Monday, October 5, 2009

Slave of Love: Why Are Americans Obsessed with Being Liked?

By Barry Rubin

In the course of discussing America’s standing abroad, a recent study cites a remarkable fact: In a 2008 poll Americans ranked “improving American standing in the world” as the most important foreign policy goal facing the country.

How much of that was a short-term response to a barrage of opinion-shaping information that the Bush Administration had made America disliked and this was a very bad thing? And how much of it was basic American political culture? Obviously, such an attitude is something of a blend.

But the idea that he would make America popular again was a major factor in the election of Barack Obama.

What? All that billions of dollars of foreign aid and countries liberated wasn’t enough?
In theory, everyone would prefer to be liked rather than disliked but for virtually every other country in the world this is a low priority. Why are Americans different?

One reason is that foreign policy has always been relatively optional in American political culture. Having a huge country to settle and develop, with no enemy nearby and a two-ocean moat, Americans have generally put foreign policy as a lower priority than those for whom it was a matter of clear and immediate survival.

Another factor is probably a sense of internalized inferiority to Europe, the provincials trying to measure up to the elite culture, and perhaps other places, where people really live by their beliefs. If one can actually earn the respect of these older civilizations this would prove that Americans are accepted as equals. (The irony is that the world’s stereotypes is that Americans are so arrogant to think they are superior to everyone else and some, of course, are.)

I’m sure you can add other reasons. And I analyzed these things in my book Secrets of State: The State Department and the Struggle Over U.S. Foreign Policy.

Yet this desire to be liked is rather immature, part of the larger issue that Americans have never really accepted realpolitik. Whether Jimmy Carter or George W. Bush, Barack Obama or Dwight Eisenhower, American leaders feel they must justify their policies by some appeal to a larger moral purpose and idealized goal. National interest is not sufficient.

Then there’s the whole culture of American popularity, or perhaps rather unpopularity: The Ugly American, the obsession with anti-Americanism (the French don’t lose any sleep over not being loved, for example).

The precepts of Machiavelli are exceedingly alien. So is the concept that toughness is essential. Americans tend to be uncomfortable with leverage, retaliation, and many other tools in the international affairs’ arsenal.

When Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad says that it is more important to be respected than to be liked or Usama bin Ladin says that the strong horse is the one everyone wants to back, it somehow doesn’t quite penetrate the American psyche.

A funny thing here is that Americans are almost only exposed to one kind of criticism of themselves: as cowboys, aggressive and arrogant. But they rarely hear the other type of criticism—which I think is far more common when non-Americans talk among themselves: that Americans are well-intentioned but naïve; easily manipulated; too soft and sentimental.

Also common is the condemnation of the idea that Americans might hold of other societies being inferior or at least different. Notably absent is the systematic education of Americans to understand just how different other world views can be.

Americans tend to underestimate the degree of lying that goes on, the worse ways in which people treat their fellow citizens, the lower standard of civility and justice. They find it hard to gras fully what it is like to live in a repressive society or one in which the power of conformity overwhelms individuality.

Those who have learned better have great anecdotes about the experiences which were such revelations for them about such differences. One that comes to mind is from a colleague who describes walking down an Italian street during a torrential rainpour. He was shocked to see a lot of furniture sitting out and getting soaked in front of a store.

“Why don’t you bring it in?” he asked the shopkeeper.

“I’m antiquing it,” the man responded.

I could tell a lot of such stories regarding the Middle East. Like that of the reporter who, visiting Bethlehem just before the Christmas celebreation, asked her Palestinian guide what some structures being built were.

“They’re interrogation chambers being built by the Israelis to interrogate poor Palestinians.”

She went over and examined them, instantly recognizing that they were mobile toilets for the pilgrims.

Perhaps Americans should ask more why they should care what anybody thinks of them. So when we think of this pathology in U.S. foreign policy thinking—the kind that keeps prattling on about how Obama has made America more popular and this is such an overwhelming achievement that everything else sinks into insignificance--let’s reflect on the words of that extraordinarily keen observer of the American scene, Jerry Seinfeld, talking about the public library:

“It reminds me of like this pathetic friend that everybody had when they were a little
kid who would let you borrow any of his stuff if you would just be his friend.”

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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