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Sino-US relations, Trade, and Values

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A long time ago, Grecian Aesop told such a story, saying, “One winter, a farmer found a snake being frozen to half death. Out of compassion, he took it up and placed it in his bosom to warm it back to life. The snake revived soon, but when it had enough force, out of natural instinct, it gave the kind benefactor a deadly bite. Lastly, the farmer said to those standing around when he was dying, ‘Not take pity on a villain.’”

The story of Sino-US relations since 1989 is fairly like this one.

In 1989, the Chinese government, to crack down on its people’s democratic movement, massacred barbarously thousands of its citizens in Tiananmen Square. But following this, the US administration stretched out its gracious hands to it to invite China, a country viewed at that time by it as a backwater, to join the international economic system to help it develop and thrive. Later on, in 2001, China entered the World Trade Organization(WTO), an international economic institution which has been still most important for development to date.

Today, China has been the world’s second largest economy and has had the world’s second biggest military expenditure, but more importantly, it is tenacious to challenge the international order headed by the US and more relentlessly suppress the huma values universally recognized by the international community of freedom and democracy. In addition, it doesn’t conceal its intention to occupy the center of the world stage instead of the US either.

To achieve the aim, not only did China set up an it-led multilateral financial institution, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), but it designed and carried out an ambitious project, the One Belt, One Road (OBOD) venture, to interlink economic activities throughout Eurasia and the Pacific to gain more political and economic influence.

Moreover, China doesn’t forget using its economic clout to lift its soft power overseas. By Hanban, an affiliate of China’s Education Department, China has set up over 500 Confucius Institutes in more than 130 countries all over the globe. At once, it also launched an international $6.6 billion media expansion campaign, which includes creating a monstrous media outlet called Voice of China, to tell China stories overseas, propagate China’s ideas, and boost China’s image.

China doesn’t likewise forget exerting its economic clout to bow foreign companies and academic institutions to its will. Last year, it demanded Cambridge University Press to pull out from China Quarterly more than 300 articles and book reviews seen as sensitive by it. This year, it ordered more than 30 international airlines, including some US carriers, to delete any information from their websites that could suggest that Taiwan, Hong Kong or Macau are not part of China. At once, China also employs its economic clout to put up its first overseas military base in Djibouti and has started using the base to goad, even injure US troops near the base.

All these events seem unlike some separate ones but more like part of a great national strategy, especially when associated with large-scale military exercises recently conducting by Chinese troops in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea and the eventful fact that the Chinese government has removed presidential term limits from its constitution for its sitting president Xi Jinping to become an actual dictator.

In history, an autocrat was usually both ambitious and a nuisance of war, for instance Alexander the Great, Gaius Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleone Buonaparte, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and so on. For his part, Xi isn’t short on ambition: his China dream to rejuvenate the Chinese nation is just a good proof. For Xi, what Xi lacks or needs is a momentous achievement to prove himself to be on a par with his two predecessors Mao and Deng.

Unlike his another two antecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, the two ones had both marvelous martial accomplishments and aspirations for changing the country’s history. Mao was both one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party(CCP) and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army(CPLA) and the founder of the People’s Republic of China(PRC). Deng was first one of the prime acolytes of Mao and then as the supreme leader of the country, he designed China’s economic reform and opening-up policy and firmly supervised its execution.

Jiang and Hu had no military backgrounds and compared with the former two, as presidents, they both were not only mediocre but feeble, yet it was under their rule that the country went through its present-day history’s best and longest economic growth and also it was during Hu’s presidency that the country came to become the world’s second largest economy, which has hold the title since that time the whole way until today. Besides, Jiang also finished another historical task, namely recovering China’s control of Hong Kong and Macao. The two regions had been the UK’s and Portugal’s colony before respectively.

Thus, if Xi is keen to surpass Jiang and Hu to fall into the dictatorial ranks of Mao and Deng, he needs to solve the following two issues:

(1) leading China to the position of the world’s largest economy or most powerful country;

(2) bringing Taiwan back to China’s reins.

This is the only two both feasible and glorious things his ancestors left him to resolve, but both them involves the US and their settlement seems to be not so easy.

Now, the US is the world’s biggest economy and strongest country. Moreover, it is also China’s largest trading partner and largest export market and still has a law which can be invoked to aid Taiwan in emergency, the Taiwan Relations Act and especially significant, the US has come to wake up to and is starting seriously reacting to threats from China.

At present, the president of the US, Trump both designates China in his national security strategy (NSS) as the US’s key strategic rival power, a revisionist country and also signs off the Taiwan Travel Act to enhance relations between the US and Taiwan governments, but more importantly, he is fulfilling a series of hardline trade policies on China: his administration has proposed to impose $150billion in tariffs on Chinese imports to avenge its unfair trade behaviors and lower its as much as over $300 billion trade deficit with China. Furthermore, it also banned US companies from selling high-tech products to a Chinese telecom equipment maker named ZTE for seven years because it had continued violation of US sanctions against Iran and North Korea. This will surely make the firm, which is now China’s second biggest telecom equipment manufacturer, grind to a halt because it can’t buy the irreplaceable US microchips again it uses in its products, according to some technical reports.

Yet nevertheless the Trump government’s objective isn’t still containing China but stressing competition with it, as stated in its NSS. This isn’t much different from the former Obama government’s goal. Still and all, there is a big discrepancy between them: the Obama government’s aim was stressing earning peace by diplomacy and dialogue, but the Trump government’s end was emphasizing gaining it through strength. Such large transmutation in means or behavior will have sizeable meaning.

In Obama’s times, the US government was picking up peace by non-violent means and sometimes even by unprincipled non-violent means. In 2012, Obama draw a red line, vowing that if the Syrian government used chemical weapons, the US would take military action in response. But a year later, when Syrian President Bashar Assad employed sarin gas to kill hundreds of his citizens, the Obama governement failed to follow his promise, instead letting Russia broker a deal for Assad to give up his chemical weapons.

Obama’s naked betrayal and inaction gave the whole world a definite signal that the US wouldn’t resolve international disputes or conflicts by military means. Afterwards, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and a year after this, militarily intervened in Syria in Assad’s favor. At once, China also sped up the reclamation and expansion of maritime land in the South China Sea. The Obama didn’t take any action in response to these behaviors.

Moreover, in Obama’s days, with his passivity, Iran’s navy never stopped harassing US navy vessels in the Persian Gulf and even one time detained two US navy ships and the US sailors aboard them and then publicly humiliated them on television. In Obama’s presidency, Iran never received any punishment for the behaviors, but when Trump entered the White House as successor of Obama, the situation came to change. The Trump government reacted by strong military action to chemical weapons reuse by the Syrian government and out of expectation, Iran’s navy stopped badgering US warships, let alone demeaning.

For Obama, a particularly diabolical fact was that during his eight year presidency, the world just encountered an eight consecutive years of decline in democracy and freedom: Obama won peace by his extra appeasement and omission but let the values of democracy and freedom pay down.

No sign shows that Trump is steadfast adherent of these values. In fact, according to Freedom House, in his first year as US president, these values suffered further loss, with 71 countries having net decreases in political rights and civil liberties and only 35 registering gains. But still Trump manifests by his action that the authoritarian countries can be deterred effectively only by strength.

In the past 40 years, only two US presidents, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, had worked with such policy to win peace or promote democracy with strength. Ronald Reagan’s hardline was the direct cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communism and paved the path for Eastern Europe’s succedent democratic revolutions while the direct result of George W. Bush’s hardline was directly overthrowing by the US by force Iraq ‘s autocracy and Afghanistan’s ultraconservative Taleban government and building up democracy in the two countries, abolishing authoritarianism. So, both the presidents boosted tremendously the development of the world’s democracy and freedom by their hardlines.

In present Sino-US relations, Trump could also make history if he is determined to go on his hardline on China.

In present Sino-US relations, China’s weakness lies in trade, in addition to education, science, and technology while the US’s fragility sits only in trade. This is an outcome of the US’s nearly 40 years of economic integration policy. This policy’s aim was turning China into a liberal democracy by assimilating it into the international economic system led by the US. But now the two countries’ economic relationships are so close that the fluctuation of either of them in economic activity will touch correspondingly another. In a Chinese word, in present Sino-US relations, if the US would like to start a trade war with China, then this is akin to that it kills 1000 enemies but itself loses 800 as well.

But nevertheless this isn’t a reason why the US shouldn’t kick off a trade war: there are three reasons why it needs to do so:

(1) running concession and tolerance would only further encourage China’s unfair trade behavior and heighten its resolution to challenge the current international order;

(2) the US needs to redress its own unprincipled trade expansion demeanor;

(3) such a war would likely give China a chance to reshape itself and push it towards democracy and freedom.

US past immoral trade behavior is the root cause of present China’s unfair trade behavior. While the US claimed that the idea of letting China enter the WTO was changing it into a liberal democracy, this couldn’t hush up the two facts, namely

(1) using the event, it opened China’s huge domestic market for its goods and services;

(2) the thing that China was allowed to joine the WTO was taking place after the its government put down bloodily the country’s democratic movement in Tiananmen Square and happening at the time following this the government still kept on quashing the country’s democratic movement but didn’t fulfill any political reform towards democracy and freedom.

So, If the US government really believed that the values of democracy and freedom are the same important as trade, it wouldn’t have initially admitted China into the establishment or at least it should have set up an international trade institution based on the values.

This is why Xi utilized a series of remarkably high-profile events to mark the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth of late, because Marx asserted over 100 years ago that the limitless greed of capitalism would bring disaster to itself. For Xi, the US’s wrath at China’s trade behavior is just the start of such a calamity and Xi also believes that it is the US’s gluttony that renders China an opportunity to develop itself.

The US still should remember such a fact: it is it that helps kill China’s democratic enthusiasm and cause by trade and then creates a monster for itself. At the same time, the US should also ask itself such a question: if it is willing to kneel under China’s foots and lick its toes for more trade and prosperity.

For China, it is the US’s inordinate pragmatism and mercantilism that terminate its hope for democracy and freedom. China itself has no free and democratic heritage; it needs to introduce thought of the values from overseas, especially the West, to build up a democratic tradition for itself, but such hope has broken up since after 1989. While the Chinese government’s ruthless suppression is the main occasion of its breakdown, the US’s rapidly growing business with China is also an inescapable important factor. Sino-US business has been simply about money and weath because the Chinese government strongly resisted political reform for democracy and freedom from the commencement.

Yet Sino-US trade flourishing makes the Chinese government able to gather more money for buying advanced equipment for repressing the democratic movement. Now, not only does the Chinese government have the world’s most complex surveillance network, but also it has the world’s most complicated firewall. Thus, as expected, present China is also the country having the world’s least Internet freedom.

At the same time, Sino-US trade thriving and the rapid development of the Chinese economy also offer a heap of work opportunities for common Chinese. This makes them have more choices and chances for their living, but this also make them think that there is no need to go to risk pursuing a cause that looks beautiful but is destined to cost a very high price, even life. In their own words, dying with glory isn’t better than living in humiliation.

This is why since after 1989, never has a democratic movement or revolution fallen in China, the territory, where the disappearance of the democratic movement is only because at here the will and fervour for democracy and freedom have been cut to the bone by trade and prosperity, surveillance and suffocation.

By comparison with this, the languishment or decline of the West’s democratic movement seems to be because too much familiarity breeds too much contempt. Present Westerners are so accustomed to their democratic traditions and beliefs that they have forgotten how these democratic habits and beliefs were established. So Trump said, “it is great that Xi is president for life now, and maybe we’ll give that a shot some day.” Taking democracy and freedom for granted but not thinking that they are a belief and cause needing to defend with action and passion is a worrying thing.

Now, the West has many human rights organizations conducting research and observation, such as Amnesty International and Human Right Watch but no or only very few bodies willing to back the international democratic movement by practical action. Lack of action is a mark of faith loss. So, it seems that what west non-governmental organizations (NGO) say is far more than what they do, in the eyes of a foreign person. This may be one of the weighty origins of the persistent downturn of democracy and freedom worldwide.

Back to Sino-US relations. Current Sino-US relations are at the crossroads. When the Trump government planned imposing $150 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods and has imposed 25 percent tariffs on Chinese steel products and 10 percent on Chinese aluminum products, the Chinese government vowed to retaliate with equal-degree tariff measures and has already levied 25 percent tariffs on US soybeans.

Yet it seems that the US has yet to be sure how to deal with an aggressive China, when it sent its top economic team to Beijing to discuss the escalating trade war. In Obama’s age, the US government debated trade disputes and human rights issues with the Chinese government every year but all to no avail.

So, the problem is not that the US government doesn’t know that the Sino-US trade dispute isn’t too possible to resolve by talks but that it has yet to prepare to entail itself in an all-out trade war with China. Yet the US has no other choice unless it intends to accept China’s unfair trade behavior. Trade war is a bitter pill for the US, but this is a result of its own long-running unscrupulous trade behavior; China is only cunningly and unflinchingly taking advantage of it in its own favor.

Immoral trade behavior also lies in other West countries, such as the UK. About 150 years ago, the UK was the first west nation that made China open its national doors by force for business, while now it is also the first west state which joins the AIIB set up and led by authoritarian China.

A crucial feature of such behavior is that it puts trade over values, so it can also called the Trade First principle. This rule has never been explicitly expressed by the West, but it encourages China’s malformed development and leads to the decline of the whole world’s democratic developmental level. So, the US should end such unethical trade behavior and come back to a one balancing trade and values.

In this respect, the first thing the US can and should do is making a law requiring that all students from authoritarian countries, especially China, studying in the US first or at once know or learn knowledge of democracy and freedom if they would like to learn sciences and technology in the US. The US can’t help authoritarian countries, especially China, breed a great number of scientists and technicians any more but not teach them what are democracy and freedom. Such cases are particularly necessary and valuable with these students from authoritarian countries, especially China, because the kind of knowledge is unable to be learned or strictly prohibited in their own countries.

In order to promote democracy and freedom and erect strong faith in them, the US has no reason not to do it. In history, every democratic movement or revolution, whatever successful or unsuccessful, had a run-up to it when knowledge of the values took an active and widespread propagation. This makes the diffusion of such knowledge extraordinarily important. The US has a chance to do so: now, for China alone, it sends hundreds of thouands students to the US for study every year and half the number of them are learning sciences and technologies. This is just where China’s proneness lies. The country’s scientists and technicians haven’t even had the capacity of engineering a high-performance engine for its fighter. So, it is no surprise that in Sino-US trade, US companies have been required to hand over their intellectual property to Chinese firms for access to the Chinese market.

For the US, aside from trade war, another ostensibly imminent crisis will be from the Taiwan Strait. The status of Xi in the CCP isn’t so strong as expected usually. He now has almost all the most important powers, being a real tyrant, but so far he hasn’t finished any historic mission proving that he deserves all the powers. So as a despot, his status is factually more susceptible than his four predecessors. Thus, he needs an honor to show himself. Taiwan is just the place being likeliest to bring glory to him. This is mainly because Taiwan is China’s last domestic issue of territorial integrity.

So, for Xi, the Taiwan issue is of extreme importance, as if he doesn’t take any action to bring it back in his pocket, this will make his China dream of making China great again become a joke: how can a partite country become great over?

The reality also attests that Taiwan is just his most wanted objective: in the last two years, Taiwan has seen the Chinese military carry out drills near it as never seen before, with the CPLA executing 16 exercises in 2017 alone.

For the US, in present Sino-US relations, it still has the upper hand, but if it keeps on with the Trade First rule, it needs to ask itself if it will go on putting up with the country’s unfair trade behavior until some day it receives a fatal bite from China, the viper.

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The ‘Reverse Nixon’ and New Nero: Where to Focus After the Trump-Putin Summit

Dr. Matthew Crosston

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It would be too easy to simply jump on all of the stereotypical bandwagoning going on across most of the world’s media (especially the American) coming out of the Trump-Putin summit that took place this week briefly in Helsinki. It was most certainly NOT a bravura performance by the American president, but honestly that really is low-hanging fruit to focus any commentary on. Instead, let us consider some more subtle but nevertheless crucially important takeaways as we move on from Helsinki and are still left to consider what’s next for the incredibly poor Russian-American relationship.

1.Trump has unfortunately become the ‘reverse Nixon’

While most millennials may not recall or understand the importance of this historical reference, it bears repeating: Nixon, as Vice-President to Eisenhower, was an adamant opponent of establishing relations with China. Flash forward 15 years or so to his own presidency and suddenly Nixon himself was going over to China and opening up a new world of diplomatic contact and relations. “Only Nixon could go to China” was the refrain, meaning it was exactly because of his historical animosity toward the country that the American people would trust him making new maneuvers toward China. With Trump, alas, it is the exact reverse: even if he had an important policy innovation or sound diplomatic strategy for creating new relations with Russia, it wouldn’t matter. If only Nixon could go to China, then today literally ANYONE can go to Russia except Trump.

2.The ‘Putin smirk’ lives!!!!

Putin has a long-established and well-deserved reputation for teasing and even somewhat bullying/lecturing Western media, especially when American/British journalists think they have damning information or uncomfortable questions for him. There are few world leaders today who relish the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with foreign journalists as much as Putin. This is simply unquestionable fact. He also loves having the upper hand or at least giving the impression that he does on the world stage. Make no mistake: while he has steadfastly denied any direct Russian meddling in the American elections of 2016, he has absolutely LOVED every single minute of hand-wringing and treason-talking that has taken place in America because of the possibility. The Helsinki Summit proved this beyond measure. It is quite possible this was one of the quietest summit performances ever given by Putin. The reason for it was embarrassingly simple: all he really needed to do was sit there and look bemused 80% of the time while Trump mangled his own native English language trying to do verbal acrobatics around awkward questions about election interference. If Putin is famous for his ‘I know something you don’t know’ smirk, then the Helsinki Summit gave us all one of the most permanent exhibitions of said trademark in recent memory.

3.The regression of President Trump’s relationship with his own Intelligence Community will continue

Trump’s uncomfortable declaration that Putin gave him a very strong and powerful denial of election meddling (and therefore that should be good enough for all present to believe) had one very significant but little identified post-summit domestic consequence: it was yet another example of the Commander-in-Chief basically throwing his own Intelligence Community and the analysis of all 17 of its member agencies under the bus in favor of a foreign leader’s opinion who had every reason to not tell the truth. Trump’s relationship with the IC has been complicated even before his presidency began but has only become more antagonistic and unfriendly in his first year in the Oval Office. The Helsinki Summit did nothing to repair that relationship or even give anyone reason to search for a kernel of hope that a new more positive foundation could be established. If the IC in general felt the President of the United States was not in its corner before the summit, then it had no doubt of that impression walking away from it.

4.The summit only deepened Trump’s political Catch-22

Most media and pundit circles in America are flabbergasted by Trump’s refusal to believe the obvious when it concerns an attempt by Russian intelligence to hack/influence the 2016 election. But for Trump it is not so simple as admitting to the obvious: he clearly has made his own mental connection whereby admitting that Russia meddled leads to a semi-confession that he may not have legitimately won the election. Many Americans, if not most, on the liberal side also want to believe in this connection. Unfortunately, that connection is most likely NOT true. It is entirely plausible (even likely) that Russia to some degree attempted to meddle in the election AND Trump legitimately won the electoral college that gave him the presidency. Current American media seem to be treating the two as if they cannot be mutually exclusive when in all likelihood they are just that: Russia meddled; Trump won the electoral college. If we could get into a time machine, go back in time, and zap Russia with a special ‘removal of meddling’ laser beam it would not mean we would be analyzing the foreign policy of President Hillary Clinton today. It would most likely still be President Trump’s foreign policy. But Trump, despite his constant lamentations of so-called fake news and trying to make all mainstream media appear like sycophants of the Democratic Party, has clearly given in to the overall media impression that the admission of one sin (Russian meddling) results in the confession of another (he did not legitimately win the presidency). Consequently, stuck in this Catch-22, he continues to side with the ridiculous statement of ‘not having enough facts’ to know what really happened and it seems like it should be ok for him to just believe Putin at his word.

5.Is Putin the new Nero?

Remember the old adage, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned?” After the Helsinki Summit it seems at least plausible to ask if Putin is the new Nero, fiddling away happily oblivious while the American media burns. If the original point of Russian election meddling was not to actually sway the results of the election (no one in the Russian Intelligence Community really believes they could engineer that much power over the American electorate) but to just cause general chaos, havoc, and discontent within American society, then it is hard to imagine a more successful disinformation intelligence campaign than this one. American media is in a tizzy and the louder the cacophony of discontent rings after the Helsinki Summit, the crazier social media becomes in the never-ending battle between liberals and conservatives over what to do about it. Facebook alone has blown up since the Helsinki meeting with memes about treason, only to be countered by photographs of prominent Democratic congressmen/women smiling and laughing happily in the past during their own meetings with Putin. The discord and disconnect only grows. The anger and counter-anger only gets more intense and indignant. And all the while, in a lush suite of opulence deep inside the Kremlin, Vladimir Vladimirovich sits at his desk, smirking, fiddle in hand.

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Shooting the Messenger: Corruption and Peace

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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It is the most natural of behaviors for the guilty to lay the blame elsewhere and to make the most noise.  The Democratic Party leadership did the meddling — not the Russians — when it conspired with Hillary Clinton to deny Bernie Sanders the Democratic nomination.  Thus Hillary was an illegitimate candidate to begin with.

Then there was the question of emails.  Hillary refused to use the secure State Department server preferring a personal one.  Why?  Because she would then be selective in the emails that became public record.  And an accurate historic picture of her tenure as Secretary of State is debatable if 33,000 emails were not surrendered.  She said these were personal and not work related but the FBI later recovered about 17,000 and many of these were work related  (para 7 from end of ABC report).

How did the Clintons become so rich?  First, if you give commercial banks a license to gamble with depositors’ money, they ought to be grateful.  Speaking fees are one answer, and heaven knows what else.  That gambling can also lead to ruin proved true.  Bankrupted, the banks sought help, and were rescued through the public purse.  Turning losses public while bonuses and profits remained private emerged as a new capitalism for the very rich.  The banks crooked schemes included certain risky mortgage-backed securities sold as safe that caused huge state pension funds losses, destroying state finances in some cases.  People in those states are still suffering.  Any surprise then if Donald Trump’s pejorative “crooked Hillary” resonates to this day.

Second, during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, there was talk of her either using the position, or of the position itself leading to favor seekers donating to the Clinton Foundation.  During the 2016 election campaign, Trump said Hillary Clinton received tens of millions by countries that ‘treat women horribly … and countries that kill gays’.  Politifact says the claim is half-true.  He also asked that she return the $25 million Saudi Arabia gave to the foundation.

The Democrats continue to blame the Russians for the election loss despite their own meddling — nothing like shooting the messenger — and other issues like emails erupting just before the election.  Hence the uproar over the Helsinki summit.  Add the Ukraine and Crimea issue and assorted lobbies, and soon Republicans joined in.  But anger and hysteria are their own catharsis, and after Trump had been accused of treason and called a traitor, there was little else except to cool off.

When Trump placed the blame for poor relations with  Russia on ‘many years of US foolishness and stupidity,’ he was being mild.  Others might have said worse.  Look at the record.  Years of recruiting Eastern bloc countries into NATO after promising not to; after all, Russia accepted peace and disbanded the Warsaw Pact.  Then the blatant interference in Ukraine, toppling an elected government and dismembering the country leaving a trail of blood.

The fact is, one either supports peace or one does not.  In the US unfortunately, there are plenty of supporters for war.  Otherwise, why would we get Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan (17 years and continuing), etc., etc., etc.  And the Nobel Peace Laureate Barack Obama delivering the 2018 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture.  A supreme irony because the old man himself refused to meet Obama after what he had done to his friend Gaddafi.  One has to be reminded, Gaddafi provide financial support to the ANC independence movement when no one else cared or dared.  At the time in the West, Mandela was a terrorist.  Gaddafi also helped the IRA.  And what do we have in Libya now?  A descent from a secular country supporting women’s rights and leading Africa in the Human Development Index to a disaster spawning fundamentalist extremists as far south as Nigeria.  How soon the world forgets?

One may criticize Trump for much of his agenda — and I do often enough — but he has kept us mostly out of war.  With Hillary the Hawk, we would have been mired in Syria up to our necks, in serious danger of a major conflagration with Russia.

Let’s support peace irrespective of who nurtures that gentle dove.

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Flip-Flops and Foreign Policy: How American Tourist Behavior Hinders U.S. National Security

Dr. Elise Carlson-Rainer

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photo: Duane Hanson

Dear American tourist,

When you are in great European cathedrals, palaces, and important historical sites, would it be possible for you to leave your flip-flops at home? Your shorts and T-shirts could stay as well. If you can afford to bring you and your family to a European palace, I am assuming you could also afford close-toed shoes and proper pants. I do not expect you to be fluent in German, or French. However, it is not too much to ask for you learn how to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in the native language. You are not at home: please reflect that you are in a different country, attempt to assimilate, and show a modicum of respect for where you are – it is in your national interest to do so.

Recently, in Vienna, Austria – one of the global centers of high culture, music, and art – I dined at the famous Belvedere Palace’s bistro. During the middle of my meal, a family sat down at the table next to me, with the telltale signs of coming from the United States. All four were wearing flip-flops, they spoke two decibels higher than anyone else at the restaurant, and all were wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Not used to Viennese cuisine, at one point the mother exclaimed loudly, “I believe this gazpacho has turned!” I am guessing many readers have had a similar experience while traveling abroad, as this is sadly not a unique encounter with American tourists. This overall attitude can easily make locals feel annoyed and insulted. While seemingly harmless, these types of interactions can leave a lasting impression about the United States and hurt U.S. diplomacy.

It is important for tourists to realize that they do not come as individuals. Rather, they are seen as “Americans.” As a former American diplomat, it is exhausting and hard to explain the unmeasurable time-consuming task public diplomacy programs spend in combating negative stereotypes of the United States[1]. Beyond showing respect for other nations in places such as Europe, these programs aim to explain to predominately Muslim nations that Americans do not hate Muslims, that our streets are not lined with gold, and that Americans value ethnic and cultural diversity. These efforts in diplomacy work to strengthen ties with would-be skeptical trade partners, and enable carrying out critical U.S. security interests. A nation must build trust to create allies. Currently, the U.S. is in an existential crisis regarding our national values. As tourists are informal representatives of our nation, they can help, or jeopardize, the complex project of American diplomacy in communicating who we are as a people.

When one is dressed properly, as I always do while traveling, one earns respect from locals. I take great pride when I am asked for directions, or locals start conversations with me in German, Swedish, or French, etc. It is a small victory when they realize that I too am an American, but present myself differently than the cafe neighbors I referenced above. It does not matter what you look like, your heritage, or ethnicity. It matters how you present yourself while traveling abroad. There is a universal quality that results in responding back positively when one feels respected. No matter the country, I work hard to give a different impression: that of an American who values local customs and mores. When American tourists show blatant disregard for the country they are visiting, at best it leads to annoyance, at worst, anger and a lasting ill-impression of whom we are as a people.

I recognize that this is a negative generalization of American tourists. Different, but similarly harmful norms can be seen from Australian, English, or German tourists, to name a few examples. Their behavior abroad can also hurt their counties’ national image. Also, it is important to recognize the many tourists – from America and beyond – that come to foreign countries and assimilate beautifully. Thus, tourists are like a toupee; you only see the bad ones.

Scholars such as Jonathan Mercer demonstrate how important reputation is for international relations[2]. Mercer and others argue that countries sign trade agreements, enter into peace deals, and trust the lasting impact of an international negotiation, largely based upon a countries’ reputation. While I recognize that it is not the foreign minister or secretary of state one is interacting with in a café, but rather likely a nice family from Florida, California, or North Carolina. Still, it is not necessarily high level people who carry out the lion-share of trade deals between the United States and foreign countries. It is small and large business partnerships on either side of the Atlantic. These interactions matter: they impact how, and to what extent, foreigners are willing to negotiate, trade, and make security partnerships with the United States.

While encounters like this are frustratingly common in tourist sites across Europe, many do not realize how much it hurts American public diplomacy. Diplomats spend years learning languages. Beyond language, they immerse themselves in local customs. There is a reason for this: understanding other cultures and languages importantly enables foreigners to understand us. It is a way to bridge cultures, discard stereotypes, and defeat ignorance about the fascinating and important peoples that are beyond our borders. When Americans show disregard for host nations and peoples, it makes our diplomatic efforts to build long-lasting bridges and permanent connections – whether for business, security, values, or broader international relations – monumentally more complex and difficult.

When traveling abroad, why not show locals great things about American culture? For example, our strong value of customer service, world class technology, or our ability to make connections and meet strangers openly? There is a plethora of wonderful things about American society that becomes hidden behind distracting Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops. Therefore, leaving your cut-offs at home and learning a few words of the native language is in your country’s national interest. It will help foreigners you meet feel respected and valued. It is in all of our interests to communicate attitudes that inspire people to want to create partnerships with us across the Atlantic.

Danke et Merci!

  • [1] U.S. Department of State. Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs https://www.state.gov/r/ Accessed on July 3, 2018.
  • [2] Mercer, Jonathan 1997.Reputation And International Politics. Cornell University Press | Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, New York.
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