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Keep Calm - Taking world events in stride.

Good Reads: On America's limits, Middle Eastern feminism, Indian authors

Some of the best long-form journalism this week deals with America's foreign policy limitations, sexual politics in the Middle East, African stereotypes, and an Indian publishing boom.

By Scott BaldaufStaff Writer / April 26, 2012

The post-cold-war world is much too complicated to take the direction of any other superpower, even one as charming, democratic, and fun-loving as the United States.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

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America's limits

It’s tempting, in an election year, to blame the sitting occupant of the White House with every unfortunate foreign trend. If the global economy stumbles, if conflicts brew, and if rogue states do roguish things, then it’s seen as the president’s fault. And sometimes it is.

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But in a thoughtful piece in The Atlantic, Max Fisher writes that the post-cold-war world is much too complicated to take the direction of any other superpower, even one as charming, democratic, and fun-loving as the United States. The US can’t rely on a common threat – say, the Soviet menace – or a common purpose – free-market capitalism – to bind nations together. That leaves the US with one remaining tool: persuasion.

“When U.S. interests line up with global interests, we suddenly become very effective at leading the world: isolating Iran, convincing Sudan to allow its southern third to secede, or curbing Chinese trade abuses, for example, would probably all have been impossible on our own. But they also wouldn't have happened without the U.S. taking the lead.”

Studying Britain's darker past

While America’s doomsayers need to calm down, Americans shouldn’t go to the other extreme and assume that they are exceptional, or without fault. Indeed, Americans could save themselves a lot of pain by studying the histories of other former superpowers who once ruled the world.

Britain, like America, once enjoyed a superpower status as head of an empire on which the sun seemingly never set. Like America, Britain liked to think of itself as the good guy, the great civilizer, spreading the universal truths of democracy and free markets.  

But Britain didn’t always behave like a gentle London bobby. In India, its troops mowed down unarmed protesters at Jallianwala Bagh in April 1919, killing at least 400 of the 15,000 people gathered there. And in Kenya, British troops detained some 80,000 ethnic Kikuyus in detainment camps, during a crackdown on the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s. Thousands of these Kenyan detainees are thought to have been beaten, tortured, or starved to death, but the full truth may never be known. Last week, a British historian revealed that the British government systematically destroyed thousands of documents detailing the crackdown.

Read the Guardian’s coverage of this scandal, especially George Monbiot’s column on his country’s collective amnesia about uncomfortable colonial history. 

Women of the Middle East

If any article caught fire this week, it has been a piece by Egyptian-American writer Mona El-Tahawy in this week’s Foreign Policy, about the mistreatment of women in the Middle East, an article entitled, “Why do they hate us?” Some liberal Muslim critics say her article makes valid criticisms, but it should have run in an Arabic-language publication, where it could have done some good, rather than in a US publication, where it could reinforce Western stereotypes of Islamic societies as anti-women.

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