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March 12, 2008

Admitting You Have a Problem
Posted by David Shorr

Hat tip to Adam for highlighting a recent Gallup poll on the American public's concern over our international image. Since this is my very favorite topic, I have to chime in. Adam takes ambivalent comfort in the public's sober and clear-eyed assessment. I actually view it as grounds for substantial hope and representing a huge opportunity.

In a nutshell, the general challenge of regaining international trust and goodwill should be a prominent, top-level, high-priority, front-burner, must-do, steady-drumbeat item on the US foreign policy agenda. We should look at this as America having hit bottom with unilateralism and being ready to admit we have a problem. But above all, we should all be talking about this. All of us, each and every one.

Why? Because this situation is the crux of the entire matter -- it's simply untenable that a global power like the US, especially one that is supposed to represent principles and progress in the world, should be so out of step with others. Because so many issues can be linked to this problem: global warming, poverty, nonproliferation, the Middle East, detainee treatment, cooperation on counterterrorism, the UN... And because it will resonate with the public, where Gallup's findings are reinforced by a recent Public Opinion Strategies / Hart Research poll for the UN Foundation. If you look at slide 21, you'll see that 76% of the public sees diminished international respect for the United States AS A MAJOR PROBLEM.

Let me quickly add that I'm not claiming the election will hinge on this issue. I'm not even saying that it will be in the top three issues on voters' minds. But as I've said before, voters are capable of being concerned about more than two or three issues. This is already on their minds enough for us to seize the opportunity. Adam is right that having a new president in the White House won't solve this; we have a major project on our hands. The first step is to solidify Americans' sense of how important it is.


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David, it is important and you're right that while the election won't hinge on it, it is consequential. But I think we have to realize that needs at home are going to have to take precedence. While we've been losing lives and dollars abroad we've also been neglecting our own citizens.

The cost of Iraq and Afghanistan has been over $1 trillion. That's about 1/8th of the cost of the housing bubble bursting. It's not the whole thing but it's enough that, if we had the money back, we could spend to benefit our citizens.

The housing bubble was formed by low interest rates. Low interest rates were caused by a Federal Reserve that seemed okay with deflating our currency to bring down the costs of our own debt. The debt was incurred by... foreign adventurism.

In the wake of 9/11 we blew a surplus. Yes, most of that was blown on the tax cuts but even those would have had less of an impact without the cost of the Iraq war.

Now we have a big problem -- we have to restore our standing on the world stage but that's not going to be free. Yet we've also neglected our more important domestic obligations. How do we spend what we need abroad while at the same time spending what we need to make things up to our own citizens?

I fully agree with you. The world hates the US because of American Exceptionalism, the idea that the US knows best. Non-Americans know the score. They know that Americans have no natural right to claim superiority in the world and they resent it.

People know the facts. They know that the US backs aggression and torture. They know that the uS ranks 37th in the world in healthcare but first in incarcerating its citizens and suicides. They know how minorities are treated in the United States. They know that China deals in economic cooperation while the US leads in arms sales. People aren't stupid.

You're right, the election won't hinge on this issue because all three remaining presidential candidates have made it clear that American Exceptionalism is here to stay. The US might talk before it bombs (Obama) but in the end the bombs will fall and the US will be universally hated.

In other words, Americans living in "a global power like the US" may hate being hated but they would hate giving up US world hegemony more. The "War on Terror" has no room for surrender monkeys.

Mike-- It's true that there is a connection to resource constraints. I'm a staunch advocate of sizable budget increases for the civilian international affairs agencies. I view these as compulsory investments in improving relations, protecting our interests, and building the kind of world we want. I'm not sure where to find the money, but I do know the investment will pay off.

That said, many of the necessary measures to play a more constructive and principled role really aren't matters of resource but policy. So I think we can talk about this without putting a price tag on it, which would be the ten-point-plan thing to do, and I've made my position on ten point plans very clear.

Don-- Um, that's not entirely what I meant; but then, you already knew that.

True enough, DS. Sometimes I get caught up in the dollars when you're talking principles.

"Um, that's not entirely what I meant; but then, you already knew that."

Do we ? As someone outside the US your original post struck me as being yet another 'aren't we generally wonderful but this bush guy is letting us down". By and large outside of the US this whole 'represent principles and progress in the world,' theory is treated with a certain amount amount of,shall we say , contempt.

Certainly americans generally believe their country stands out for freedom and democracy. Those people who live in ,say, Nicaragua or Iran, or chile or argentina or indonesia or (insert country here) might feel differently.

And ,after all , at the current time it is the US who currently operates snatch squads which operate on supposed allied soil to drag people off to the US's torture chambers , so lets keep the whole "aren't we amazingly wonderfully super" to a minimum shall we?

Everyone who writes on this blog is trying to help extricate US foreign policy from the shameful and destructive mess our country has made. It is taken as a given here -- and considerably to the right of us, I might add -- that the United States has a substantial burden of proof at this point. Our legitimacy is in crisis.

But no, you won't find many of us renouncing American ideals as nothing but hypocrisy. In fact, it can be argued pretty persuasively that those ideals offer a path toward righting ourselves. When Martin Luther King demanded radical change in some of this country's ugliest injustices, he did so by calling on America to live up to its promises not denying that they meant anything.

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