America’s Image Abroad
The question that Juliana Geran Pilon asks in Why America Is Such a Hard Sell is not at all rhetorical. We are the land of the free, a country of economic opportunity and of religious pluralism; we oust despotic regimes, only to create the opportunity for others to become prosperous and happy. We are also the most generous nation in the world.
And yet, as Pilon remarks, at the outset of the 21st century we have found ourselves at a point where we need to be “rescued from contempt.” Pilon, however, wishes for more than that. “We should expect more; notably, we Americans should seek not to be misunderstood, to be appreciated for who we are.” If our image of ourselves is a true reflection of what the American soul is, why is the image of America abroad often the opposite of what we intend and, occasionally, even demonic?
Take the example of the United Nations. The available statistics, Pilon writes, show that “three quarters (74 percent) of all the states that received the U.S. assistance” voted against America. During the Cold War period, part of the reason was the Soviet manipulation of smaller countries. A number of them voted anti-United States almost on “automatic pilot,” as Pilon puts it. She points out, however, that it was also a result of the American decision not to participate in the diplomatic game: “America watched with a seeming noblesse oblige haughtiness that resembled the benevolent tolerance of a parent toward a naughty child. It was in fact not only offensive but shortsighted and self-defeating,” she writes. The situation achieved a grotesque level when the United States lost its seat on the Commission on Human Rights, while Libya, Cuba, and China were members.
Another problem of American foreign policy is cultural ignorance. True, the Muslim mind is far more difficult to understand than the European-born communist ideology that America had somewhat less difficulty tackling. Yet it is surely embarrassing to have the under-secretary of state for public diplomacy express “surprise” that, among other things, people in the Middle East have trouble differentiating among different segments of American society. One can only imagine how surprising it must have been to the Pentagon officials to find out that there are two segments of Muslim society: the Shia and Sunni, not to mention the many subgroups, religious and ethnic, in the region.
The more recent awakening of the Kurdish population made the conflict in Iraq a problem for Turkey as well. At the present moment one can say that the American intervention has released the genie from the bottle, and no one knows how to get him back in. On a certain level the conflict in Iraq reminiscent of the situation in former Yugoslavia. For as long as Tito was the president, foreign observers hardly suspected the degree of religious and ethnic animosities that were boiling under the surface of a “happy” socialist-democratic system. Unpalatable as it may sound, it appears that dictatorship exercised by Tito prevented ethnic and religious conflicts from errupting. Saddam’s tyranny had a similar effect.
We are still baffled by the fact that instead of embracing democracy as a way of solving conflicts, so many of them chose killing as a way of settling differences. A rudimentary knowledge of Islam and Muslim history would have prompted us to design a different strategy, one more attuned to their sensibilities and cultural history.
We are told by the president and politicians that we are “at war on terror.” The “war” rhetoric obscures the real issue here (Pilon is careful to use quotation marks when she talks about “war”). First, as there is no entity in view —neither legal nor moral—with which we can sign the act of capitulation, we are technically not at war. Second, it is enough to read the writings of radicals like Al-Zawahiri to realize that we or the West are in their eyes the heirs of the old Christian crusaders. The battle against “us” is the battle against Evil, and if there is any axis, we are not, in their view, on the side of the Light. This explains why terrorists have been able to recruit suicide bombers, including children. We are not at war but in the midst of civilizational conflict, which, unless we devise a sensible foreign policy, will most likely continue for decades. “War” measures will not suffice here and can only solidify a “tribal” sense of solidarity and hostility toward everything that is not Muslim. Serious study of the “Muslim mind” might result in a more effective policy.
The answer to transforming the Middle East is complex, but so far all we have come up with as our strategy is hunting down the bad guys; and the more effort we put into it, the more hostility we create. (As recent opinion polls show, one in five American Muslims is supportive of, or at least does not oppose, suicide bombings). One of Pilon’s recommendations is to invest more in what she calls the “human factor.” Our human resources are limited, but what is at hand is not always properly used. Pilon invokes the case of Bassem Youssef, an FBI special agent who also happened to be a naturalized American citizen. Youssef was blocked from a counterterrorism assignment by his superiors without explanation. Institutional politics of this kind are likely going to discourage those Muslims whom we could draw to our side.
Why America is Such a Hard Sell is not a manual that tells you which part of the American dream can be sold, but it gives quite a few reasons, only some of which are discussed above, why America is not selling too well. If America is to inspire others, we have a lot of work to do. The book demonstrates that we have failed to pay enough attention to the way we are being perceived. If America can be “sold,” we must do a far better job of understanding the rest of the world. Otherwise we run the risk of being surprised, politically ineffective, and frustrated because others misread our intentions.
Zbigniew Janowski is the author of Cartesian Theodicy, Augustinian-Cartesian Index: Texts and Commentary, and How to Read Descartes’s Meditations.
Posted: September 7, 2008
What We’re Reading (Summer 2014)