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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.

Dr. Elise Carlson-Rainer is Doctoral Faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Public University. She has a long and distinguished career within the diplomatic corps of the United States, with postings across Europe and the Middle East. She was a Fulbright Fellow to Sweden in 2004-2005.She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Washington in the field of human rights and foreign policy. Dr. Carlson-Rainer teaches university courses in democracy and human rights, U.S. foreign policy, nationalism, global security and international relations.

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Billionaires, Vanity and Modern Democracy

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The bullying in Washington is the current trend.  On Monday, the British ambassador resigned his post after Trump refused to deal with him.  Well-liked in Washington and the halls of Congress, his downfall was an honest assessment of the Trump administration as ‘inept’ and ‘dysfunctional’.  The letters were leaked in the U.K.

Suppose the president tweets comments contrary to current established policy, does that mean a policy change?  Do departments adapt promptly.  Nobody knows.  That’s dysfunctional, and everyone knows it.  In the meantime, he has enjoyed 17 golf outings since February averaging three a month.  No wonder he is that rare president who does not seem to age in office from the stresses of the job.  Obama’s hair turned gray.

But then a lighter hand on the tiller has kept us out of war, whereas Obama, the Nobel Peace Laureate, destroyed Libya and escalated in Afghanistan.  The consequences are still being felt in Southern Europe particularly, through the hordes of refugees still continuing to arrive.  Also in the resurgence of anti-immigration political parties in northern Europe.

The supreme irony is the fact of refugees being rescued from ramshackle boats and dinghies or often dying in one part of the Mediterranean while the Obamas cruise on a billionaire’s luxury yacht in another.  Is that a metaphor for democracies in the modern world?  One is also reminded of Mr. Modi’s specially woven pinstripe cloth repeating his name endlessly on the stripes in the material. 

Fortunately, the current president does not like the sea, or we would never see him in Washington.  As it is he has had 14 visits to golf clubs (not as much time on the course however) since the beginning of June.  He once had a small yacht that lay anchored in New York until he sold it.  His pleasures have generally centered on the more mundane:  cheeseburgers and women — the younger the better, although perhaps not as young as those that have gotten his friend Jeffrey Epstein in trouble again.  To be fair, Trump had a falling out with him ‘about 15 years ago’ he said recently.  ‘I was not a fan of his, I can tell you,’ he added although he called him a ‘terrific guy’ in 2002.

At least one party had 28 girls to a so-called calendar-girl party at Mar-a-Lago (Trump’s estate and club) in Florida, meaning selection of a calendar girl.  The male celebrities attending, according to the man assigned the task of finding the girls, happened to be Trump and Epstein, and no one else!  So surprised, the man still remembers the story.  The falling out between Trump and Epstein was rumored to have been a business deal.

It brings us to the second resignation, that of Alex Acosta the Labor Secretary.  A Harvard-educated lawyer, Mr. Acosta was the US attorney for the Southern District of Florida when he made a generous agreement with Epstein who had been charged with sex crimes.  For a 13-month sentence of mostly community work, usually from his mansion, Mr. Epstein was protected from further prosecution.  In a clear rebuke to Acosta, the case has been re-opened with a new charge of sex-trafficking minors.

As a result, Mr. Acosta has had to bow to the chorus of calls for his resignation.  The real question:  How ever did Trump get elected?  A mainstream press failure?

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What has happened to Western liberal idea?

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In the recent interview with President Putin, the Financial Times seems to have launched a discussion on liberalism only at its own peril. Inadvertently, a real problem was touched upon, whose pressing nature is no longer denied by anyone in the West. The newspaper had to admit it in its Editorial of 29 June. Its authors claim that the threat to liberalism comes from within, including President Trump and his policies, Brexit and, certainly, the rise of “populist nationalism”. They refer to voters’ disillusionment with liberalism and loss of confidence in the economic system and trust in political elites. The latter are invited to redouble their efforts to take into consideration issues raised by voters and “to renew liberalism”.

Hence, the Russian leader has only identified a problem that Western elites are unable to acknowledge, desperately defending the status-quo as having no alternative. But where is the problem?

The systemic crisis of Western society, if we are to call a spade a spade, has its roots in Reaganomics and Thatcherism. In early 1980s, disregard for the lessons of the Great Depression led to Anglo-American attempts to sort of try the pre-1929 Pure Capitalism. This unleashed the forcers of a “self-regulated market” with the state playing a minimal role – a key concept of liberal economics. The idea of social accountability of business had no place in that system.

At the same time, financial sector was deregulated through the step-by-step repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which was one of key elements of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Its architect was British economist John Maynard Keynes. It was only natural that the 2008 crisis also started in the financial sphere which had practically lost touch with the real sector of economy.

Then neoliberalism (as it became known) came to be imposed by Anglo-Saxon nations on the whole of the EU through the Lisbon agenda. The then Prime Minister Tony Blair was pretty good at it. When asked what she considered as her key legacy, Margaret Thatcher pointed to Blair who continued her economic policies under the “New Labour” slogan.

For instance, everyone knows what the nationalization of British railways led to. Profits are reaped by operators, while costs are borne by taxpayers who finance UK Rail, the state-run company responsible for railroad infrastructure. And this is not the only way to privatise profits while collectivising costs. In fact, globalisation has become one such practice for Western elites. Its original motive was quite liberal and far from being altruistic or even geopolitical (Donald Trump has reassessed this part of it when he blamed globalisation for China’s economic rise). It was about cheap labour for increased profits. The jobs  that were to be transferred abroad should have been compensated for by a new technological revolution. But it’s not happening, not even in the second generation. Information technologies do not create as many jobs, and we are already talking of robotisation and artificial intelligence, as well as a universal minimum living allowance as a solution to the problem of poverty and unemployment. It was Keynes who said: “Free trade assumes that if you throw men out of work in one direction you re-employ them in another. As soon as that link is broken the whole of the free trade argument breaks down”.

Liberalism in politics, especially after the end of the Cold War, has degenerated into averaging and alternative-free policies in the “end of history” spirit. Even Henry Kissinger admitted in his “World Order” (2014) that Western elites had again relied on automaticity, as was the case with the market. But as it was shown by Karl Marx supported by modern economists (Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Thomas Picketty and others), free markets always give advantage to the investing classes, which only leads to more inequality.

In this respect, the 45-year post-WW2 period was an exception to the rule due to the creation of a social welfare state – the one that is now being destroyed by the neoliberal economics. Along with it the middle class is being destroyed – the pillar of Western democracy. For these reasons the real discourse of democracy is being substituted in the West by a discourse of liberalism. This involves labelling all protest voters as “populists” and “nationalists”, allowing to side-step the issue of the inability of the actual political system to represent this silent majority. Yet, that is what’s going on when differences blur between the Right and the Left, Tory and Labour in Britain, Republicans and Democrats in the US, or Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in Germany’s “Grand coalition”. Is it any wonder that when an opportunity arises to have a say, this majority votes for Brexit, Trump, or newly-created anti-system parties and movements, often with marginal ideologies?    

In social terms, as BBC is trying to explain in this ongoing debate, liberalism is about protecting the rights of minorities of all kind, including transgender persons. It turns out that there’s nobody to protect the interests of the majority. Yet, we are speaking of the post-war “social contract”, which simply does not work in liberal economics. Anglo-Saxons are on the path of further liberalisation, which the continental Europe cannot afford. Boris Johnson, contributing to the discussion, has said the other day that Brexit is precisely aimed at giving a new lease of life to it by following the US in income tax reductions for business and private individuals.    

British political analyst David Goodhart (in “The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics”, 2017) shows another perspective of the issue. In his opinion, the elites have become cosmopolitan, but the majority has remained rooted in their own countries, regions and communities. In other words, the majority sticks to its national identity, unlike the elites. Even the European middle class, united by similar living standards and occupations, becomes aware of its nationality when hit by bad economic times.

Those who accuse Russia of meddling in internal affairs of Western countries are essentially denying their voters the right to vote, while the genesis of the liberalism crisis clearly points to its roots and origins inside the system. It was no-one else but Angela Merkel who in 2010 spoke of failure of multiculturalism in Germany, while calling for intensifying efforts at integrating immigrants into German society.

It was not Moscow that drew the attention to this problem. As early as 2007, the Economist wrote of a “secular overreachl” in the West, while today many are voicing concerns over a “liberal overreach”. Speaking broadly, it can be said that in the absence of a competitive environment in the realm of ideas after the end of the Cold War (which ended up doing a disservice to Western elites), liberalism has mutated into a dogma, a totalitarian ideology which does not tolerate dissent or pluralism of ideas. No wonder that the elites have resorted to political technologies, media control and political correctness to tighten the grip on the freedom of speech and generate semblance of an alternative-free existence. Social media have put an end to this, becoming a tool for politically alienated electorate to self-organize. As a measure to protect the status quo, the elites are now constructing an artificial dichotomy of liberalism vs authoritarianism, i.e. if not one, it’s definitely the other.

It is, therefore, not about the end of the liberal idea, just as President Putin pointed out, but that it cannot claim to be a one-size-fits-all model negating the wealth of ideas in Europe and the world. The problem is that any ideology, as history has shown, is always aggressive when it claims the ultimate truth, exceptionalism and, as a result, becomes a threat to the world. The notion of a “liberal world order” has also been introduced only recently, as a defensive reaction of the West when its dominance in global politics, economy and finance is coming to an end. Everything could have been different, had Western elites bothered to make this order, Bretton Woods institutions included, truly liberal, open and inclusive. Nobody was preventing them from doing so.

From our partner International Affairs

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Could Trump’s tricks boost his ratings and settle the Syrian conflict?

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Recently the U.S. President Donald Trump formally launched his 2020 re-election campaign in front of a large crowd in Orlando, Florida. The campaign is gaining momentum. We have already seen the celebrities and politicians speeches, preliminary ratings and even the economic models of the New York Times predicting Trump’s victory. For his part, the candidate keeps on delighting the world community by posting promising Tweets to increase his popularity and to retake votes from his opponents. According to Gallup, 45% of U.S. adults said Trump should be impeached and removed from office over the matter, while 53% said he should not be. 45% is too much for the sitting president, so it has been decided to increase his positions in the eyes of freedom fighters.

In this case, we are not speaking about the strict implementation of all his statements, but only about election promises that can snatch the next agenda from competitors. For instance, the situation is so with Trump’s report on the withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Afghanistan. It looks like the White House analysts are working on the same scenario.

Last Monday President Trump told Fox News that he would leave an intelligence presence in Afghanistan, though he has long hoped for a full withdrawal of U.S. military presence from the country. So, according to Trump’s statement, the U.S. will retain intelligence in the region. That’s ridiculous! Washington has been trying to withdraw troops from Afghanistan for several years.

Boutros Marjana – the head of Syria’s parliamentary Foreign Relations Committee in response stated that this action was focused on the media, to make the average American to believe that the unnecessary and external conflict is over. “Tramp said the same on Syria. However, a radical change in the area of hostilities has not happened. The situation on the ground is quite different from what was stated. So far, in my opinion, the United States has not developed a strategy for the situation in the eastern coast of the Euphrates River”, Marjana said.

And while Trump is posting Tweets for his electorate, the U.S.-led international coalition carried out another air raid on the residential area in Idlib province. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) units were the alleged aim of the aviation. The details on casualties among civilians have not been reported. It worth noting, that during the previous bombardment, apart from the extremists, 49 civilians in a mosque were killed.

U.S. Central Command announced that the attack had been initiated in response to HTS terrorist acts in residential areas. It is unlikely that Trump will actually withdraw from Syria or Afghanistan because the killing of terrorists and civilians does not stop.

Moreover, telling the world about the withdrawal of troops the White House decided to put pressure upon Germany to expand its participation in the Syrian conflict (apparently instead of Washington).

Currently, Germany supplies weapons and surveillance planes to Syria. However, the United States insists on Germany to send its ground forces.

It is hardly surprising that some international coalition members suddenly proclaim their participation in the joint operation against ISIS terrorists under any pretext. In fact, their contingent will be intended to replace the U.S. troops that following Trump’s intention should be withdrawn from Syria. Wonder who will get all the U.S. military bases in Syria? In this situation, the obvious question arises: why should the EU troops be located in Syria instead of the U.S.? And who is going to replace the U.S. forces in Afghanistan?

At the same time, Israel is also playing an active role in the ‘peacemaking’ process in Syria. On June 1, at least 15 citizens, including five women and a child, were killed as a result of the Israeli air strike on Syria.

Anyway, illegal U.S. forces presence is a considerable obstacle to the political settlement of the Syrian conflict. And the cynical Israeli air attacks, as well as its international policy, break any hope for resolving all disputes peacefully. Trump may make the only right decision that will let him increase his ratings using the Syrian issue. The current president should do his best to reconcile the parties, suspend cooperation with Israel, and also establish a dialogue with Turkey, Russia, and Iran. That is very unlikely. Therefore Trump has to go on tricks with a contingent from other states.

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