On Foreign Affairs, Part One

The complexities of the current state of international conditions and relations are compounded by the occupant of the White House. This article will not focus on him, because there are larger issues that have nothing to do with his lack of qualifications or immature behavior. My hope is to give us a few things to think about about diplomacy and foreign affairs more generally.

The United States has been a successful experiment in nation-building. Here we are, 240+ years after our Declaration of Independence, and 230 years after our Constitution was ratified. There are very good reasons to feel that the US is exceptional, because our people represent the people of the world, thanks to our history of immigration, innovation, cooperation, collaboration, and exploration.

But we're not the only ones to be ground-breaking, and we're not the only great country on the planet.

Americans have a well-earned reputation around the world, and not all of it good.

I lived in Europe in the mid-1990s and was able to have in-depth conversations about these perceptions, although global conditions were much different at that time. This was before the European Union existed, before the Euro, even Hong Kong and Macao were still European "colonies".

First, there was the perception of American arrogance and condescension. Being multilingual, I would hide my nationality if I was at a café and other Americans were present, largely because I didn't want to become a tour guide. But this did give me the opportunity to listen to the tourists and observe their behavior. (Full disclosure: I did this to Europeans, too - pretending to be the "dumb American" who spoke nothing other than English - and they could be just as offensive).

Americans could be loud, crass, and insulting, often without realizing it. They functioned under the expectation that Europeans would speak English to them, translate the menu, etc. France is usually the country that Americans associate with a negativity toward English speakers, but France is not alone, and this behavior is why that negativity exists. The more I spoke French in France, the more willing the French locals were to meet me halfway, either in English or even Spanish - just to keep the communication going and, if necessary, provide me the assistance I might be seeking. Speaking in French was a simple token of respect, for where I was and with whom I was speaking, to be provided respect in return.

The second area of discussion, because of the time period, was the Cold War. I do feel this is appropriate to discuss now because of the conflicts we now face. Many other countries felt caught in the middle between the US and USSR. They had treaties that put them in the fight, if one were to occur, but had little voice in the decision. The first World War came about because of similar alliances that activated like dominoes across the continent. There was resentment toward the US for putting them in such a position.

I do not have the sense that our allies feel as trapped in the situation in our current global climate, but there has been a loss of nuance and delicacy in dealing with these situations. American arrogance has not dissipated, and economic goals now drive our policies even more.

About five years ago, I had a long discussion with a colleague who is a Russian immigrant. We are the same age, so our experiences during the Cold War were interesting to compare. He admitted that he hated the US and its people during the height of the Soviet state, because he only received negative information. It wasn't until the press opened and he was able to gain better information that he made the choice to emigrate for economic reasons. Once he experienced the US and its culture (which many Europeans deny we have), he saw the full picture.

Americans do not realize that they are also subject to propaganda, and many of our impressions of foreign lands are informed by this propaganda. It is the nature of marketing and capitalism, so ubiquitous in the US. We just like to believe that we're better informed.

Most Americans do not travel abroad, even to Canada or Mexico unless they live in border states. They view Puerto Rico as a different country, even though it is an American territory. Some of the reasons are economic - we don't all have the disposable funds to take such a trip. Some of it is fear of the unknown, trying to function in another language, or finding one's self the minority in another culture. Until I traveled to Asia, I never became really aware of my skin color (white) - and I did not experience any prejudice or negativity, but there was the awareness of being an Other, whether I was in India or Singapore. (And I am Irish, Scottish Highlander, and Ukrainian, among other nationalities - I am very white European looking).

It is important to learn and understand that governments are separate from the people they represent. People, by and large, want the same things, whether they are in Provence or Pyonyang. Everyone is operating with the information they have been provided, and believe they have the truth when they engage with someone from another culture. Americans are not unique in this - there are preconceptions about us, too.

My high school Spanish teacher, Francesca Perez, was an immigrant from Spain. She told a story about seeing a movie set in New York, and there was steam rising from the sewer grates. After seeing this, she believed that America was so wealthy, we could heat our cities during the winter through vents placed in the streets.

You can imagine her disappointment upon learning the truth.

It is important to be vigilant. It is important to self-educate. It is important to be open to difference. It is important to be thoughtful. It is important to experience.  And it is important to share what you learn. In this way, we respect each other and we respect ourselves. We cannot fight the problems in the world with insufficient information. We cannot treat people as ideas or abstractions.

We have negative forces and personages in the world, and they have the influence and/or power to create a lot of the antagonism we experience. As I have discussed in other posts, it is paramount that we proceed based upon verifiable facts and mutual respect. In some cases, these things can only be obtained through our own, individualized efforts. To quote Ronald Reagan, "trust, but verify".

And through this, one can learn the underlying motivations for behaviors or choices. These reasons are not always sinister, and they often do not need to be addressed through armed conflict. It also doesn't mean that the motivations are acceptable, logical, or even "good" - it is about understanding, not necessarily agreeing.


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