Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Hate Us or Love Us

In Tuesday's Washington Post, columnist Anne Applebaum points out that while the recently-assassinated Benazir Bhutto was a pro-Western leader with a lot of support in our hemisphere, she was also mired in corruption and a promoter of the Taliban. Significant elements in her own society were not enamored of her, whether for her liberal agenda (which the West focused on) or for her domestic failings (more noticed in her home country).

Applebaum links Bhutto with a long line of Western-backed foreign leaders unpopular in their own countries. Often times these leaders are "associated with domestic issues that we [the West] either don't know about, don't care about or don't understand." Unfortunately, their domestic unpopularity leads to anti-Western (anti-American) sentiment amongst their people, and thus Applebaum suggests it would be "wrong to invest too much" in them.

I think her point is only valid in some cases. Before getting into that, it's worth reflecting for a minute on how America is perceived in those countries. This summer, Moshin Hamid wrote a superb Post column entitled "Why Do They Hate Us?", in which he said:
"Part of the reason people abroad resent the United States is something Americans can do very little about: envy. The richest, most powerful country in the world attracts the jealousy of others in much the same way that the richest, most powerful man in a small town attracts the jealousy of others. It will come his way no matter how kind, generous or humble he may be."

So of course we can't please everyone. But before we pat ourselves on the back, check out what Hamid also noted:
"But there is another major reason for anti-Americanism: the accreted residue of many years of U.S. foreign policies...They form only minor footnotes in U.S. history. But they are the chapter titles of the histories of other countries, where they have had enormous consequences."

I conclude that there are certain foreign leaders who, based on their positive agendas, we have a moral imperative to back. In clear-cut circumstances, it is not a question about being concerned about our likability. If we believe in the universality of such values as human rights and representative government, then of course we support leaders who fight apartheid or authoritarianism. If we are promoting a good cause, then we shouldn't be concerned with stoking anti-Americanism.

Of course, many of America's most important alliances are with foreign leaders who are not easily seen as "good guys", so the U.S. has to avoid giving off the impression that it is benefiting at the expense of the local populaces. Realpolitik (practical considerations) dictates that we have to deal with corrupt dictators. So our goal is to show that first and foremost, we are not wedded to the leader, and we are not against the interests of the people of that country.

To do that we have to be always vocal in support of things like free speech and press, due process, and a government accountable to its citizens. We also need to show off our wealth and power through economic and humanitarian aid. Good example: after the devastating Asian tsunami a few years ago, American ships, helicopters, and personnel descended on the region--to help. We provided invaluable and inspiring assistance, and I don't doubt that we won many friends in the region who won't forget our contribution.

Other countries around the world don't have to like us, and it's OK if they don't. While acknowledging that, we should make sure that where we are disliked, it's for a good reason.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I concur.- Neha