America’s export

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(HOST) When commentator Peter Gilbert was traveling in rural Asia and Africa thirty years ago, the people he met tended to associate the United States with three famous Americans. The names they mentioned might hold a lesson for former White House counselor Karen Hughes, as she works to repair the U.S. image abroad.

(GILBERT) In the 1970s, I traveled extensively in Asia and Africa.
I crossed Iran and Afghanistan by dilapidated country bus – from Iran, to the Afghani town of Herat, then southeast, skirting the great Hindu Kush mountain range, to Kandahar (later the Taliban’s headquarters), and then back north to Kabul. Afghanistan was stunning, with spectacular stark landscape and wonderful people. That was before the Soviet invasion in 1979.

In Africa, I was often way off the grid – in villages without electri- city, save the occasional generator. Wherever I went, even at
the end of the road, I invariably found two things – Coca Cola and Singer sewing machines: the machines were often ancient, powered by treadles, but working brilliantly.

In both Africa and Asia, people would ask, with smiles and ges- tures, where I was from. They never heard of “the United States,” but when I said, “America,” they’d reply, “Ah! America!” And then, people who didn’t know a word of English would mention three people whom they associated with “America”: “Lincoln,” “Kennedy,” and “Mohammed” Ali.

For countless – perhaps billions – of people, those three men repre- sented America. They were seen as persons of idealism and vi- sion, people who fought for freedom, for the little guy – who in their minds were mostly nonwhites. Clearly those three men had won their hearts and minds. I expect they knew Lincoln only as the man who had freed the slaves – who were black. Young John Kennedy they knew because he stood on the side of the newly emerging democratic nations (former colonies) of Africa, and his inspiring Inaugural Address spoke not only to his “fellow Ameri- cans,” but also to people around the world, including people in
the developing world. Ali they knew as a sports hero, an African American – and a Muslim, the underdog who became heavy- weight champion of the world – a world champion in more ways than one.

The best way to win the so-called war on terror is to win hearts and minds. The best way to do that may be to make sure that America’s most important export is its inspiring ideals. Not just democracy, but also justice, freedom, equality, and opportunity. That may be what President Bush is trying to do, and he may
yet succeed. But so far, alas, he has won us few friends.

What we’re talking about is what some political scientists call “soft power” – the power of evoking in others a desire to be like you, as distinguished from the hard power of military or economic coercion. President Kennedy started the Peace Corps and Food for Peace, and barefoot people who cannot read still know his name. For Kennedy those programs were idealistic, but also prag- matic in light of the Cold War. Amidst today’s global conflicts and change, perhaps it’s time for similar idealistic and pragmatically generous initiatives.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

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