Claims US is ‘third world, banana republic’ misread history - analysis

Only one hundred years ago most western countries were full of the kind of chaos and coup attempts that many claim they saw in Washington.

Supporters of US President Donald Trump gather in Washington (photo credit: REUTERS)
Supporters of US President Donald Trump gather in Washington
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The US House of Representatives reconvened on Wednesday evening to discuss Electoral College votes, in the shadow of protesters who had tried to sack the Capitol. With rings of Capitol and Metropolitan Police and the National Guard, the elected representatives discussed what to some looked like “insurrection” that had plunged the US into looking like a “third-world” country.
This talking point, asserting that the scenes of chaos and people attacking offices of elected representatives make America look like a “banana republic,” are part of a wider American and Western cliché that attempts to paint the global South as more prone to coups and chaos than ostensibly democratic Western countries.
However, only 100 years ago, most Western countries were full of the kind of chaos and coup attempts that many claim they saw in Washington. The chaos in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s led to world war and the Holocaust. Similarly in the US, the 1920s and 1930s were also full of violence and extremism. From the Palmer Raids to the Bonus March on Washington, there were scenes in the US in that era that are not dissimilar to today.
While it is true that the protesters entering the capital’s buildings was apparently the first such incidents since the War of 1812, this is primarily due to police and security not being put in place to stop the attack. Past violent eras in US history, whether the chaos after the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, or the strikes and battles of the Pullman Strike in 1894 that saw 30 killed, America has a long history of political violence. The accusation today that this week’s chaos makes the US look like a “third-world country” or “banana republic” seems to miss out on history.
First of all, coups, chaos, civil war and political violence are Western traditions. From the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s to the attempted coup by Hitler in 1923 in Germany, many Western countries have seen violence in the last century. Second, the coups in many “banana republics” were as often led by foreign intervention as by locals. Whether it was the revolution that led to the Castro regime in Cuba or the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, the US and many Western democracies, as well as the Soviet Union, played a role in making coups appear “third world.” Without the Cold War overshadowing many countries in Latin America or many newly independent African and Asian states in the 1960s, would there have been so many coups?  
In many cases, officials moved to depose leaders only after assuming they had support from the US or Russia. Whether Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam, Patrice Lumumba in the Congo or Salvador Allende in Chile, their overthrow and killing were closely tied to Cold War rivalries, in which the US and other Western democracies played a key role.
It should also be recalled that women only received the right to vote in Switzerland in 1971, Spain only returned to democracy in 1978, and Greek colonels led the country until 1974. Political violence in Northern Ireland only ended in the 1990s, and eastern Europe only transitioned to democracy in the 1990s. Not so long ago, in 1973, the US deployed armored personnel carriers at the Wounded Knee standoff with armed Native American activists.
All of this is worth considering when discussing whether the scenes in Washington are “third world.” In fact, they are very much “first world,” and they are very much a Western tradition in ostensibly democratic countries. According to studies, in sub-Saharan Africa between 1960 and 1982, there were 52 successful coups in 25 countries, and 56 attempted coups. With 38 of the 45 countries having some kind of military intervention, some portion of this can be explained by colonialism that left weak or ungoverned states in the wake of European withdrawal. It seems a bit strange to ascribe all these coups to some kind of “third world” behavior, when Germany after the First World War was full of coups and violence.
The West has a habit of taking very Western ideologies, from Nazism to Marxism, and ascribing to them some kind of otherworldly force. Nazism is considered bad, but the chaos that led up to it and the fascist era in Italy and Spain are not seen as overriding Western themes. Rather, political violence is what happens in the “third world.” Protesters sack parliament in the “third world,” not in America or Europe.
Western countries are not responsible for every aspect of political violence and anti-democratic coups in Latin America and Africa. Those like Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe have to shoulder some responsibility, but to take out the US, Russia or Europe from the equation and pretend that violent protests only occur “over there” is misreading the historic trend. Weak, ungoverned states and rule by militias and non-state actors have plagued part of the world for decades.
Thomas Barnett wrote about US global strategy in a 2003 book called The Pentagon’s New Map. He identified areas where US troops had been deployed, and noted that these were areas that tend “to be a place relatively disconnected from the world, where globalization hasn’t taken root.” Why? Due to repression or lack of robust legal systems, he noted. These areas “incubate” terrorism, the US thought, and the US believed that a line could be drawn around this “non-integrating gap” and it could be contained and shrunk.
We now know that this idea that the chaos could be “contained” by US troops was not like “containing” the Soviet Union. Instead, it appears some of the concepts of the global war on terror came home to the US, from militarized police to militias. Historically this violence didn’t “come home,” it was already part of the American political landscape.
From the era of Shay’s rebellion to the extremes of the 1960s, it was there. This isn’t because the US was “third world” or “banana republic,” but because this fringe of conspiracy theorists ready to use violence ebb and flow. They were there in the 1950s with anti-communist conspiracies, and in the 1990s with the Waco standoff.
It’s too easy to blame America’s chaos on being “third world.” The issues conjured up in the last years are deeply connected to the heart of America, whether it is because some of them thrive in the “heartland,” or because of a landlord-turned-showman from New York City who was willing to stoke their flames by playing the presidency like a kind of Godfather film.
That a man dressed like Davy Crockett, with a racoon hat, was for a moment the picture-perfect center of the protests is a reminder of how American this is. Does it differ from the chaos that underpinned the Texas Revolution of 1835? For many of the protesters and rioters, the themes are the same. To call them “third world” is to forget that it was American. After all, just google “filibuster or freebooter” and read the history of American militia-style leaders launching private invasions of various countries.