11/16/2007 02:54 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Curing the Post-Colonial Hangover

You have to come from a post-colonial country, perhaps, to understand that the difference between the occupying power and those being occupied is psychological. In India, for example, the actual strength of the British army was minuscule, but their assumptions of superiority, their confidence and domineering attitude held sway over a society that lacked all these qualities. Right now one is witnessing the entire Third World, as it used to be called, waking up from the hangover of colonialism. In some places, like India and China, this manifests itself economically. Yet the primary change that is occurring is psychological. Without confidence, optimism, and self-reliance, societies remain mired in dependency. A rising sense of self-worth is the key to progress in any underdeveloped country.

This insight has huge significance for "the new world order," a phrase that has been co-opted by Iran's radical faction, but which is also echoed throughout the world wherever change is being embraced. Change is convulsive to traditional values. Chaos and violence always loom on the horizon. The prospect of expanded Iranian influence frightens the U.S. and Europe to the point of near panic. If the new world order means pan-Islamic uprisings, then visions of global terrorism and renegade nuclear states instantly arise. But this reflexive alarm should be tempered, I think, by an understanding that the new world order is psychological. It is an antidote to the old colonial mind-set, and therefore it contains turmoil, bravado, insecurity, and uncertainty, all mixed together.

At a certain level it seems surreal that Friday services in Tehran's mosques include a mass chant of "Death to America." But it's symptomatic of any society that defines itself by its enemy. This ritual began with the Islamic revolution in 1978 and has been interrupted only once, on 9/11 when public demonstrations in the streets of Iran were overwhelmingly pro-American. To the revolutionary generation, America still stands for colonialism, military bullying, and cultural arrogance. The psychology of the new world order is going to contain this kind of backward-looking animosity, whether we feel it is justified or not. In China the old guard of the Central Committee still believes that the West is engaged in a vast conspiracy to topple China and reinstate imperialism.

Yet the psychology of the new world order isn't completely negative and backward-looking. In Iran the younger generation, which dominates census figures there and throughout the Arab world, generally feels friendly to the West. To them, there is no hangover from colonialism, just as the younger generation in the U.S. has no hangover from Vietnam or the Cold War. (One must take into account, of course, a rise in nationalism caused by the Iraqi incursion of recent years.) Anti-American mobs grab the headlines, but there are powerful currents pulling in the opposite direction. The regime in Iran greatly aided the U.S. in toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan, until their show of good will and cooperation was rejected in Bush's "axis of evil" speech of 2002. That speech did more to undo a decade of reform in Iran than anything else.

The official stance of many ex-colonial governments remains opposed to Europe and the West in general. Yet it was wrong for America to take this posture at face value. Tragically, the right-wing militarists who control the White House found it easy to demonize the new world order by quoting its worst attitudes, and in return, the U.S. has been demonized by taking Bush's language at face value. With a change of administration, one can hope for a more clear-sighted view to prevail. The truth behind the new world order is that a post-colonial psychology that allows every society to feel confident, self-reliant, and responsible for its own destiny would be immensely to the benefit of America and the West. We should welcome the new world order, not rail against it while rattling our sabers.