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The Uphill Battle to Counter Anti-Americanism

Two articles side by side in the same issue of the International Herald Tribune speak volumes as to the nigh impossible struggle to promote a positive image of the United States abroad. The first describes Washington's attempts to engage in "public diplomacy" to counter growing anti-Americanism overseas and the second concerns an outbreak of anti-Americanism in South Korea.

The idea in the first article of the IHT's July 31, 2002, issue is that with enough explanations and education, foreign audiences will warm to the policies of the United States. To a certain extent, this is impossible for the simple reason that for certain elements of foreign societies, every positive aspect of the United States is regularly, if not automatically, pooh-poohed as exaggerated, as outright propaganda, or at best as a happy accident, while every negative aspect, no matter how small, is amplified to the nth degree, and America's friends and the "converted" in those corners are considered as something close to traitors or dupes (just witness Tony Blair's depiction as George W Bush's poodle).

It hardly matters much that U.S. diplomats receive more extensive training in the American message of "democracy, personal freedom, and free markets", if the response to whatever is said, is — and will always remain — a smirk or a burst of anger added to a wry comment that the United States is "a false democracy" (the most common refrain, especially in France), that its leaders are hypocrites whose policies, no matter how benign, hide shades of imperialism, that Washington is engaged in a campaign of "savage globalization", or (as the State Department's Charlotte Beers learned from the unimpressed Saudis) that America's so-called liberties blind it to the fact that they prevent man, and society, from developing a true relationship with God. The world's "immense interest in American culture" can hardly constitute a safety valve if the knee-jerk answer remains that it isn't America they are against, but their leaders, Washington's policies, and U.S. "arrogance".

The second article is but one piece of proof of this. One American truckdriver accidentally kills two girls, and all hell breaks out. Similarly, when individual American servicemen rape Okinawa girls or cause the deaths of skiers in an Italian cablecar, the event is blown up to stand out as a representative aspect of the entire country and its people, although common sense would dictate that had the individuals in question been based in the U.S., they would unquestionably have exercised the same criminal behaviour and/or irresponsible attitude there. And indeed, Americans rape, and kill — accidentally or otherwise — their fellow Americans every day, just as Koreans, Saudis, Italians, and Frenchmen are raped and killed by their fellow citizens (soldiers and otherwise) every day. While accidents occur to all the above-mentioned every day. But in those cases only the local press picks up the stories, and although they may be tragedies, they are treated as little more than a trivial news item.

Because when individuals of one's own nationality perform an heinous act — deliberately or not — it may looked upon harshly but at worst it is just another individual tragedy in the natural order of things, that hardly (if at all) reflects upon the fact that as a whole the people in question is composed of decent souls. But when a single soldier of one nationality, or a mere handful of them, causes the deaths of people of another nationality and that it so happens that the soldiers' nationality is that of the world's superpower, then suddenly it becomes a symbol of outrageous arrogance and of some sort of monstrosity lurking in the hearts of the whole people. Conversely, any action by an American or the U.S. considered positive becomes the exception that proves the monstrosity rule. Many people — Americans as well as non-Americans — would protest that this type of reaction is entirely normal. It may be normal — it is certainly the typical way of responding — but it is definitely far from logical. For every Sergeant Mark Walker, there are 100,000 G.I.s who are pretty decent people themselves and tens of millions of people in America who would never kill a pedestrian, American or otherwise. And in any case, accidents happen everywhere and to the best of people. Unfortunately, because it is not fashionable to use logic in these cases — and doing so would cause them to be called dupes and lose votes — few local pundits, politicians, and other opinion-makers bother to point this out.

This is why, while it is all well and good for Americans, policymakers and others, to "take foreigners' complaints seriously" and examine "their own behaviour and policies" and engage in "public diplomacy" and wonder why "do they hate us so" and so on, there is ultimately a degree of nonsense in it as well. Because for some sectors of society throughout the world, there is — contrary to what is assumed (both by the anti-Americans themselves and by those who wish to try to change or influence their minds) — no receptiveness about the subject and just as little openness to logical arguments and unbiased, broad-minded debate. For them, there is ultimately no redemption in anything the United States does or anything any of its foreign friends says on its behalf. And… there never will be.

31 July 2002

© Erik Svane

A South Korean writes : It is Easy to March into the Streets, Burn Flags, and Throw Rocks in Protest When Your Country is Protected by the Strongest Military in the World

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