My Way or the Highway

WHEN I THINK of what people abroad think of America, I picture their general ridicule of our idea of foreign policy and the statesmen sent to carry it out. I picture diplomatic blunders such as Reagan at Bitburg or George Bush throwing up at a Japanese state dinner. I hear George W. Bush struggling to answer simple questions until Tony Blair steps in to save him. I picture Gerhard Schroeder standing in the background and trying to keep a straight face as George W. twists his own words into a parody of doublespeak.

But these comic interludes are just stage pageantry, my own favorite TV highlights. What people really think of America probably has more to do with our outdated (and now unwanted) stance as a superpower, and our reluctance to listen to or work as equal partners with other countries, while at the same time expecting their economic and military support (or perhaps a better word would be compliance).

While we insist that every nation back us in our War on Terror, we flout the Kyoto Protocols, withdraw from the World Court, and only heed the U.N. when it rules in our favor. In short, we do whatever we want to, because we think we’re bigger and stronger than everyone else, and seem not to care too much about the consequences for those caught in the way. Who, finally, do we have to answer to?

Yet, at the same time, our political rhetoric is full of moral indignation, as if we’re saintly in our application of power, an avenging force sent to conquer evil and deliver justice, as if our excursions and alliances have nothing to do with self-interest. It’s a tricky balancing act, and when it fails, it usually does so spectacularly (as in the Middle East, from the Shah onward) and people here and abroad rage about the underlying hypocrisy. And since, militarily and economically, we have the ability to enforce or at least prolong our mistakes, that won’t change, at least not until we shift away from the basic formula of Might Makes Right, and even then, because of our history, certain people will never trust us. It wouldn’t look so bad, I think, if we pretended we actually cared what other people thought.

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