What Others Think of Us is Often What We Say About Ourselves

Many of our image problems in the world are directly related to the acrimony of our own politics - especially around election time. U.S. news sources provide foreigners with most of the news they get from the U.S. In other words, most of what they know about President Bush comes from what Americans say about him, and his image abroad closely tracks his image at home. When our candidates go negative, people around the world are listening and some are taking notes.

Our friends are confused and those who wish us ill are only too happy to use the words of Americans against Americans in the same way Republicans/Democrats use statements of dissidents from the opposite party. Imagine a French citizen who likes the U.S. and wants to support our policies. He hears the U.S. president make a statement that makes sense to him. Soon after he hears vigorous and vitriolic rebuttal by a respected American. Any positive news will be crushed and any negative news accentuated.

Americans are not the only ones who engage in bare-knuckled politics. It can get a lot worse in other democracies around the world. The difference is that the whole world is watching us. During their last election, the French opposition and media truly excoriated President Chirac (in the first round at least), but the criticism generally stayed in France. I was in Poland for their last presidential election. The things the candidates said about each other you wouldn’t believe. And you also never heard about them.

It is the blessing and the curse of America to be the center of attention. We are closely watched and familiarity can breed contempt. The disrespect we show each other is taken as a mark of national character and the nasty innuendo we trade in is believed as truth. As in negative advertising, those uncommitted to one side or the other believe the worst about both. Some people take comfort from the fact that Bush seems individually unpopular. This is true to a certain extent, depending on how polling questions are asked. The trouble is that the great masses of people are not sophisticated enough about the U.S. to make real distinctions between our presidents and our government and us. If Islamic terrorists kidnapped you, I am not sure they would set you free after you proved you voted against George W. Bush.

If John Kerry is elected president next week, he might enjoy a brief honeymoon and the rhetoric might improve for a while, but very quickly the onus will shift to him because he will be President of the United States. In fact, it might even get worse for him to the extent that he encouraged unreasonable expectations of significant changes in U.S. behavior. I listened to a lecture today about the end of the Vietnam War. Nixon, who didn’t start the war in Vietnam, but was around for the ignominious conclusion, got at least as much blame as Johnson and a lot more than Kennedy.

I don’t have a solution to this problem. We can’t and shouldn’t tailor our domestic discourse to fit the needs of the American image abroad. But a little more civility in our discourse wouldn’t hurt either here or abroad. A family might have a legitimate reason to argue, but before they start tossing the dishes they might remember that the neighbors are watching and listening.


Posted by Jack at October 27, 2004 8:55 PM