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Biting the Cultural Imperialism that Feeds You


On November 21, the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA) was introduced in Congress for the fourth time since 2007. I-VAWA seeks to embed the prevention of gender violence and the empowerment of women and girls into American foreign policy. In 2010, while serving as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton declared such global empowerment to be a “central tenet” of American foreign policy. It would be accomplished through socially engineering the attitudes, laws, and institutions of other nations. Presumably, the focus would be on nations, such as Islamic countries, that have a non-Western view of women’s status.

Questions immediately arise. What exactly is I-VAWA? Does it properly fall under the sphere of foreign policy? What are the probable or predictable consequences of its implementation?

What exactly is I-VAWA?

I-VAWA seeks to establish a superagency that would coordinate “all bureaus and offices of the Department of State and … the international programs of all other Federal agencies.” The network would consist of about 30 other government agencies. The superagency would be headed by an ambassador-at-large, whose duties are somewhat vaguely defined as including whatever is “determined by the Secretary of State.”

One of the coordinating agencies is the Department of Defense, but it is not clear what role if any the U.S. Military would play in I-VAWA’s plans. The word “military” occurs only once in the act; it refers to the enhanced training “of professional foreign military and police forces” by “United States personnel.” A key purpose of training the foreign militaries is to provide them with “thorough instruction on preventing and responding to violence against women and girls around the world.”

Indeed, the protection and empowerment of females is the overall purpose of the act as well. Specifically, I-VAWA would “coordinate efforts … regarding gender integration and advancing the status of women and girls in United States foreign policy.”

I-VAWA’s definitions and descriptions capture a sense of what issues are important in its framework. It defines “gender violence” in somewhat typical terms to include domestic violence, forced marriage, kidnapping, and rape. But the “empowerment of women” is defined less typically to include issues such as stemming the spread of HIV/AIDS, and increasing access to economic opportunities. Economic empowerment through such vehicles as “inclusive finance and micro-enterprise” is deemed uniquely necessary to females in order to provide them with alternatives to situations of “domestic and sexual violence.”

The goal is to implement a five-year strategy in at least five low- to middle-income countries in which there is severe violence against females. The cost would be approximately $1 billion, with I-VAWA focusing on foreign-aid programs. For example, a nation’s receipt of foreign aid from the USA could become contingent on the retraining of its military, police, or judiciary along I-VAWA lines.

Is gender a national-security concern?

To justify the protection and empowerment of foreign females, advocates of I-VAWA try to link that goal to national security and the safety of Americans at home and abroad.

In announcing his cosponsorship of I-VAWA in 2010, for example, Senator Benjamin Cardin explained that empowering females was part of combating terrorism:

The Joint Chiefs of Staff stated that one of the most effective forces for defeating extremism is female safety and education. Violence against women undermines the effectiveness of existing U.S. investments in global development and stability, whether fighting HIV/AIDS, increasing basic education, or creating stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Clinton agreed. “Women’s equality … [is] not just a moral issue.… It is a security issue … in the vital interests of the United States of America.” She added, “Give women equal rights and entire nations are more stable and secure. Deny women equal rights and the instability of nations is almost certain.”

Clinton denied that she was pushing “women’s issues into discussions at the highest levels everywhere in the world” due to any personal commitment “or because President Obama cares about it. I’m doing it,” she argued, “because it’s in the vital interests of the United States of America.”

I-VAWA is not a matter of national security. It will not make Americans safer. It is not in the vital interests of the United States of America. I-VAWA is an aggressive attempt to redesign the attitudes, laws, and institutions of foreign nations in order to impose a Western world view upon them.

I-VAWA’s explicit goal is to develop and implement “programs … to change social norms and attitudes” in foreign countries.

In other words, America would enter nations with significant resistance to American culture and attempt to change their basic way of life; after all, if the nations were in basic agreement with American values, there would be no need for foreign-aid bribery or for other means of exerting power.

I-VAWA is not about “national security”; it is all about “cultural imperialism.” This is a policy by which an economically and/or militarily powerful culture attempts to impose its own values on a weaker one.

A key distinction must be made before proceeding. The cultural imperialism promoted by government policies is fundamentally different from the natural flow of culture that occurs when individuals and goods travel freely across borders. If a fad of wearing blue jeans comes to dominate Chinese fashion, then it is only because the purchasers have expressed their individual preferences to wear them. They have embraced this one sliver of American culture.

The resulting free trade enriches both nations and all individuals who participate. There is no need to train military forces or policemen to enforce the preference for blue jeans.

The arrogant assumption of the imperialist is that the culture of his own, more powerful nation is unquestionably superior — and that it is proper to impose it by force.

A predictable consequence

Cultural imperialism is also notorious for creating ill will between cultures. Foreign populations bitterly resent intruders who disrespect their attitudes, values, and social norms. During the Cold War, the term “ugly American” gained popularity as a way of describing the arrogance and blind nationalism with which Americans abroad treat the native people. The phenomenon of such “ugly Americans” has been a factor in the violent backlash of native populations against such foreigners.

The American anthropologist Ruth Benedict warned America on how to proceed in nations in which it wished to “operate in cooperation with the existing culture,” saying that

Intelligent understanding of that country and its ways of life will be crucial. These nations will very likely not respond to appeals with which we are familiar, and not value rewards which seem to us irresistible. The danger–and it would be fatal to world peace–is that in our ignorance of their cultural values we shall meet in head-on collision and incontinently fall back on the old pattern of imposing our own values by force.”

The American approach to gender violence and the empowerment of females may well be superior to that of nations such as Pakistan. That is not what is in question; that is not what matters. The individuals that constitute other nations must work out their own domestic problems.

Cultural imperialism is a fiercely dangerous matter. It often runs directly against the deeply held religious and familial beliefs of the “lesser” nation. It easily becomes a first step toward violent conflict. The conflict does not have to be part of I-VAWA’s agenda or even the American government’s intentions; it need only be part of the U.S. response when it is confronted by violent backlash. American foreign policy has a marked tendency toward mission creep, especially when the original mission explicitly includes foreign militaries.

With I-VAWA, no one will be any safer from violence.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).