Friday, September 18, 2009

Gratitude? Soft Power? Popularity? Apologizing? Hey, We’re Talking About International Relations Here!

By Barry Rubin

Today, U.S. foreign policy is full of the notions of “soft power,” confidence-building measures, popularity, apologizing and showing empathy in order to win the respect of other counties. The idea that there is gratitude in international relations is a very powerful one in Washington, perhaps in the West generally.

And so I thought of the fragility and fantasy involved in these worthy sentiments when I came across the following passage by another country’s most famous writer of the day, a close personal friend of his country’s leader, as a response to a massive American aid effort which saved the lives of millions of his fellow countrymen while asking for nothing in return except good will:

“In all the history of human suffering, I know of no accomplishment which can be compared in magnitude and generosity with the relief that you have accomplished….The generosity of the American people resuscitates the dream of fraternity….It will be inscribed in the pages of history as unique, gigantic, and glorious…and will long remain in the memory of millions you have saved from death….”

Who was the author and what the occasion for this outpouring of eternal gratitude?

The leading Soviet novelist Maxim Gorky, Vladimir Lenin’s favorite writer, wrote this in 1921 at Lenin’s request, thanking the U.S. campaign that not only saved so many lives but also probably prevented the USSR’s collapse. Of course, this debt was repaid by seventy years of Soviet Communism which did everything possible to destroy U.S. interests and credibility.

By the way, the Soviet government never let the letter be published in the country. When reference was later made to it in Soviet publications—with no hint of the letter’s contents--the title given turned the gratitude into hatred and suspicion: “The Greek Hoover and His Gifts. “ Herbert Hoover headed the program. The implication was taken from the Greek story of the Trojan Horse, that is the treachery implicit in phony generosity. The concept is best known today from the phrase, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.”

It is hard to think of a single instance, certainly in the Middle East (outside of Israel) at least, when U.S. humanitarian or economic aid, material support, military liberation (Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait), support for statehood plus massive funding (Palestinian Authority), or diplomatic support have ever brought cooperation or warm feelings toward America. Any hope of appealing by such methods to the regimes of countries like Bolivia, China, Cuba, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, or any others you care to add is not going to work.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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