An irony of history
It is one of the ironies of this present age that the United States, in many ways, has greater difficulty in adjusting to a world of independent nations than do the Europeans.
The irony took on added significance in the weeks preceding the current Ottawa summit as America's West European allies and particularly its oldest ally , France, urged it to take a more sympathetic look at North-South issues.
The ringing declarations of the founding Fathers inspired many a person and nation to seek independence. Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points awakened further hopes after World War I.
Nevertheless, the people of the US were, at best, only vaguely aware of the stirring s for independence in a colonial world taken for granted on its colored maps. A Ho Chi Minh, building a network with others in Paris in the '20s, or the founders of the Congress Party or the Muslim League in India moving about London in the '30s, were beyond the knowledge of most Americans. Even an Nkrumah, talking of African independence at Lincoln University in the '40s, caused no lines of type.
There were americans who were aware: missionaries, professors, a few journalists. They were considered on a fringe by a government and people largely attuned to the needs and thoughts of Europe.
The independence movement after World War II burst at a time that presented the US with cruel dilemmas. Preoccupied by the disillusioning Soviet quest for power and influence in the postwar world, the US saw the independence struggle largely in East-West terms.
Those Europeans seeking to assure US support for the retention of their empires played upon American fears. The French helped convince Americans that the war in Vietnam was part of the anti-Soviet struggle rather than part of the decolonization process.The fascination of the early independence leaders with Marxist rhetoric and socialism helped establish this link. The need for the Portuguese bases precluded sympathy for Angolan independence; the aftermath still plagues the US.
Americans had difficulty understanding the new countries and knew little of their societies. Unlike America's own independence struggle, theirs was by peoples of different races against Europeans. The deep humiliation of racial discrimination has been a major factor in post-independence attitudes. In contrast to indigenous US democracy, many of the societies had long authoritarian traditions. American land at independence had great potential; many of the new nations of the 20th century are poor and overpopulated. They lost colonial subsidies and have had difficulty establishing the trade and aid patterns for viable development.
In a further irony, the former colonial powers have been more successful in building links to the former colonies than the US which, rhetorically, espoused their original freedom. The European Community, building on early French efforts, has met many of the trade and economic demands of "the South" through the successful Lome Convention. Britain was able to build a remarkable network of personalities and nations in the Commonwealth and to use that institution of resolve the seemingly intractable problem of Rhodesia.
The French roll out the red carpet for every Franco- phone African leader and for many others; meetings often include meals with the president of the republic.The British, somewhat less effectively, try to do the same. The US bureaucracy struggles to get a few minutes of a third-world leader's time with the secretary of state.
It is logical that the Europeans should have the closest ties and assume a substantial amount of the obligations to these new nations. It is not, however, logical that the US, with its own history and traditions, should so often seem to be the one least sympathetic to the problems and least understanding of the character of the former colonies.
The US tends, to a large extent, to see the new nations in a global security context. The Europeans see them as distinct, known entities; they see their leaders, whether rogues or statesmen, as individuals with separate identities, characteristics, and ambitions. They apply fewer labels. They see the third world as important to our total future on this planet.
If the US continues to see these nations primarily as blank squares on a strategic chess board, it cannot expect to build relationships that will, in the long run, advance its interests and security. The historic irony of America's problems with independence in the 20th century will continue.