Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Brand Name America

I’m not sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say this is the way it’s got to be. I want to empower people. I want to help people help themselves, not have government tell people what to do. I just don’t think it’s the role of the United States to walk into a country and say, we do it this way, so should you...I think one way for us to end up being viewed as the ugly American is for us to go around the world saying, we do it this way, so should you. I think the United States must be humble and must be proud and confident of our values, but humble in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course.

The [people of the world] ought to look at us as a country that understands freedom where it doesn't matter who you are or where you’re from that you can succeed. I don’t think they ought to look at us with envy. It really depends upon how [our] nation conducts itself in foreign policy. If we’re an arrogant nation, they'll resent us. If we’re a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us. Our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power. And that’s why we've got to be humble and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom. We’re a freedom-loving nation. If we’re an arrogant nation, they'll view us that way, but if we’re humble nation, they'll respect us. [emphasis added]
That wise and prescient admonition did not come from some wooly headed internationalist safely ensconced in some alcove in Turtle Bay, nor was it the screed of a bleeding heart liberal praising the virtues of the world community. Those words were spoken by then governor George Bush during one of the presidential debates in 2000. How far we have come since then is astonishing. So much has transpired, providing levels of irony to those phrases. It goes without saying, Bush was right - on many levels. Tragically, he ignored his own advice.

America's ascendancy from fledgling state to unrivaled superpower over the course of its relatively brief history, although spurred on by its own ingenuity and hard work, has also depended on the "respect," good will and active engagement of our allies and the people of the world - especially in the 20th Century. We could not have prevailed in World War II, or it would have cost perhaps millions more American lives, without the aid of Russia and other allied forces. Victory in the Cold War was the result of our tremendous efforts and expenditures but also, importantly, the realization on the part of the nations of the world that through the United States lay salvation and a vision more attractive than that of the Soviet hegemon (despite the fact that Cold War real politik led to many unsavory foreign policy endeavors in Central America, South America, Asia and abroad).

In the increasingly interconnected world of business and politics, the brand name of "America" was sold to the world in the form of political and economic theories, and literally in the packaging of consumer products such as the globally ubiquitous trademarks of Coca Cola and McDonalds. And the world has been buying - willingly devouring all things American in a show of support and an endorsement of the message of America: freedom, democracy, respect for human rights, economic opportunity, technological advancement, and the Big Mac. America became the hip, creative, trend-setting epicenter of culture - as the world turned to us for the next craze and newest fashion. Consider this, for all of America's vaunted productivity, and vast expanses of natural resources, our number one export to the world is entertainment in the form of music, film and television. Simply put, "America" sells.

Immediately following September 11, the United States even experienced a reprieve from the normal level of animosity directed its way, with people like Libya's Muammar el-Qaddafi publicly expressing his support, and likewise, a condemnation of the attacks, as well as the mayor of Teheran holding a candle light vigil in a rare show of solidarity with the Great Satan. Shortly thereafter, when the United States launched offensive actions in Afghanistan to unseat the Taliban and al-Qaeda, our supposed enemies in Europe, France and Germany (among others), provided contingents of troops that remain there to this day. Even the Taliban patron state of Pakistan supported our actions and agreed to some level of cooperation.

It was at the pinnacle of our hegemony, that hubris crept in, fueled by the wild predictions and proclamations about new world orders emanating from the disciples of think-tanks, drunk on
visions of unipolarity. In advocating for war in Iraq, these same institutions began to overestimate the limits of American power while underestimating the importance of global support. All the while taking a position of entrenched hostility toward erstwhile allies who dared question our use of power and international organizations that had previously been our frequent source of legitimacy - an undervalued concept that helped to craft the appeal of the American image that has served us so well. This is a typical neo-conservative position on the much reviled United Nations, if not a tame one (via Laura):

The U.N. is sapping America's prestige, tying us down in Lilliputian legal restraints whose origins and logic are never questioned. To hope that the U.N. will go the way of the League of Nations ignores the vital force America has imparted to it over the last 60 years. Our creation has become a hostile power, one that profoundly distorts the natural power patterns of international security, and protects the gestation of the most terrifying threats we have ever faced. The U.N. should either be reformed to serve the purposes of its founding, or we should kill it off once and for all.
In a piece discussing the limits of unipolarity in the realm of foreign policy, I stated the following:

If you approach the United Nations, NATO and European allies with a sincere concern for their opinions, and regard for their institutional mandates, they will be more receptive to your entreaties. Those organizations and nations might not always agree, and they might not always endorse your actions just because you enter negotiations with a respectful demeanor, but it is prudent to minimize their opposition and leave open the channels for rapprochement in the future.

Threatening the United Nations with "irrelevance" if they do not accede to your demands is not going to foster cooperation. Considering dissolving NATO because the members were not unanimous in their support for your policies is not productive and not likely to pave a road for future cooperation. Grousing about "Old Europe" and obsolete alliances is not going to induce the targets of your barbs to contribute to your efforts. Closing off reconstruction contracts in Iraq to companies from non-coalition countries is just one manifestation of these punitive, exclusionary tendencies.

Perhaps most importantly though, if your ideological brain trust is churning out opinion after opinion concerning why these alliances, institutions, and organizations are bankrupt, corrupt, and hostile, and then you act accordingly, those same groups will likely treat you with contempt when you ask for their assistance in the future - which we almost definitely will.
Predictably, those types of confrontational stances also provoked the animosity of the citizens of the countries that were on the receiving end of the insults. Even the citizens in the countries that we consider allies in our coalition grew to resent our heavy-handed tactics and blatant disregard. Worldwide opinion for America has reached its nadir (hopefully), as our brand has become poisonous in many segments of the globe, including actual physical attacks on our cultural symbols like the bombing of McDonalds restaurants and similar outposts. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Middle East, as these poll results indicate:

"What we're seeing now is a disturbing sympathy with al Qaeda coupled with resentment toward the United States, and we ought to be extremely troubled by that," said Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland professor who commissioned one of the surveys.
This trend was also observed and noted in the bi-partisan 9/11 Commission report:

The findings reflect the concerns raised in the Sept. 11 commission report released yesterday, which emphasized a losing battle for public opinion. "Support for the United States has plummeted," the commissioners wrote.
And from Zogby:

The latest survey results out of the Middle East show that America's favorability rating is now, essentially, zero. That's down from as high as 75 percent in some Muslim countries just four years ago.
But the picture is equally disturbing when other more traditionally friendly areas of the world are accounted for:

"We found an unusually low level of support for U.S. foreign policy," Kull said. "This runs in line with trends from recent attitude surveys by the Pew Research Center and may have implications when the U.S. wants to move forward on issues with its closest allies."

The most negative attitude toward the U.S. came from France, Germany and Mexico, where roughly 80 percent of those surveyed thought that the foreign policies of President Bush had made them feel worse about the United States.

The polling in a total of 35 countries was conducted by The Program on International Policy Attitudes and the polling company GlobeScan Incorporated during a period ranging from several days to several weeks, starting in mid-May and running through early September.

The poll of 34,330 people older than 15 from all regions of the world found that the majority or plurality of people from 32 countries prefer Kerry to Bush. "It is rather striking that just one in five people surveyed around the world support the re-election of President Bush," said Steve Kull, director of The Program on International Policy Attitudes of the University of Maryland, a co-sponsor of the survey...

Most traditional U.S. allies came out strongly favoring Kerry, while only those polled in Nigeria, Poland and the Philippines preferred Bush. Polling among some traditional U.S. allies found strongly negative attitudes toward Bush.

"Even where the president does beat John Kerry, there is no enthusiasm apparent from the numbers," Kull said. "Those countries that support him for re-election also tend not to like his foreign policy." [emphasis added]
Of course, those people couldn't vote in the last election, but they can vote in the aftermath with their feet and their wallets, and this could greatly impact the American economy and our position of cultural and educational dominance, in addition to our foreign policy goals. We are already learning about the perils of the unbridled embrace of unipolarity, and its accompanying hostility to international organizations, in the context of our current dilemma dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions. As evidenced by James Fallows' latest article in The Atlantic (subscription required - but praktike has a nice summary here), we have no real viable military options for dealing with Iran as a result of the particulars of the problem as well as the current state of our military and its commitments in Iraq. As a result, we are placed in the uncomfortable position of relying on the diplomatic cooperation of our oft-scorned allies. This predicament was anticipated by Princeton professor John Ikenberry:

A unipolar order without a set of rules and bargains with other countries leads to a system of coercive unipolar American empire - and as such it is unsustainable at home and unacceptable abroad. As the Iraq episode shows, under these circumstances other countries will tend to "undersupply" co-operation. They will do so either because they decide to free-ride on the American provision of security, or because they reject the US use of force that is untied to mutually agreed-upon rules and institutions - or both. So the US will find itself - as it does now - acting more or less alone and incurring the opposition and resistance of other states. This is the point when the conservative unipolar vision becomes unsustainable inside the US. Americans will not want to pay the price for protecting the world while other countries free-ride and resist. This appears to be true in the case of Iraq: a majority of Americans now believe that the Iraq war was not worth it, after sustaining barely more than 1,000 military deaths. The US is 5 per cent of the world's population but generates nearly 50 per cent of total world military spending. Is this sustainable in a world where other countries are in open revolt against an American imperium?

On economic terms, we are facing a potentially dangerous trade gap which will only be exacerbated by movements of hostility to American products springing up internationally. When confronted with questions about the trade deficit, President Bush offered a seemingly naive response: "That's easy to resolve. People can buy more United States products [sic] if they're worried about the trade deficit."

While I think the President grossly oversimplified the magnitude and dimension of the problem, and that's an understatement, there is an important point he is making - that America still has international appeal and will continue to play a prominent role in the world's economy. But the question remains, will people buy more "United States products" if brand name America is so tarnished?

The likely answer is "no," at least to some extent, and on top of that, economic alliances and arrangements will begin to sprout up in direct opposition to American hegemony.
Tim Dunlop recounts the description of events from a member of a predominately Republican Congressional delegation that recently met with counterparts in India:

We don't much care about America. He said they were very polite but almost indifferent. Maybe matter-of-fact is a better description. The conversation went something like this:

We consider ourselves as in competition with China for leadership in the new century. That's our focus and frankly, you have made it very difficult for us to deal with you. We find your approach to international affairs ridiculous. The invasion of Iraq was insane. You've encouraged the very things you say you were trying to fix - terrorism and instability. Your attitude to Iran is ridiculous. You need to engage with Iran. We are. We are bemused by your hypocrisy. You lecture the world about dealing with dictators and you deal with Pakistan. We are very sorry for your losses from the 9/11 terror attacks. Welcome to our world. You threaten us with sanctions for not signing the non-proliferation treaty, but you continue to be nuclear armed and to investigate new weapons. You expect us to neglect our own security because you want us to. We don't care about sanctions.

They also spoke about economic development and the message here was that we're doing fine thanks. We can't address the poverty in our country wholesale--most of it is rural poverty anyway--but we find we have skills in the hi-tech area. We will continue to pursue that. We currently produce around 10,000 (I think, ed) science PhDs a year. We will build up a rich, well-educated strata.
In a further display of the changing paradigm in the world, the New York Times recently ran a story about the shifting sands in the arena of higher education. The colleges and universities in the United States are losing their ability to attract as many of the world's best and brightest - largely a product of the onerous student visa requirements enacted after 9/11, as well as increased competition from other countries' efforts to improve their own institutions of higher learning. Of course, if world opinion of America continues on its downward course, this could further impact enrollment in American schools. This would have a detrimental effect on our economy, both from the diminished revenue from tuition as well as the loss of many well educated students who stay in the States and help our economic development. And for those that return home, they represent a valuable tool of diplomacy - having young citizens of the world spending time and learning in America before returning home as emissaries of good will.

The preservation and marketing of brand name America will be of increasing importance considering the current
decline of the dollar, which could have widespread economic effects if it is replaced as the world's preferred reserve currency (itself more likely if we continue to provoke ill will worldwide). In addition, the emergence of economic rivals including the European Union, as well as China - which is a member of a group of dynamic economies known as BRIC - could further challenge the brand strength of "America."

Over the next 50 years, Brazil, Russia, India and China-the BRICs economies-could become a much larger force in the world economy. We map out GDP growth, income per capita and currency movements in the BRICs economies until 2050.

The results are startling. If things go right, in less than 40 years, the BRICs economies together could be larger than the G6 in US dollar terms. By 2025 they could account for over half the size of the G6. Of the current G6, only the US and Japan may be among the six largest economies in US dollar terms in 2050.

There is a fundamental misconception at the heart of much of the neo-conservative philosophy, that the opinion of the rest of the world doesn't really matter. According to this camp, American military might is so dominant that it can accomplish all of our foreign policy goals, as well as our economic needs. Not only is this an exaggerated perception of our military's capacity, but it ignores the advantages America has enjoyed by virtue of the fact that it has been respected, admired, envied, and held up as the city on the hill - leading by shining example. Now we are perceived as belligerent and greedy, left rationalizing torture, explaining away the deprivation of due process, and embracing intolerance and bigotry, while mother England takes the high ground on the rule of law, and Canada teaches her big brother a lesson in human rights and tolerance.

We are fast learning, hopefully, the limits of unipolarity, and the reality that we are dependent on the world for so much of our power and influence. Without the will of the world filling our sails, forging ahead will be more difficult, perilous and unpredictable - especially worrisome in such dangerous times as these. Yet if we continue to abandon all the principles and values that sold America to the world, and if we continue to behave with contempt for our neighbors, our ship of state will lag where it should lead. And that would be the world's loss.

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