How the US Looks From Afar These Days

By William Hausdorff

What image does the US have abroad these crazy days? And do we care? In national elections, people are naturally inwardly focused on what the election may mean for them, their families, and their communities. But as viewed from abroad, the national narcissism appears especially intense this year.

American politicians of both parties used to care more about that image, or at least said they did. A major component of the Cold War policies pursued by all American governments was the need to “look strong” and “fulfill our commitments to friends and allies.” Many commentators have noted that although President Lyndon Johnson recognized early on that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, he felt so trapped by the need to project a certain image of the US that he ended up escalating the War with the known disastrous consequences.

Richard Nixon’s similar preoccupation with “peace with honor” served as a pretext to continue to prosecute the War for another four years, notwithstanding his “secret plan” to end it. One can argue that this preoccupation was either totally cynical or delusional, as few people outside the US genuinely considered that continuing the War--and in fact, expanding it into Cambodia--burnished America’s image. But then again, despite the fact that 22,000 of the total 58,000 US deaths, and hundreds of thousands of additional Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian deaths occurred during Nixon’s first term, the Norwegian Nobel Committee saw fit to award the 1973 Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger, the strategic mastermind of Nixon’s policy as his National Security Advisor. It’s sometimes forgotten that Le Duc Tho, his co-awardee and Vietnamese counterpart, refused the prize, noting that peace hadn’t really been established in Vietnam.

All cynicism aside, at least there was a recognition by US government officials that the image of the US abroad mattered. In the past few years, however, it seems the Republican Party has lost interest in how the rest of the world views the US.

In fairness, Trump and the Republicans do like to claim that the “US looks weak” in their attacks on Obama. But in contrast to previous administrations’ preoccupation with honoring American commitments, this crowd flouts its willingness to walk away from painstakingly negotiated international agreements, such as on Climate Change and Iran, not to mention NATO. No political party concerned with the international perception of the US would have invited a foreign head-of-state (Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu) to address a joint session of the US Congress for the explicit purpose of flatly criticizing the US president. No presidential candidate concerned about the US image would go on Russian state-owned TV to criticize the US president.

No one can seriously argue that these behaviors enhance America’s standing. Given the likelihood that erratic leaders in countries like the Philippines or nuclear-armed North Korea will continue to hurl personal insults at US leaders, it is hardly reassuring that the thinnest skinned US Presidential candidate ever, with a fondness for violent rhetoric, has vowed he wouldn’t “let” Iranian or Chinese officials insult us or our sailors.

Based on personal conversations and my reading of local newspapers, Europeans are watching the US election campaign with bewilderment, fear, and horrified fascination this year. While many are not surprised to see another dogmatic, gleefully ignorant Presidential candidate, they did not expect the US to produce someone so openly nasty and outrageous, and who seems to cozy up to Putin, especially when Europe itself has longstanding issues with their big neighbor. And I think they are sad to see the US with Trump echoing some of the more poisonous political characters in their own societies, with the additional concern that in the US “it matters more.”

Naturally Americans overseas are now asked, “How could the US, of all countries, vote for Trump?” There is a certain déjà vu from the period immediately following the US invasion of Iraq. At that time, one quickly learned to brace oneself before answering the question, “So what country are you from?” as the response would often lead to sour looks if not the prosecutorial questioning of “How could the US possibly re-elect Bush?”

My initial responses at the time were that almost half of America did NOT vote for Bush, and highlighted how huge and divided the country actually was: The US is more like a continent rather than a single European country, and naturally quite diverse—like Europe is. There are huge regional differences in voting patterns: the East and West Coasts and the Great Lakes states vote very differently in Presidential Elections than most of the South, mid-West and West, blue and red states etc. Not to mention the existence of the electoral college.

This may seem common knowledge, and even a point of pride for some of us, but many educated Europeans seem unaware of these geographical subtleties. I even heard from a couple of Belgian colleagues that they considered the US to be culturally less heterogeneous than Belgium (11 million people), which after all has 3 official languages (French, the Flemish variant of Dutch, and German)! And indeed, why should foreigners be aware of US regional political differences? The attentive US reader may have learned recently about geographically where in the UK support for Brexit came from, but can any of us gringos discuss the regional differences in Italian voting patterns for Silvio Berlusconi? Or Jean-Marie Le Pen in France? Where exactly in Germany is Angela’s Merkel’s strongest support?

I was eventually able to avoid all this Americasplaining when I stumbled on a more concise response to the original question as to where I was from: “New York.” This would invariably prompt big smiles of, “Oh I love New York City!” followed by accounts of their personal experience or desires to visit there.

As a side note, this New York affinity was paradoxically strengthened I think by the 9/11 attacks. I watched the attacks on the Twin Towers and Washington live from my office in western New York. But what was 9 a.m. East Coast time was only mid-afternoon in Europe, and mid-evening in much of Asia—and so I’ve learned that millions of people around the world also watched the horrors unfold in real time. This shared viewing experience engendered a strong sense of shared trauma, not only from the many with relatives living in New York or who had visited there, but because New York is by far the most iconic American city for foreigners.

But of course it’s not just New York. Many many people outside the US feel very connected to this country, even if the feelings are often ambivalent. There are the well-known familial bonds—everybody seems to have a brother or cousin, not just in New York or Los Angeles or Chicago, but in Boise, or Chapel Hill, or Tulsa. There are the obvious political and economic linkages. On numerous occasions, European colleagues and friends have announced with only half serious laughs that they also should be able to vote in US elections as US policies directly affect them even more than those of their own leaders.

There is of course the cultural connection, given the popularity of American movies and TV shows around the globe. As one trivial example, I remember being on the immigration line at Heathrow Airport on my first trip as a college student to Europe, and being told by a Libyan my age that he loved Leave it to Beaver, which apparently aired on Libyan TV under the Kadhafi regime in the late 1970s.

With Trump, while the geographic voting patterns remain, I have felt compelled to try to offer a more fundamental answer. Among U.S. Trump supporters, there is unquestionably a non-trivial percentage of “deplorables” who embrace his racism, his macho swaggering and denigration of women, as well as his advocacy of violence. However, my impression is that most others see their vote for him essentially as a collective and symbolic “fuck you” to the establishment and to the “rigged system.” Turbo-charged by an almost mythical level of loathing for Hillary Clinton.

And while this latter group of supporters doesn’t necessarily share Trump’s other values, they either don’t stop to think how those might get translated into mean-spirited policies in a Trump administration, or else they presume that his worst impulses will be restrained by “the system” and his advisors. Unfortunately, restraint hasn’t worked so far—the litany of outrageous behaviors, non-stop lies and bizarre conspiracy theories continues, unabated. And yet he remains supported by almost all of the Republican leadership. So why would he behave differently once he gains real power as President?

The current presidential campaign is clearly damaging the perception of the US overseas. Is this irreparable? While the Vietnam War cast a negative pall over the US image abroad that was still obvious 10 years after the war ended, even in those days I sometimes encountered a different view. Back in the early 1980s I was travelling as a young graduate student with two friends in Crete. At the end of a hot, dusty August day of sightseeing, we collapsed onto park benches in a large town square in Heraklion to gather our wits for the dinner search. A man in his late 60s came over to us, and mutely offered a cigarette. After we politely declined, he asked, “American?” I nodded, wincing slightly, as I assumed that once again our sneakers had betrayed our nationality. (Update: Given the newfound European popularity of Converse, this is no longer a telltale sign.)

As this occurred when Ronald Reagan wasn’t a popular figure in Western Europe and certainly not in Greece, I wondered what was coming next. “USA. Very, very good!” he said with a smile as he pulled back the sleeve of his sweatshirt to show a blurry number tattooed on his arm. I later learned that the Nazi retributions against the fierce Cretan resistance had been particularly brutal.

Lest this sound like a nostalgia trip from a bygone era, a similar event occurred only a decade ago--just a few years after the Iraq invasion. Then my family and I spent a few days in Corsica, and were chatting in rudimentary French with the 70s-ish owner of a busy seafood restaurant. When she discovered we were American, she broke into a big smile, and recounted memories as a young girl of the Allied liberation of the island from the Italians in the early 1940s. Even though I don’t think US G.I.’s were directly involved in its liberation, the US role in WWII still casts a warm if fading glow.

In general, however, it took the election (and re-election) of Barack Obama to remove the taint of the Iraq invasion and the Bush years.

It would be nice not to see America’s image trashed yet again. So I’ve been trying to imagine what, at this point, Trump would have to say or do to lose a significant proportion of his support. I’m not coming up with a lot. Back in January, he himself declared, perhaps quite accurately, "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters.

This is strikingly reminiscent of the colorful boast by former Governor of Louisiana Edwin Edwards in 1983 that, “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.” While Edwards did win that election, he eventually went to prison on racketeering charges.  So maybe there is hope.

[Editor's Note: William Hausdorff received his PhD in Biology from the Johns Hopkins University/National Institutes of Health and conducted post-doctoral research in biochemistry at Duke University.  For the past 25 years he has worked and published widely in the field of international public health, initially with the US Centers for Disease Control/US Agency for International Development in Washington DC and Cairo, Egypt, and more recently within the vaccine development divisions of two pharmaceutical companies.  At present he is a freelance consultant based in Brussels, Belgium. He has closely followed presidential politics since the days of McGovern/Nixon. His special interest is in the intersection of science and society, dating from his undergraduate thesis on the health effects of Agent Orange. His prior posts on Dorf on Law appear here, here, and here.]