Brett Daniel Shehadey
Special Contributor for In Homeland Security
The American image is really three wholly different things: (1) What America thinks of itself, (2) What others think of America and (3) What America really is. Take a step back and view America through the eyes of two general split perspectives of America and America as it really is.
1) America’s self-perspective focuses on the positive image-
America generally sees itself as the guardian of its successes- the enormous economic and political wealth. All nations do this, but the US has the most at stake. It sees itself as the only one that can and not just protecting its own resources and way of doing things but also a guardian of the world’s resources in the neo-liberal world order. It is the most benign of all others that came before it. It must continue to stay the course and defend itself and that which it has built. America is strong and will prevail. War is good for business; peace is good for business- or at least the future of commerce and trade with the intention of opening new markets. We are doing you a favor, you should be thanking us.
2) Others see more of America than America sees of itself but focus on the negative image-
America is the most powerful country the world has ever seen. It has the most stable political and economic system. But America is a selfish predator. It may benefit one to work with the Americans but you must sacrifice your own control of your country in the short term. They want to take over everything. America does not really know what is best for my country, I do. America never thinks before it acts. It thinks with missiles and not brains. They spend too much on war and fight political battles that are damaging to the international order. They are the problem more than they are the solution. America was a great nation a long time ago and, okay, did the world a favor decades back. It can no longer be trusted and it is weak and finished. China may be a better alternative in the future. China lets us do what we want. They are not the business professionals that the Americans are but they have the money and are not worried about taking more unfavorably first or all the restrictions.
3) What America really is is a little of both-
America is neither the villain nor hero of the world. America is a hyper power, sure, but like all states, it has done terrible and wonderful things throughout its history. America does create many problems for itself and the international community and America does provide many opportunities and services that if it were gone would not be there for hundreds millions around the world. It cannot realistically be replaced and therefore has not been. America speaks of political liberalism but has rarely if ever acted on this as a primary motivator. Even during World War I and II, the case for economic intervention wins and also a surprise attack were necessary to call for ultimate military action for the Second. During the decades spent fighting communism and the USSR there were few true liberty principles- it was about money, markets and dictatorships.
All political and humanitarian benefits to empower the individuals and the people around the world were a favorable secondary objective in US history and regrettably remain there today. Just after the Cold War, humanitarianism concern and action really did seem legitimate for a while but this aspiration was short lived. At some point, US presidents realize that there must be some economic return for states with even the best intentions of conflicts. The money to lead lengthy and costly interventions of uncertainty requires even more money than the US has or can obtain abroad. And should attacks be political economic investments? Still, the US could have done much more and did not.
One might argue that this image of guardian and promoter of freedom could boost US economic successes and power at an unprecedented scale, but again, the projects have been short-term four to eight years at most and on average one to two year forward thinking from administrations.
It now seems that there were many instances that the EU became more concerned with these type of political and humanitarian operations than the US, who appeared to give them up for good after 2001. It is always joked or highly criticized that America’s interest in oil rich countries is far greater than their interest in other states. A valid response is that where there is much instability in resources, the US is not the only one to suffer the consequences. Yet even if mutual interest is considered, America has never operated on a strict primary political and humanitarian design with foreign affairs, but has and does operate on an economic one- yet it is not as selfish as others would sell- but not as generous as it would like to be or thinks it is.
The problem is that the American image is split and will remain so if not repaired through right actions first and then words. While the majority of the American people genuinely do not desire war, America always seems to almost mysteriously find itself resorting to war to “solve” an international problem that cannot be solved using military force. While the majority of the American people would be staunch promoters of liberalism and staunchly oppose tyranny, America has often supported tyranny over liberalism in other states.
So there is the “good” America that is the American people and the principles it strongly believes in, and then there is that other America- the “bad” America and that government removed of the people- that does bad things, often chooses the worst foreign political actions, placing America and its people in perpetual dangers, and remains opposed to the American principles and unaccountable to the people. Thus, there is always that devil in American foreign policy that contradicts its greatest characteristic- freedom.
The hopeful part that many naysayers will not see, is that America can do better- be better than it ever has. What is required is less political wars and brilliant long-term soft global strategy around its core values and principles. What is not required is having too many contradictions or unwelcome or unsuccessful military campaigns that are not built to last and have little warranty.
The only way to export its principles is to become them. Repairing the American image abroad will also require better marketing. For example, with Syria, America needs to be the leader in the refugee crisis. They should be getting more PR points than any other state or even the UN. America must relearn that it is not just money and missiles that stir the pot, its wise statesmanship. Most often handing out the carrot or the stick is faulty approach or cover-up to previous errors. The making of a more positive American image, it will take much more commitment. Why is this important? Image is everything because perception is everything. How America “appears” to others will either allow it to achieve more or bar it from actions it might like to take, and block its principles and values from truly reaching the hearts and minds of its global audience.