Lasman: Fighting words

Beartrap

“Threats and challenges.” So began the brief portion of the President’s State of the Union that was devoted to foreign policy. The ominous phrasing speaks to our besieged mentality: an increased introversion after the international adventures of the previous administration and the economic downturn. Yet it is easy to forget, amidst such trepidation, that the United States remains the sole superpower of this young century. After a dispiriting summary of our most prominent threats and challenges — Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan — Obama was careful to note our exceptionalism.

His phrasing exposed the fascinating bifurcation of American strength. “Recent events have shown us that what sets us apart must not just be our power — it must be the purpose behind it.” Power and purpose — an alliterative platitude, perhaps, but one we would do well to remember. It is a power and a purpose that, knowingly or not, we wield as students educated at an American university. As we go on to implement the values we have imbibed here, the discourse of hegemony is unavoidable.

For example, look at the Republic of Georgia. With characteristic brashness, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has launched an initiative for every school in his nation to employ at least one native English speaker by September. It’s a feasible goal – already, two-thirds of schools in the country have a token American or Canadian on hand, teaching English to a generation enthralled with the West. Saakashvili is outspokenly pro-American and anti-Russian. His fierce opposition to the Kremlin helped provoke the 2008 war that killed hundreds of his citizens. His English initiative speaks to both stances. It is a significant gesture of interest in the West and an unapologetic snub of Russian culture, which has shaped the region for centuries.

Such measures are nothing new. South Korea currently employs an army of some 22,000 foreign teachers of English. It offers generous incentives to entice adventurous or underemployed Anglophones, the vast majority of whom lack teaching qualification.

I’m hardly one to criticize unqualified teaching. I’ve done a fair share of it myself while volunteering over a gap year and past summers. What interests me is the distinctly hegemonic flavor of such work: its powerful service of American interests.

Let’s accept for a moment that the United States is a global empire and that its interests are imperial. I don’t mean to imply any sort of moral censure – merely the undeniable reality of a powerful government that oversees vast and disparate territories and peoples, with cultural and military influences stretching far beyond its physical boundaries: empire. Empires are represented by their armies, whose operations expand and defend boundaries while enforcing imperial interests beyond them.

But especially in light of this paper’s memorial to the late Sargent Shriver, we must also consider a softer form of imperial power: the transformation of the world to reflect an empire’s values, culture and language. These are spread by a different kind of army: media executives, pop stars and athletes. But beyond these high-profile figures, we must remember the work — and immense power — of those who help local communities become more enlightened, more democratic, more English-speaking — ultimately, more American.

Whether volunteering or employed, these culture warriors comprise a very different segment of the American population to the literal legions. Compare the demographics of Army recruits with those of the Peace Corps. In 2009, the average soldier enlisted at age 22. About 36 percent of new recruits were minorities, mirroring the national proportion. 16.7 percent of active duty recruits were women, and about 12 percent of all recruits, active and reserve, entered the forces with “some college.” Peace Corps volunteers, by contrast, are on average 28 years old; the Corps is 60 percent female and a mere 19 percent minority; and 90 percent of volunteers have at least an undergraduate degree, far higher than the national percentage.

Clearly, America draws on very different populations for its different wielders of hegemonic power. White, college-educated women are unlikely to fire a gun to defend American interests. But it seems that many have no qualms about teaching English, which arguably does far more to ensure the perpetuation of a world dominated by the United States. The two services are symbiotic. America is no medieval Papacy, with cultural influence unsupported by military might, and no Mongol Khanate, dominant in warfare but incapable of disseminating soft power. Military might may be hard to reconcile with our campus’ prevailing mood of liberal pacifism. But as long as Yale students and grads flock to developing nations to teach, build, and advise, we must recognize the inseparability of these humanitarians from our other imperial forces — far more similar in their aims than we would like to admit.

Sam Lasman is a junior in Berkeley College.

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