Pankaj Mishra: Briefing our “Foreign Policy” Debate

“What a disaster! What an affliction! What kind of a situation is this? …England has occupied Egypt, the Sudan, and the great Indian Peninsula which are large parts of the Islamic states; the French have taken possession of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria; the Netherlands have become a despotic ruler of Java and the Oceanic islands; Russia has captured West Turkistan… What is the cause of this measureless decline? … God protect us! What should be done then? … except to say that ‘God changes not what is in a people, until they change what is in themselves.'”

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, (1838 – 97), itinerant writer and activist, perhaps a British spy, but remembered as “the father of Islamic modernism” and also “the man who first raised the voice of awareness in the dormant East.”

Pankaj Mishra
is sounding a wake-up call about “angry Asia” — from an alarm clock that, he’ll tell you, has been ringing for more than a century. He’s made it a story for today on the conviction that de-colonization is still the world’s pre-occupying project: to regain dignity that non-Westerners remember enjoying before the Europeans came. From the Ruins of Empire is Pankaj Mishra’s re-introduction of “The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” the god-parents of Gandhi, Ho Chi Minh and Nasser. No less an icon on the East-West bridge than Nobel-laureate Orham Pamauk testifies that Pankaj Mishra is giving us “modern history as it has been felt by the majority of the world’s population from Turkey to China.”

Are we ready for this? Not the least of the story is why American ears generally tune it out. But Mishra has addressed his polemical history sharply to us and our 2012 moment. You can read From the Ruins of Empire as a riposte, a decade later, to Mishra’s bĂȘte noire Niall Ferguson, the Scots’ historian and self-styled captain of the “neo-imperialist gang,” who argued on the eve of the Iraq War that it was the Americans’ turn to take up the “white man’s burden” and rule the world.

Since then, Mishra writes, “the spell of Western power has finally been broken” — by the abandonment of a smashed Iraq and the US-NATO retreat from Afghanistan, also of course by the global finance bust. But the argument is still out there in our presidential race, between Mitt Romney, of No Apology, and Barack Obama, of the faint-hearted gestures of friendship with the Muslim world and the Arab Spring. Mishra’s issues are urgently in the news, moreover, when President Morsi of Egypt, the first national chief from the long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood, tells the New York Times that it’s time for new terms in an American relationship that was “essentially purchased” over the years — at a price of “the dislike, if not hatred, of the peoples of the region.”

What’s called the “Arab Spring” of 2011 and now “the Arab revolution” looks to Pankaj Mishra like a piece from an old pattern, “a form of delayed de-colonization where people who were denied sovereignty and self-determination have now finally broken through and ended this unnaturally prolonged Western domination over their countries… ” He sees big risks and maybe bad collisions ahead. In the long history of empires, he observes, there are few graceful exits.

I think American loans to a country like Egypt, which were predicated on Egypt being a loyal and pliant ally in the region and essentially signing off on most of what Israel does, for instance, in that part of the world, and keeping Gaza more or less an open prison — those kinds of long-term commitments made to Egypt are now going to collide with the Egyptian search for dignity in that region and Egypt’s search for an older leadership role in the region…

“So I think all of these previous alliances with the United Statres and various deals will now be under pressure from these new promises and commitments the Egyptian leadership to accommodate the aspirations and longings of its own people. Morsi was very clear about this in the interview he gave the New York Times just now. ‘The people are paramount’ — wasn’t it fascinating? He was very blunt. ‘We cannot simply do what the United States tells us to do. We are now accountable to the people.’ And the people — he was too polite to say — are deeply distrustful of the United States for its role in the country’s politics. Until the very last moment, Hillary Clinton was claiming Mubarak as a family friend; people in Egypt don’t forget this, and they haven’t forgotten the way the Mubaraks were being propped up and their brutality was being justified by successive American administrations. So much of what was being projected as American soft power and American military power has lost its potency in that part of the world. One has to remember that so much of the decline of that soft power has also coincided with the emergence of different kinds of Arab media, whether it’s Al Jazeera or satellite television or televangelism, which is a huge phenomenon in large parts of the Arab world. So they have their own sources of moral and cultural authority, and the shaping of political imaginations that happens in those cutures is a process over which the American media have no control whatsoever.”

Pankaj Mishra with Chris Lydon, October 1, 2012

“This is not at all,” as Pankra Mishrea notes, “the way Americans or Western Europeans have seen the same history. We do inhabit different universes altogether.”

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  • The Parrot

    Thank you Mr. Mishra & Mr. Lydon. Wonderful conversation. It had the ‘if only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes’ imperial eraszt. In other words, empires have titanic sized blind spots that are not rendered any better by wise words and historical examples, because they know what’s best for everybody. Let us remember the sage perspective of the graffiti pundit: Humpty dumpty was pushed. Probably overtaken by events & Nemesis.

    The U.S. has several inferior strategic policies that are open sores. To name two: Cuba & Israel. They’ve taken on a sort of weird Shirley Jackson type of pattern of behavior. The problem with Cuba will (hopefully) heal itself and repair itself to some sort of normalization, but who knows? I find it bizarre in a post cold war era. The problem with Israel (and of course, it’s inlaws the Palestinians) is way too deep and entangled with various hegemonic systems of thought & action. Reductive means, (rhetoric is a paradoxical example) will never get to the heart of the problem. From my view point, it’s Jungian in combination with Roshomon. It’s Jungian because it exudes a classic shadow self in its collective monstrous archetypes. Furthermore, the situation is prescriptive to the apocalyptic vision and dreams many here in the U.S. actual hope to see rendered into reality.

    As even these two gentlemen show in this conversation, it unravels the thought process to the question: how did we get here? What is the point of this particular journeyt? No idea how to get out of the quagmire. Events & Nemesis will probably drag the protagonists into equilibrium. I hope I’m wrong about that. Again, I’m being reductive in my Roshomon perspective and incomplete in the extreme. My personal views on Israel and Palestine are neither pro nor con regarding either party. It’s simply a crisis that was here when I was born, and it’s cessation looks to be a fruitless, brutal, cruel meandering to indeterminacy. If this issue is your personal hot-button, I hope you enjoy the conflict for many years to come. You probably won’t be disappointed.

    Regarding Vietnam: my limited understanding (source unsighted due to my creeping bad memory) is that at some point (at the end of WWII?) U.S. policy makers and covert ops engineers pushed France hard not to let go of Vietnam, or at the very least, ‘soften’ up the communist ‘insurgency’ so U.S. forces could neutralize them if circumstances required. (Korea had not yet become a police action). Perhaps, this came after George Kennan’s long telegram and/or President Truman’s machinations towards an imperial security state? Nevertheless, for western imperial aspirations, using proxy wars as a way to play geo-political games has had mixed readings as to their results. Of course, neo-cons have their version of things: a caped Ronnie Reagan brought the wall down and it’s handmaiden “the evil empire’ (ala ‘Santa Fe Trail’). And I have mine: economics, military misadventure, moral decay, ethical rot, practical concerns ignored, etc., brought the Soviet Union to the point of implosion.

    Let me add one very personal note on these proxy war matters: I’ve had way too many dealings with Vietnam era vets and families who suffer from PTSD (dealt with one in my own family). This sh*t ain’t worth it for those of us who have to deal with the collateral damage. I say this without any ideological bent, but on purely human and practical terms. Suicides, abuses (addictions, violence that is domestic & beyond), criminality, incarcaration, homelessnes, titanic mental and physical health issues. The costs are enormous and exhausting. The wounds do not always heal gracefully nor timely. Obviously, an empire driven by an ideology of exceptionalism coupled to capital market influence for ever expanding growth, concerns itself not a wit (it’s not just the 47%er’s that are disposable). The arc of history has not yet bent towards justice regarding our proxy wars may they one day R.I.P.

  • Paul

    Thank you, Pankra and Christopher, for speaking sensibly with critical awareness of the how Eastern peoples view the hubris of Western machinations.