Don’t laugh—but maybe Joe McCarthy was on to something. And the problem might be even more serious than he realized. Stepping back from contemporary policy debates reveals that Marx’s materialist view of history and Lenin’s voluntarism have been the ideological basis for many of our imperial misadventures from the Balkans to the Mideast to Central Asia.
Actual commies are probably not crawling Washington’s hallowed halls. But a very Marxist-Leninist understanding of human nature and historical change has nevertheless had a significant impact on U.S. foreign-policy making in recent decades. Some forty years ago, Walker Connor, one of the deans of the study of ethnic nationalism, had already observed (and decried) the ”propensity on the part of American statesmen and scholars of the post-World War II era to assume that economic considerations represent the determining force in human affairs.” This “unwarranted exaggeration of the influence of material factors” on the world is of course a direct outgrowth of Marx’s belief that existence determines consciousness.
Lenin, in turn, supplemented Marx's materialism with a voluntaristic view of history, believing that his elite, enlightened Bolshevik vanguard could accelerate historical change to bring about the communist utopia.
The consequences of such worldviews are profound. In Marxist materialism and one of its latter-day intellectual heirs, liberal internationalism, things such as ethnicity, culture, and religion become mere epiphenomena of what are “really” economic problems, problems we can solve given enough money. Thus, centuries-old loyalties and identities can, according to this school of thought, be erased with IMF loans, increasing incomes and international donor conferences. And if the locals don't see the folly of their ways, a few cruise missiles or a quick military intervention should do the trick.
The functional contemporary equivalent of Lenin's Bolshevik elite is what Samuel Huntington and Peter Berger have variously described as “Davos Man” and “Davos Culture”—the multilingual, globe-trotting, advanced-degree holding, CNN-watching, Hilton Hotel-staying, international organization-employed cadres who go from trouble spot to trouble spot imposing the neoliberal state- and nation-building agenda on recalcitrant and often ungrateful natives.
In this latter-day version of proletarian internationalism, the missionaries of Davos Culture believe that with an adequate budget and within the short space of their secondments (or at least between American presidential cycles) they can impose on other countries and societies the political cultures, processes and institutions that took decades and centuries to develop in the West. As Michael Ignatieff once noted, “The activists, experts, and bureaucrats who do the work of promoting democracy talk sometimes as if democracy were just a piece of technology, like a water pump, that needs only the right installation to work in foreign climes.” The most extreme and tragic example of this mindset, of course, was the belief of many of the Trotskyites-turned-neocons that we could invade Iraq, turn it into a flourishing democracy, and then begin the democratic transformation of the entire Arab world.
Thus, over the past two decades our interventions have only grown bigger, costlier, and more tragic. They have put at risk tens of thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to test various social-science hypotheses about nation building and identity construction, all for relatively negligible results.
Bosnia received more money per capita than any country in Europe under the Marshall Plan and an international administration with dictatorial powers Erich Honecker would have envied, yet the country's various ethnic groups still argue over the same constitutional arrangements they were arguing over before we even got there. Kosovo at one point had received twenty-five times more international aid than Afghanistan, yet a recent EU report suggests that precious little has been achieved there in terms of establishing an independent judiciary and the rule of law. The U.S. inspector general for Iraq reconstruction’s final report claimed that the $60 billion spent had had only ”limited positive effects,” and much of it had simply been wasted due to corruption.
Moreover, wasting money and effort is only half the problem. Many of our attempts to transform far-flung countries often resemble the efforts of the Soviet Politburo rather than those of democratic societies. A couple of strokes of the pen in Iraq in 2003 arbitrarily abolished the only two institutions, the Baathist party and the Iraqi military (however distasteful they may have been), that had any capacity to maintain order in the country. The result was a military insurrection against U.S. troops and a ten-year civil war. In Bosnia, various blue-ribbon international commissions and reports have found that international administration ”has outlived its usefulness” and makes Bosnia ”the worst in class,” yet just like so many East European communists circa 1989, the foreign overseers refuse to admit that the gig is up.
Remarkably, in surveying the various foreign-policy challenges confronting the country around the world, the Davos crowd’s unacknowledged, unrecognized acceptance of Marxist-Leninist tenets impels them towards arguing for more of the same: spend more money, more time, and ultimately more American blood in places most Americans can't even find on a map, all to mold them into our image of what we think they should be. Some even argue that we should create a new federal agency or cabinet position devoted to nation building. The alternative, as President Obama said in a speech to the nation in June 2011, is for America “to focus on nation building here at home.” Let’s hope intelligence and common sense win this policy debate.
Gordon N. Bardos is a Balkan politics and security specialist based in New York.