Since the last post was about nationalism, it seems logical to take a step into the international system. This post will do so in two ways, by looking at international relations through a colonial/post-colonial framework known as Orientalism, and then responding to Orientalism with an argument from globalization.
Orientalism is a theory typically associated with the Edward Said book of the same name and subsequent works. To (over)simplify, Said et al describe Orientalism as the beliefs and actions in the West that facilitated the colonial enterprise. Specifically it is the collection of attitudes that political and military officials–and even some artists/writers–in France, Britain, and the US (“the West”) about people in the Middle East and Asia (“the East/Orient”). These attitudes often included thinking of Orientals as “the Other” in a way that allowed Westerners to subjugate them. Most scholars of Orientalism insist that this attitude continues today in the US as a form of neo-colonialism. More generally, Said and company’s argument is essentially that powerful people/states construe less powerful people/states in a way that allows the former to dominate the latter. I know all of this is a bit foggy, but trying to summarize hundreds if not thousands of pages of argument into one paragraph can be a bit tricky.
Now to the response from Globalization. I object to Said’s theory of Orientalism not on any factual grounds, but because of its implications. While I admit that the colonial enterprise resulted in a lot of suffering in many cases, on the whole I am of the opinion that it generally raised living standards in most of the places where it was undertaken (sub-Saharan Africa may be an exception, although I think this has more to do with ethnic conflict than with colonialism per se). If Orientalism’s argument is about power (as I asserted above), then Globalization is about economics. To again oversimplify, I take Globalization to be the process by which economic actors (states, corporations, and individuals) have become increasingly interconnected over the last couple of decades. It is this era that made 9/11 possible: before the widespread availability of cheap air travel, those attacks would’ve been impossible. Before the advent of 24-hour news networks that exposed residents of third world countries to international politics, the 9/11 attacks would’ve been unimaginable.
In the era of Globalization, in which a small group of terrorists with access to technology (both of the laptop computer variety and the more lethal, Semtex variety) can destroy skyscrapers and cause billions of dollars worth of damage to the world economy, Orientalism no longer makes sense. Traditional power structures are no longer the only way of dominance. While it is almost certainly true that the West construed Orientals (remember that typically means Middle Easterners, not just East Asians) as the “Other” throughout the colonial period, today the reverse is happening. Five or ten years ago (it may be less true today), young people from Casablanca to Calcutta saw the US and its allies on TV and immediately perceived them as an enemy. Some have called this Occidentalism. I don’t agree entirely with the Occidentalist argument either, but what I’m saying is that the cultural power of the West is no longer hegemonic. To continue to berate the West as Orientalist when it is trying to bring freedom to those same countries is both inaccurate and irresponsible.