Does America suffer from Solution-ism? by Saad Hafiz
“America suffers from ‘solutionism'”, an ex-Marine running a Washington law practice resignedly remarked to me at a Conference in Vermont recently. We were talking about how America was embroiled in conflict resolution and nation building around the world with few results to show for it; while serious problems like leadership gridlock and fiscal deficits were festering at home.
Solutionism means that for every intractable problem there is logical and available answer. H.L. Mencken, the American journalist and humorist said “for every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong”. Increasingly, in the last few decades, the buzz word in America has been “solutions”. Every problem has an easily attainable outcome that is nicely packaged and sold to the public—little attention is paid to the problems.
Many Americans are questioning that while the U.S. economy is in the doldrums, the government continues to engage in bitter partisanship while losing voter confidence. The political elite ignores the widening wealth gap, the suffering of tens of millions on food stamps, while U.S. leaders continue to “spread democracy” with troops, drones and righteous lectures to other countries on how to be like America.
I am reminded of a conversation with an American investment professional before the Second Gulf War in 2003 just as President George W. Bush was preparing to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Responding to my concern on where the US intervention in Iraq would lead, the individual, brimming with pride, said with absolute certitude that the U.S. could do anything including reshaping the Middle East to introduce freedom and democracy.
He cited how America had successfully transformed German and Japanese societies after World War II from fascism and militarism to freedom and democracy. It is clear however that conditions were vastly different after World War II that they are today. America enjoyed nearly unlimited power in the post war era to influence outcomes in the Free World. This mentality is still around, despite the reality that many solutions like regime change in Iraq have cost upwards of three trillion dollars and thousands of American and Iraqi lives thus far and whose benefits to America have yet to be realized.
American solutionism was satirized in The Ugly American, a 1950’s best selling political novel about Sarkhan, a fictional Southeast Asian country. The novel was later made into a movie starring the late Marlon Brando. The American officials are shown as overwhelmingly arrogant, rude, and incompetent. The reader wonders, who needs an enemy like communism, when you are already your own worst enemy?
A Catholic priest from Boston name Father Finian is assigned to Sarkhan. Unlike American officials, Father Finian says to the people “it is your country, your souls, your lives… I will do what we agree upon.” In contrast, American “experts” who were full of ideas from their experiences back home offered to improve the quality of local chickens and increase the chickens’ egg yield when locals were only interested in developing canals and mechanized farms. The tone deaf nature and lack of local knowledge not only handicapped the expert’s ability to actively engage the local population; it actively undermined their ability to determine their own political, economic, and social stability in the future.
Amusing fiction aside, the most devastating consequence of American solutionism is Pakistan, where for over 60 years, America has endeavored to create a strong, democratic ally by doling out billions of dollars in economic and military aid, only to watch with horror as it emerged as one of the most virulently anti-American countries in the world and seen as a covert sponsor of terror. Instead of being grateful, many Pakistanis deride America, questioning its motives for involvement in the country. America’s argument that it is fulfilling its responsibility as the leading global power to ensure that Pakistan does not implode does not convince Pakistanis.
What can the U.S. do to replace the unbridled unilateral solutionism despised by many? While isolationism is certainly not the answer, America needs to explain its motives more clearly. Also, a bit of Father Finian’s advice to “do what we all agree upon” might help. But above all America must realize that a lack of specific solutions on the horizon is not necessarily a cause for despair as it may be the beginning of true realism in American foreign policy.
Saad Hafiz is a banker interested in history and international affairs.