Saturday, November 21, 2009

When Will Arrogance Go Out of Style?

So, this week, it's Obama bowing to the Japanese Emperor during his visit to Asia. Is our President being subservient? Why is he bowing to some old Emperor? In the comments on a short NPR story about bowing and when it was in style in the US, one reader noted: "Since he's so fond of prostrating himself before those with a "divine right" to rule, does that mean he's just being more religious than the rest of us?" All I can do is role my eyes. Did he not even read and understand the article itself? The one that noted that when our country was created, bowing was a normal thing? That it continued for some time, before going out of style? Oh, yes, and the part where it's noted that in Japan, bowing is not at all unusual?

At what point did being polite and respecting the customs of other nations, especially one of our allies, become subservient? Can anyone answer me that? Another story on this subject, which I Googled up, stated: "This person who swore he would support and defend the Constitution of the United States obviously doesn't understand (or care) that America has never bowed to a foreign country or its leaders ..." Actually, I recently saw pictures of both Nixon and Eisenhower bowing to foreign dignitaries. So, apparently doing so does not destroy the fabric of our Constitution, only this person's preconceived notions of American smug superiority. Certainly, some elements will look for anything to use against Obama. This is obvious, as the above 'bowing' issue proves. If you're gonna make bold, definitive statements, at least spend a couple minutes on Google or Wikipedia first! It would certainly cut down on the embarrassing eating of crow later.

It's not so much the uproar over this, specifically, that bothers me. It's how it seems to be just the most recent case of Americans seeming to take this 'Leader of the Free World' thing way too seriously. I've always hated that phrase, to be honest. It drips with arrogance and self righteousness. When people use it I can almost hear the macho swagger in their voice. Certainly America is the pre-eminent military power in the world. Assuming we don't continue to grind away our Armed Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. But we are hardly the voice of freedom for the world.  We certainly have screwed up enough things over the years, and should have learned by now that we are not always right and that our good intentions do not always wisdom make.

Some will jump up at this point and declare me 'unpatriotic'. This is the usual response to anyone who questions, or in any way, impugns America. When, in fact, this is what patriotism is about. It's not about supporting anything the country does, no matter the wisdom of the actions. It's about loving the country enough to be concerned when it appears to be veering off course. Bothered so much that you feel the need to speak out in an attempt to avoid a perceived mistake. I feel like the Bush Presidency was an exercise in focused arrogance. We built no bridges or partnerships to fight terrorism. We bullied and threatened anyone who didn't follow our lead. That, to me, is the worst kind of arrogance and pride. You cannot organize resistance to something that way. All you end up doing is annoying your allies and alienating everyone else. It's really just psychology 101 or simple schoolyard politics. There's nothing strange or complicated about it, so I'm amazed that so many seem not to see it.

I tend to read a lot of military history and I've been struck by a number of things relating to the Roman Republic and Empire. There were a number of times where the Romans got themselves into bad situations simply due to arrogance. They operated with the view that anyone who wasn't a Roman was uncivilized and therefore a barbarian. This attitude led them to repeatedly, throughout their history, stumble into bloody wars that could have likely been avoided. They dealt with 'barbarians' as beneath them, even when these peoples were nearly on par, socially and technologically, with them. And they often treated even their 'barbarian' allies with less respect than they should have. Thus creating several nasty enemies from former allies. As you might imagine, this sort of foreign policy did not go over well. This attitude and the dismissive way Rome dealt with it's 'barbarian' neighbors, during its last century or two, contributed quite a bit to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. What might have happened if they had integrated the Goths and others into the Empire, rather than treating them as unworthy and uncivilized interlopers we will never know. But I'm confident the result would have been preferable to the bloody wars that did occur.

This is how the Bush Administration seemed to deal with the world, much to our detriment. There seems to be this warped view that to show a basic level of respect to a potential adversary, even if only respect for the office, is some form of weakness. I have no idea where this comes from. It's this mindset that historians regularly site as a factor in the fall of past empires. So why do some continue to think that talking down to Iran or North Korea is at all helpful? To treat them with some basic courtesy doesn't show weakness. It shows we are willing to play the political game. We must remember that we are dealing with people who have their own constituencies to deal with. They can't just cave in, even if they might personally be willing to give ground. To do so will make them look weak to their supporters. Again, it's schoolyard politics. If you back them into a corner, with no exit, they will fight tooth and nail. If you leave them room to maneuver and deal realistically, there is a much better chance of success. They will then be able to compromise here and there without losing face to their supporters. One of Bush's bigger blunders in foreign policy was his infamous 'Axis of Evil' speech. In one speech, he managed to back every country on this list into a corner, giving them only two options- give in completely to our demands, essentially groveling at our feet or remain our mortal enemies. Great choice, eh? Debase yourself in the eyes of your internal and external supporters or keep the status quo as the underdog who is standing up to the bully. So in one speech, Bush found the perfect way to guarantee their continued stone wall opposition. What the Bush Administration, and many others who still support the same policies now, fail to realize is that part of international politics is smiling and shaking hands, even if you'd rather push them in front of a bus. It's about maneuver, proposal and counter proposal. You can only demand when you have complete control of a situation and that rarely occurs outside of a surrender ceremony.

On the edges of this, you have Obama being raked over the coals by conservatives for simply saying to the world that America has made mistakes.  Seriously? So America is never wrong? Or is it that we are showing weakness by admitting it? Then I must be confused. I distinctly recall being told and hearing numerous times while growing up, that it takes a strong person to admit when they've made a mistake. Ring a bell? I'm sure just about every parent who criticized the President on this has used that little parable with their own kids. But this apparently doesn't apply to countries. It's as if, by keeping silent, no one will notice that we sometimes screw up. By admitting it, and accepting responsibility when we do, we gain respect in the eyes of friend and foe. Nobody trusts someone who maintains that they are always right. It demonstrates a disconnect with reality and an unwillingness to be honest. Hardly traits to inspire partnership or loyalty.

Since Obama was elected, America's standing in the world has risen dramatically. And it's happened because he doesn't talk down to other countries. He doesn't belittle anyone who disagrees with our policies. Even when dealing with Iran or North Korea, he manages to keep a professional tone that indicates America's stand, but doesn't try and kick sand in their faces. Now many will say that we shouldn't care what others think about us, but that would be speaking in ignorance. This is a global economy. We cannot exist, separate from the rest of the planet. Good relations are essential for our survival as a economic and political force. We don't have to like everyone we deal with, but it costs us nothing to treat them with some minimal level of respect, regardless.

For example, I don't particularly like or trust Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but I see no reason not to be professional in our dealings with him. He is the head of a sovereign nation and we should at least show a minimum of respect for his position, if not the man. And the more evenhanded and businesslike we are in our dealings with him, the more we contrast his wilder pronouncements. This is a win-win situation. We keep the door open to communication and possible solutions with Iran and we show the entire world that America is a reasonable country. Thus, moderates in the region will be more likely to see us as intellectually engaged and deal with us in a meaningful way. Don't forget, people are people, no matter their race, creed or theology. If you start the conversation with a slap to the mouth, you have immediately closed off almost all positive outcomes. If, however, you start off with a polite greeting, the outcome is still open to negotiation. No, it won't always affect the final result. But at the very least, our allies and others around the world will see that we are reasonable and level headed. Not because we tell them we are, but because they can see it in our actions.

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree. I have never understood why trying to meet someone on common ground is seen as a weakness. I really wonder what could be accomplished in the world if we spent the time helping others that we currently spend bitching and moaning on what we think should have been done. Sure it is important if we are talking about something of significance. But when the 'issue' is about whether or not we are standing proud and immovable on our pedestal then I think that surely we all have better things to spend our time on.


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