It's official: We don’t care anymore how the rest of the world views us

By William Hausdorff

Like the neighbor down the street who is gradually paying less attention to his dress and personal hygiene, the US conservative establishment seems to have stopped caring how the rest of the world views us.   

This is another casualty of the era bracketed by Bush and Trump, but less commented on. The importance of the US image had long been a mainstay of mainstream political discourse in the US.  If the US pulled out from Vietnam, politicians demanded, what would the rest of the world think of US resolve in other parts of the world? The US government needs to show it is a trusted partner that keeps its commitments. America needs to project strength and reliability.  “Peace with honor” was the mantra of the Nixon administration as it sought to extricate the US from Vietnam.   

Of course, this so-called “concern” for the image of the US was always a pretense undermined by actual US policies.  After all, the tremendous, ongoing damage being done to the US image simply by our continuing to prosecute the Vietnam War with attendant My Lai (and other) massacres, the “secret” invasion of Cambodia, napalm and Agent Orange, the Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972, etc was reflected in massive anti-Vietnam War and anti-US demonstrations worldwide.  Yet however hypocritical, the care and tending of the US global image nonetheless remained a strong feature of US domestic political discourse well into the 1990s.

How people perceive the US is admittedly not always predictable 

I used to think that the US image was solely a function of what the US government did, and how it behaved while doing it.  The Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Powell invasion of Iraq under false pretenses, ignoring and ridiculing the UN armaments inspectors’ conclusions in the process, leaving a trail of massive destruction whose aftermath we are still dealing with, unequivocally did a real job on that image. 

But what we DON’T do also plays a major role.  About ten years ago, I asked a Greek academic why the image of the US government seemed relentlessly negative in Greece. I expected her to cite, even 40 years later, the widely-held perception in Greece that the US government encouraged or even sponsored the colonels’ coup in 1967.

Instead, she emphasized her belief that the US government could have, but didn’t, prevent the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.  That invasion, ostensibly to protect the Turkish Cypriot minority from its Greek Cypriot counterparts, led to the de-facto partition of the island into Greek and Turkish zones that persists to this day.

That the US image abroad can be profoundly shaped by what the US government DIDN’T do was more vividly brought home to me in a casual conversation I had in a Chinese temple in Malacca, Malaysia a few years back.  While admiring the statues and altar, and lamenting my limited understanding of Buddhism and Taoism, a gentleman I supposed to be in his 70s approached me.  After learning that I was American, he expressed his strong support for the US but noted that the US government had made one crucial error many years ago. 

After a slight pause, he casually explained that the US didn’t “finish the job” in Japan at the end of World War II, as it should have dropped A-bombs on all the major Japanese cities. It quickly became apparent this wasn’t some kind of horrific joke when the man proceeded to describe, with increasing emotion, his scarring experiences as a young boy hiding for years with his family in the jungles after the Japanese invaded the Malay Peninsula in December, 1941.

Both the Greek and Malaysian examples illustrate that the US image is a function both of its actions (and inactions), as well as the not-always-predictable local perspectives that others bring when gazing upon that image.  

Conversely, there are some things Presidents do that end up having less an effect on the international image than one might have imagined.  One might think that President Trump’s affairs with porn stars and Playboy models, including the allegations of hush money and even threats to keep quiet, might trigger conservative concern about the US image.  However, most Republican leaders seem like House Speaker Paul Ryan, who claims to be decidedly uninterested in the Stormy Daniels allegations, perhaps partly due to lessons learned in the Bill Clinton years.

In truth, it is difficult to argue with a straight face that Trump’s tawdry personal behavior is any lower than that of Clinton in the 1990s, especially when one recalls the unfortunately memorable image of the 42nd President on the phone to members of Congress while receiving oral sex. Although Republican leaders at the time tried to argue that the US image would be sullied by Clinton’s behavior, it quickly became clear that the personal sleaziness of a US President is not a significant driver of national approval ratings.  Based on contemporary news reports and anecdotal evidence, this wasn’t much different internationally either.

Despite this complexity, there are some actions that will obviously tarnish the image of the US

One the other hand, one would think that conservative politicians might recognize that the unilateral withdrawal of the US from international accords, whether the Paris climate change or the Iran accords, might undermine the US image.  However, this argument has only rarely been voiced.

In fairness, the lack of conservative interest in the US “upholding” its commitments is a long time coming, and perhaps really took off with the presidency of George W. Bush.  Back in 2002, even before the Iraq invasion, Bush unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with nary a Republican voice raising a concern about the US keeping its commitments.  To be charitable, perhaps one could argue that walking away from a bilateral agreement, particularly one with Russia, would only minimally affect US credibility with its allies.

But the Paris Accords were signed by virtually all countries in the world, and yet the Republican Congressional leadership actually encouraged Trump to walk away from them.  Only three Republican senators vocally supported the US staying in the accords.  In what now sounds like a quaint throwback to a bygone era, one Republican senator expressed gentle concern that withdrawal would convey the message that

 the leader of the Republican Party is in a different spot than the rest of the world.

Similarly, our imminent withdrawal from the Iran agreement, painstakingly negotiated with not just Iran, but also France, the UK, Germany, Russia and China, hasn’t prompted any words from the Republican leadership about the likelihood that our allies will trust us in the future.  This silence is striking because there is some political cover: Trump’s own Secretary of Defense James Mattis, no softie on Iran, has explicitly supported staying in it.

Actually, there had been one rather tepid example, albeit from a marginalized politician:  in January retiring Republican senator Bob Corker invoked the argument that withdrawal could undermine potential negotiations with North Korea.  Only two weeks ago, as withdrawal appeared more likely, he quickly reverted to his usual invertebrate form by claiming to have reconsidered and rejected his own argument.   

Then there is the naming of John Bolton as National Security Advisor, a man by all accounts so arrogant, bellicose, mendacious, and bullying that he was blocked by both Republicans and Democrats from being confirmed as Ambassador to the UN. As he is one of the most disliked US political figures globally, silence from Republican leadership on the nomination (the current position doesn’t undergo Senate confirmation) is further indication that the image of the US is now of minimal importance.

It is not surprising that even US allies are now openly questioning the motives and behaviors of this government with uncharacteristically strong language.  Very recently President of France Emmanuel Macron referred to the recent Trump moves to unilaterally impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports on the EU, and then to temporarily lift them to allow for "negotiations":  

We don’t talk about anything in principle when it is with a gun to the temple.

And this is from one of the few non-autocratic leaders Trump is said to personally admire. 

One might consciously tarnish the image of the US for a “good cause,” but…

Nonetheless, it is true that one can argue the pros and cons of each of the above from a policy perspective, and decide that antagonizing the world is “worth it.”  For example, from a very cynical viewpoint, one can understand conservative antagonism towards climate change restrictions, as oil and gas industries, major patrons of the Republican Party, may lose real profits.  That alone, in their minds, could “justify” incurring the wrath of our major allies. 

Similarly, there is some logic behind arguments in favor of preemptive military intervention against North Korea and Iran, even if it is opposed by virtually all of our allies.  At least in principle such an attack might forestall missile attacks or other military provocations by nasty politicians in those two countries.  (Never mind that our intervention may, in itself, directly trigger nuclear war.)

So what really exposes the moral bankruptcy of national Republican leaders is their complete silence and lack of interest about how the US looks in the Jared Kushner escapades.  After repeatedly failing to fully complete his financial disclosure form, and finally being stripped of his top-secret security clearance, the First Son-in-Law nonetheless is allowed to continue working in the White House and to meet with foreign leaders to discuss both US policy and his own business interests.

Despite widely publicized financial problems, including growing massive debts.  Despite news stories describing how four foreign countries discussed secretly manipulating Kushner via his inexperience and business vulnerabilities. Despite a very recent report that Kushner is “in the pocket” of the Saudi crown prince.  A former General explicitly terms Kushner a “threat to US foreign policy,” but so far he has been met with silence.

It is very difficult even for me to imagine that the most cynical of the Republican leaders, whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan, when they sit down with a drink with their spouses or friends, could defend this openly corrupt mingling of personal with government business.  They may be completely numb from a moral perspective, but even they--I believe--can’t put a positive spin on behavior straight out of the textbook for the most corrupt “failed states.”

There appears to be only one explanation:  Republican leaders simply don’t care anymore about the US image.  They have the same blank facial expression with which I was once greeted by a close relative when, in a discussion of the US invasion of Iraq, I mentioned that the US was increasingly perceived by many Europeans as a nasty, vicious bully.

The neighbor down the street has stopped bothering to bathe regularly, and no longer puts on clean clothes. In fact, he’s starting to smell.  This may be bringing us closer to a time in the not-so-distant future when our US “allies” begin to conclude that this US government itself—not Russia, not jihadists--represents the greatest single threat to Western “civilization.”