As the world has grown increasingly smaller, capital moves increasingly faster, and domestic politics echo more profoundly than ever on the global stage, the policies of nation-states are subject more than ever to intense scrutiny. In this era of information, the nation-state’s claims of sovereignty as a protection against such scrutiny have been discredited. Domestic public opinion heavily influences domestic policies, which in turn bear weight on foreign policy decisions. This order is cyclical; foreign policies often influence domestic policies, which help to shape public opinion. Such is the case with every conceivable policy decision, if not at the time of its formation then in retrospect.
The prejudices of a government are, in an ideal democracy, direct reflections of the prejudices of its people, and vice-versa. Discrimination along lines of social categories, such as class, gender, sexuality, religion, or race is expressed through policymaking. A peoples’ prejudices determine whether or not the policies will be accepted by the people. The question seems to be one of causation: does public opinion dictate policy, or does policy dictate public opinion? Perhaps the solution is to enhance the question by removing the causative significance and addressing the cyclical nature of the continual policies and public reactions thereto.
The experience of racial classification is a common experience in the United States. Whether a member of the dominant (white) group, or a member of an oppressed (non-white) group, members of American society are keenly aware of the racial politics of the nation. Ignoring race in America is similar to ignoring wine in France, kimonos in Japan, or empire in the United Kingdom: it is a national legacy. This legacy of racism manifests itself in the daily lives of both natural-born American citizens and immigrants. It should not be surprising then, that this legacy also is found in U.S. foreign policy. The construction of racial otherness in America has allowed for the systematic, institutionalized and informal discrimination, stereotyping, and scapegoating in domestic life and policies. I believe that this construction of racial otherness has also facilitated the American public’s tolerance of U.S. foreign policies and endeavors that promote, reinforce, and benefit from racism.
Looking at two facets of U.S. foreign policy, economic and military, I will address the effects of racism (both domestic and external, institutional and informal) in the United States’ policy decisions in regards to Mexico and Vietnam, respectively. I will also look at the experiences of domestic racism, by Mexican and Vietnamese immigrants, to demonstrate the public opinion-whether popular or not, undeniably influential-which invariably mirrors government international policies.
U.S. foreign policy towards Mexico has historically been characteristic of an ambivalent neighbor. Each year, the Mexican president speaks to the U.S. Congress, as a symbolic means of reasserting Mexican independence from overt U.S. colonialism. (Kopstein & Lichbach) However, with the rise of globalization, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Canada, the United States, and Mexico was signed. It came into force with devastating consequences for the Mexican economy, and plunged millions of Mexicans into destitute poverty and exploitative labor. NAFTA effectively opened the developing market to Canadian- and American-based multi-national corporations (MNCs), limited protective labor regulations, and undermined social welfare in Mexico. Neither the United States nor Canada-both predominately white countries-suffered such dramatic and disastrous social and economic effects: interest rates leapt to 109% immediately after NAFTA came into effect. (Espinoza p 2)!
Mexico is still struggling to recover from the shock of NAFTA’s 1994 implementation. (Couch)
The Mexican people suffer under a massive economic crisis, while foreign investors reaped immense profits from the lax labor regulations and lifted tariffs. The Mexican government was forced to contend with a civil uprising in the Chiapas province in protest of NAFTA (among other things):
“The Zapatistas chose January 1, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement came into force, to ‘declare war’ on the Mexican army, launching an insurrection and briefly taking control of the city of San Cristobal de las Casas and five Chiapas towns. They sent out a communiqué explaining that NAFTA, which banned subsidies to indigenous farm co-operatives, would be a ‘summary execution’ for four million indigenous Mexicans in Chiapas, the country’s poorest province.” (Klein 215)
The ruling party at the time of the NAFTA implementation in Mexico lost so much favor in the country, after the economic crisis and slashing social welfare programs that had ensured peasant loyalty for nearly 70 years, that a dramatic shift in power came with the next presidential election. Unfortunately for the Mexican people, the only other party in a position to compete with the longstanding ruling party was a right-wing party with a neoliberal platform, favoring more free market reforms.
Naomi Klein cites evidence of NAFTA’s power to take from the poor to give to the rich with the case of Metalclad, an American waste management corporation, and the citizens of Guadalcazar, Mexico. In 1991, Metalclad bought a shutdown toxic treatment facility in Guadalcazar with the intent to create a huge toxic waste dump. After reneging for four years on promises to the community to clean up the intense pollution, groundwater contamination, and dangerous substances left behind by the old facility (a condition of the purchase of the site), Guadalcazar citizens took legislative action against Metalclad, denying them a building permit and attempting to declare the land an ecological reserve. Klein outlines the protection that NAFTA removed from the Mexican people and their environment, in favor of the MNC:
“By this point, the North American Free Trade Agreement-including its controversial ‘Chapter 11’ clause, which allows investors to sue governments-was in full effect. So Metalclad launched a Chapter 11 challenge, claiming Mexico was ‘expropriating’ its investment. The complaint was heard last August (2000) in Washington. D.C., by a three-person arbitration panel. Metalclad asked for US$90 million, and was awarded $16.7 million.The Metalclad case is a vivid example of what critics mean when they charge that free trade deals amount to a ‘bill of rights for multinational corporations.’ Metalclad has successfully played the victim, oppressed by what NAFTA calls ‘intervention’ and what used to be called ‘democracy.'” (Klein 57)
It is important to note that the hearing to settle this dispute was held in Washington. NAFTA allowed for a giant MNC to overstep the democratic processes, environment, and communal rights of a sovereign nation-state and its people.
How does NAFTA manifest racism? There is something fundamentally wrong when two out of three parties to a trade agreement suffer little to no negative economic or social fallout, yet the third party is plunged into massive crisis. There is also something fundamentally wrong when the people of the suffering party are racial minorities who have routinely suffered with historical discrimination and repression on the part of the dominant racial group-the white Americans. NAFTA demonstrated the American government’s disregard for the lives and livelihoods of the Mexican people, who have suffered classification as racial “others” on both sides of the border.
The subordinate racial status afforded to the Mexican people by the United States-white people- removes the humanity from the intensely inhumane and grotesquely immoderate denial of the means of survival. Stereotypes of Mexicans as lazy, dishonest, drug-smuggling thugs help facilitate a sense of self-perpetuating poverty, a poverty in which the United States would be justified in intervening, to help the Mexicans who “can’t get it right on their own.” This justification ignores the incredible social and economic progress pre-NAFTA Mexico exhibited. With a radical, egalitarian constitution, the ruling party in Mexico had been known for its progressive post-revolution aspirations. (Kopstein & Lichbach)
As in Mexico, Vietnam experienced a similar kind of white-supremacist colonialism. Indeed, Mexican and Vietnamese and Asian immigrants in the United States share the common experience of racism and xenophobia.
“Persons arriving from Mexico and Latin American countries, whether aboriginal or mestizo in ancestry, have had poorer luck , and continue to be perceived in strongly racialist terms. Although many Asian Americans have fared well materially of late and have risen in status, the legacy of the ‘yellow peril,’ so pervasive in fiction, early films, and the popular imagination for so long, lingers on, and even today overt or subtle discrimination persists in television and elsewhere in American life.” (Zelinsky pp 83-4)
The Vietnam War is studied endlessly as a proxy war to the stalemate between the major powers of socialism and capitalism-the USSR and the USA. The United States’ efforts to “liberate” South Vietnam from the communist north employed chemical warfare to wipe out guerrilla-style military activity, at the same time catching non-combatants in the wake.
Historically notorious Zippo raids, Agent Orange and napalm characterize the American “anti-Communist” campaign in South Vietnam. Innocent children were shot on site on mere suspicion of carrying Viet Cong explosives, entire villages were burned to the ground, and food supplies were poisoned. Decades after the conclusion of the Vietnam War, Vietnamese children are still being born with debilitating birth defects as a result of the chemical warfare employed by the United States.
Before the Vietnam War ever began, racist stereotypes of Vietnamese people were widely circulated. “With perceptions of the Vietnamese as lazy and primitive, many American observers argued that the Vietnamese were, by nature, liars.” (Bradley p 48)
An elitist perception of the United States as a super-capable liberator, combined with racist stereotypes of ethnic groups incapable of governing themselves or defending themselves against the development of communism contributed to the foundation of justification to invade and destroy Vietnam.
There was massive protest to the Vietnam War in the United States, which mobilized against the war only as it was carried out. The American public never decried the racist stereotypes, which fueled the perception of the needy, helpless, incapable, lowly Vietnamese people. The construction of racial difference, feeding on years of historical discrimination against Asians and Asian Americans, facilitated the construction of a perception of the South Vietnamese as desperately needing the intervention of the United States to protect their own weak ability to self-govern, and the Viet Cong as greedy, evil, destructive, bloodthirsty terrorists invading the land and politic of the weak, submissive, helpless Southerners.
The experience of Vietnamese and Asian immigrants to the United States mirrors that of every other racially marginalized group in America. Stereotyping of people of Asian decent is and was rampant in the United States:
“The incredibly evil and sinister Fu-Manchu, personification of the Yellow Peril, for example, gave way to the genial Charlie Chan who, mirabile dict, defended rather than conspired against the law.Charlie Chan may have become a popular hero, but he was still depicted as an ‘inscrutable, mysterious, and damned clever Chinaman.” (Wu pp 213-4)
Within the ranks of the US military, anti-Asian and anti-Vietnamese sentiments were deeply entrenched. An interview with a Chinese-American GI who served in Vietnam in a mostly white unit details the extent to which anti-Viet Cong sentiment developed into anti-Asian-appearing-people sentiment:
“‘Well, a couple of days , the Viet Cong started shelling us. Then the other GIs started making comments about me looking like the Viet Cong.I didn’t do nothing. I was just doing a job. I didn’t have any political awareness. right after the GIs got back from patrol. They really gave it to me. They started asking me where I was born, where my parents were born, if I was a Communist. They even asked me what I thought about China. They thought I could turn traitor at any time.'”
(Wu pp 267-8)
The racist perceptions of the military were not the sole cause of the grotesque humanitarian violations committed in Vietnam. The racism, whether overt or internalized, of the military command, the United States government, and indeed, the public which delayed or silenced outcry against the racist, imperialist agenda of the government all attributed to a policy of destruction and murder, dehumanized with a construction of otherness built around race. The same experience is applicable to Mexico, in the greed-driven and racialist-justified policies that led to the drafting and implementation of NAFTA, and historic US efforts to otherwise colonize Mexico.
Racism is a prerequisite to colonialism; a sense of otherness and superiority is required to placate domestic observers and to legitimate the policies themselves. Also, previous racist and anti-immigrant sentiment in the populous is needed to create a basis, whether through representational democracy, electoral referendum, or simply popular support expressed through opinion polls, for the formulation of policies that reflect racism.
Does this cycle suggest that immigration and the xenophobia experienced by immigrants of racial “other” categories allows for the US public to tolerate racist policies, both domestically and abroad? That the American public has become so complacent with nationalist rhetoric, racially exclusionary immigration policies, racial profiling, and other discriminatory policies to allow its government to carry out racist agendas and neocolonialist policies? If the answer to this is no-and I know of no legitimate way to measure this-then the facilitating factor could be inherent racism in the American public, not an unlikely hypothesis. Complacency, internalized or overt racism, xenophobia, and nationalism, combined with a continual onslaught of biased media and government-sponsored messages, have lulled the public largely into accepting, either passively or actively, unjust government policies. This is not a comforting thought, by any means. The cycle of racism, perpetuated through!
society into government and into foreign policy has interesting implications for democracy itself. If society’s intolerance of immigrants and people of color legitimates, or even gives birth to discriminatory policies, can it be argued that democracy leads to justice? Whatever the outcomes of these questions, the domestic experiences of immigrants in the United States often reflect the experiences of their home countries under US foreign policy.
Bach, Robert, and Portes, Alejandro. Latin Journey: Cuban and Mexican Immigrants in the United States. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Bradley, Mark P. Imagining Vietnam & America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam, 1919-1950. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.
Couch, Jen. Imagining Zapatismo: the Anti-globalization Movement and the Zapatistas, COMMUNAL/PLURAL. Vol. 9, No. 2, p.243-260.
Espinoza, Martin Zapatistas: Bad for Business, Corpwatch.org.
“From the Boats to the Suburbs” The Economist, p28.
Klein, Naomi. Fences and Windows. New York: Picador USA Press.
Kopstein, Jeffrey, and Mark Lichbach. Comparative Politics: Interests, Identities, and Institutions. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Magana, Lisa and Short, Robert. “Political Rhetoric, Immigration Attitudes, and Contemporary Prejudice: A Mexican American Dilemma.” Journal of Social Psychology, p701.
Sachs, Susan. “New York, Citing Security, Rejects Mexican ID Cards.” New York Times, pB4.
Wu, Cheng-Tsu. The Ethnic Prejudice in America Series: “Chink!” New York: World Press.
Zelinsky, Wilbur. The Enigma of Ethnicity. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.