the name of national interest, and misuse of power, have had a good long trial, and have failed. The real world is what we make it.