Author: Jeremy Kuzmarov

Publisher: University of Massachusetts Press

ISBN: 9781558499171

Listen to a debate on any aspect of United State Foreign Policy and sooner or later you’ll likely hear one of the participants haul up the old chestnut about America being “the policeman of the world.”

That rather glib critique masks a larger, more sinister, and more complex set of factors than is readily apparent to the listener – or, often, the speaker as well. The idea of being the “world’s policeman” is a concept so fraught with historical and ideological baggage that it would take a book to clarify what’s really meant by such a banal-yet-earnest-seeming characterization. And that book is Jeremy Kuzmarov’s Modernizing Repression: Police Training in the American Century.

Kuzmarov takes as his subject the record of the United States’ active promulgation of police force training during the last 100 years or so in such far flung places as the Philippines, Indochina, Haiti, Japan, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan, to name but a few. Kuzmarov’s thesis – which is supported by reams of research, at least as set down in the more than 100 pages of appended notes – is that U.S.-sponsored training of native police forces generally results not in the development of a civil, law-abiding society but rather a repressive, cruel, and politically-minded brutal governmental entity aimed at crushing dissent and ignoring civil rights and liberties.

Kuzmarov is not shy in stating his case, which forcefully indicts the United States for its thinly veiled attempts at colonial domination and empire expansion through the euphemism of “police training.” As he states early in the book, such training programs “exemplify the coercive underpinnings of American power, which policymakers have repeatedly tried to conceal in the attempt to preserve the myth of American exceptionalism, the notion that the United States is a uniquely selfless nation.”

Some readers will bristle at such bold and broad criticisms, which occur frequently throughout the book. But Kuzmarov has done his homework, and in his methodical dissection of American police training around the globe, beginning with the Philippines in 1901 and working his way through most regions of the world where the U.S. has tried to “instill law and order,” readers are made aware of the civic shambles and political brutalizing that usually result from such efforts. (His discussion of postcolonial Africa, a crazy quilt of rebellion and repression, and its connection to American-led efforts to establish Western-style police forces, is particularly lucid.)

Kuzmarov’s
book does not end on a hopeful note: “[M]odern day police advisers have helped transfer to other countries some of the worst aspects of the American criminal justice systems, contributing to extensive human rights violations. Their role in exporting repression encapsulates the dark side of the American empire, which has been sustained through the decades, like all other empires, by violence and coercion. The Iraqi and Afghan people are but the latest to bear its wrath.”

Such a bleak and contemptuous thesis raises the question of whether all efforts to establish (read: impose) local police forces abroad are doomed to end in corruption and gross mismanagement, or whether it’s merely symptomatic of a particular American-inflected neurosis, bred of the unstated desire to expand capitalism and suppress dissent above all else. But Kuzmarov’s disturbing and important book doesn’t delve into that aspect of the debate (wisely, I think, since it’s a largely theoretical – and perhaps insoluble – problem. Should true “globalization” occur one day, we’ll have our answer – or at least, the makings of a much different question).

It’s an issue that won’t go away. When Henry Kissinger once famously quipped, “A country that demands moral perfection in its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor security” he was articulating a point of view that has long held sway among many Western leaders. Kuzmarov’s book might not tip the balance in favor of a more just and morally consistent world, but it’s at least a thumb on the scale, and worthy of every reader’s time and careful consideration.

Follow Here To Purchase Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (Culture, Politics, and the Cold War)

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