Sunday, January 22, 2012
By Barry Rubin
One of the benefits of spending much of my time talking to people from around the world is getting an original, fresh perspective on the United States, its policies, politics, and political culture.
Recently, I had a discussion with a brilliant academic who had grown up in a Communist country, has spent a lot of time in the United States, and studies this kind of thing. To explain how the U.S. conception of the world is shaped, he used the phrase, “engineering mentality.”
The “engineering mentality” is one of the main factors in America’s brilliant success. I take it to mean that one approaches problems with a can-do (another American phrase) style. One rules out extraneous, distracting cultural and historical factors in order to figure out a practical way to fix things. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! Construct buildings, roads, and bridges; invent new products; revolutionize production methods. Don’t be intimidated by the traditional; don’t be afraid of change; just because it has never been done before doesn’t mean it cannot be done now. Forget about ideology or preconceived notions. Just get the job done as quickly, cheaply, and efficiently as possible.
Such energetic and fearless pragmatism conquered a continent, industrialized an agrarian nation, and won wars. A century ago it allowed America to turn disparate ethnic and religious groups into a single nation. In recent decades with remarkably little violence or disruption it broke down long-prevalent racial, gender, and other barriers.
In the face of all of these achievements, the currently prevalent view that America has a shameful history and is a failed society is ridiculous, notwithstanding past shortcomings.
But how does this “engineering” approach deal with the outside world? Not so well. By ignoring historical, cultural, ideological, religious, and other factors, one isn’t going to understand other countries. You can try to understand them or get them to change (“just do it!”) but these interpretations don’t work and the efforts to change fail. The idea that American know-how will go into a country like Iraq and Afghanistan and succeed in “nation-building” is, to say the least, greatly overestimated.
How have American leaders in the past found ways to overcome this “engineering” bias? By acknowledging differences, comprehending that other countries and peoples have their own orientation, worldview, and culture. Far from being something objectionable, the idea of American exceptionalism was a very useful concept; knowing that the United States has been more successful than other countries was an important element in dealing with reality because one then had to ask why this was so.
For example, the burden of tradition in other societies was too powerful to permit easy change. Class distinctions were more rigid. Ideas and institutions that might have worked in the past were now blocking development. Change had to come inside. Backwardness was not the result of external oppression but internal stagnation. All of these points are the opposite of the prevalent radical ideas in the West.