Category Archives: Human Rights Imperialism

Zakaria and Huntington

Like some of my classmates, I found The Post-American World to be rife with oversimplifications and hollow reasoning, especially for a book with such grand ambition. Fareed Zakaria’s populist stylistic and writing choices were definitely a lot more detectable, almost distracting, after having spent the semester reading mostly academic texts. Despite these deficiencies I actually think that Zakaria presents his argument effectively, and that the general audience that his book is targeting will probably be in agreement with his claims—that any threats to U.S. global hegemony are overstated, American power remains strong, but we must be able to cooperate with rising powers like China and India, and so on.

Above all, I’m most interested in exploring the relationship between Zakaria and his supposed mentor, Samuel Huntington. Notably, The Post-American World adopts the same “West versus the Rest” framework that Huntington had used for dissecting world power, and there are plenty of other echoes of “Uncle Sam” (my new moniker) in Zakaria’s work. Considering that Zakaria was a student of Huntington’s at Harvard, I found this quote from Chapter 5 particularly telling:

“When I went to college in the United States, I encountered a different world. While the American system is too lax on rigor and memorization—whether in math or poetry—it is much better at developing the critical faculties of the mind, which is what you need to succeed in life. Other educational systems teach you to take tests; the American system teaches you to think.” (2008:193)

This quote became even more fascinating upon my discovery of Zakaria’s sentimental eulogy in Foreign Policy magazine after Huntington’s death. In this piece, Zakaria pays homage to one of the American educators who helped him develop these critical faculties and “teach him to think.” Some nuggets of wisdom from Uncle Sam include:

“If you tell people the world is complicated, you’re not doing your job as a social scientist. They already know it’s complicated. Your job is to distill it, simplify it, and give them a sense of what is the single, or what are the couple, of powerful causes that explain this powerful phenomenon.

“…Well you know, Fareed, my view has always been that you put your best work out, you let people attack you, and then you move on. You can spend your whole life getting caught up in letters to the editor, and ‘I didn’t say this and I didn’t say that,’ but it’s pointless. The best thing you can do is write the next book which will cause disagreements among people.”

Additionally, Zakaria notes in his tribute how Huntington was a man of principle; he evidently demonstrated this in one case when he was asked, as the chair of the Olin Institute, to encourage more minority students to apply to the group’s fellowships. Huntington’s response? “You know, I really can’t go along with that. I feel very awkward sending special invitations to people based on their descriptive qualities, so you’ll have to tell the dean I won’t do it.”

Indeed, the same man who carved out a world order based on certain civilizations’ ascribed capabilities and limits—and then “invited” those inferior cultures to either join the West or fail—apparently feels uncomfortable making decisions based on individual’s “descriptive qualities.”

Oh, Uncle Sam. It’s seems as though the education that Zakaria attained was less “learning how to think,” and more of an exercise in conforming to the ideology of American exceptionalism. And as an immigrant from India, Zakaria’s ascent to the elite circles of American life have likely been contingent upon his embrace of these hegemonic principles–which in fact do more damage to the Global South and concentrate American power. Is this what “human rights imperialism” looks like?

But Why??

I had mixed feelings when we started watching the movie. I knew the story of these innocent men who ended up in Guantanamo Bay detention center, but watching their story unfold on film was entirely different than what I imagined. The movie did a good job of reenacting the chaos and confusion that led to them being in these circumstances, and the daily brutality they faced while under US military control. One thing I was glad of, but still leaves more questions, were the interrogation scenes. For obvious reasons, those scenes depicting the “interrogation tactic” were diluted form the torture that has been reported in places like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib; the question that haunts me is why these places exist. They are justified under the guise of intelligence gathering, but as it took the US years and a lucky break bin Laden it seems the US military efforts have effectively failed in their endeavor. Even looking at the statistics of Guantanamo that were read off at the end of the movie, out of the 700+ people in Guantanamo, only 10 have ever been charged or convicted with anything.

Essentially, the US simply went into Afghanistan and took a random collection of people to torture and terrorize. What is the purpose for this? Why was there such importance on taking these people and holding them for so long? I was talking with a friend after the movie, and we questioned why the three British young men, who were around our age, didn’t simply turn around and attack the US, as they had 5 years of just cause to act as such. Why, if they were all still of sound mind enough to be belligerent as the movie shows, did they not seek any sort of justice for their pain, suffering and disruption of their life?

I feel there is more of a parallel between the reading and the movie than the same subject matter. The prison, it seems, served as an international correctional facility for individuals whose existence is at odds with US international agenda. Regardless of the actual involvement of these Taliban men, they were still aligned with a power structure in opposition to the US taking a random assortment of people, systematically breaking their will until they are obedient and will lead a placid life within the bounds of what the US deems acceptable. This, I believe, is the true goal of places like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. I think we as Americans try to justify our treatment of people by labeling them as dangerous, and thus there is a purpose to this form of violence, when there is little validity to that statement.

I think the next step in resolving these violence is to understand why it was committed in the first place, what is its purpose.