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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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Location: Washington, D.C.

greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

19 July 2005

Changing perspectives

Recent entries have prompted friends to ask if my perspective in international affairs has changed at all over the past few years, and whether any of the change could be attributed to the fact that I have not lived in America for a while. One passage comes to mind when thinking about this; it is from Fouad Ajami’s The Dream Palace of the Arabs:

“Home comes and speaks in prose and exile in poetry, it has been said. Today in the Arab world—I left for America a day or two short of my eighteenth birthday, in 1963—I am a stranger, but no distance could wash me clean of that inheritance. In 1980, in an earlier book, The Arab Predicament, I was younger and approached my material more eager to judge. In my haste and my dissatisfaction with what the modern experience in the Arab world had brought forth, I did not appreciate what had gone into the edifice that Arabs had built. I grew more curious about that history in the intervening years and came to realize how little one really knows of the things that are all around us.”

This is a personal note that applies to Ajami and him alone; but I understand what he means and feel as if that same change—from judgment to curiosity—has found me as well, albeit in a more limited and narrow sense. My college years coincided with September 11 and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; that aside, we are surrounded by problems that remain unsolved because the political will to solve them is lacking. Put otherwise, there is much in this world to be angry and judgmental about, and I often found that my eagerness to judge was a motivator in talking about foreign policy.

It is too much to say that this is no longer. But the urge to judge, to criticize, to correct has partly subsided. Some of this has to do with distance—a terrorist attack against the country you live in is bound to have a more personal effect on you (as it did when I lived in Boston on September 11) and Greece has not suffered an al-Qaeda attack, and no Greek soldiers are dying daily in remote lands; and the distance of time helps too—it allows the analytical and the historical to take over the emotional and the judgmental.

To be sure, the emotional and judgmental are just as important; after all, it is too much and too inhumane to expect someone who deals with issues of war and peace to remain unaffected by the brutality that human beings are capable of delivering upon one another.

But all this brings me to another thought, that a bit more heretical than anything written above: which is that American foreign policy often reminds me of that eagerness to judge—this rush to judgment, which comes from youth, comes from excitement, comes from anger—comes from impatience, and a desire to make the world perfect.

Americans believe both in the exceptionalism of the American experience and that the values they share are universally applicable and desirable. This often translates into a lack of imagination about the world, and it often fosters an impatience with those places that are less willing or able to adapt to the ways that Americans find rational.

I remember a friend comparing the foreign policy attitudes of Europeans and Americans; “both are simplistic,” she said; “your average European may sound naive—‘can’t we all live together in peace’, he will ask, while your average American will quip something like ‘let’s go get the bastards before they get us.’”

She preferred the former; I am still making up my mind.

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