US image problem abroad

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(HOST) This summer, commentator Mike Martin says that America’s image problem abroad became personal, but he’s still hoping it can be turned around.

(MARTIN) Everybody knows that Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela can be a little – well, buffoonish sometimes. So, at first I didn’t take it too seriously, when Chavez, called our President “the Devil” at the United Nations a few weeks ago. But the real problem is that when Chavez said Bush smelled like sulfur, a lot of countries laughed with Chavez instead of laughing at Chavez.

The fact that more and more countries see Americans as the bad guys is a big problem, and it’s no joke. Even though other countries have always complained about us, for most, we’ve always been the good guys. We saved Europe from fascism, and then we rebuilt it with the Marshall Plan. Then during the Cold War, we were obviously the good guys – everybody was jumping over the Berlin Wall in our direction, very few were trying to defect to the Warsaw Pact.

Sure, we’ve always had enemies, and being the last superpower can be lonely sometimes, but we’ve always been the good guys for most countries. After all, our nickname has always been The World’s Policeman, not The World’s Outlaw.

But lately, in the view of quite a few countries, our good guy image has faded. They’re critical that we didn’t sign the Kyoto Accord to reduce greenhouse emissions, even though we’re the world’s biggest polluter. And we’ve withdrawn from the International Criminal Court, a court that tries war criminals. And even though they mostly kill civilians, we’ve refused to sign a treaty to ban landmines. We’ve also said that the UN is irrelevant and that pre-emptive war is okay sometimes. We’ve re-interpreted the Geneva Convention. We’ve made use of secret prisons in countries where torture is routine. And now a secret surveillance program – of our own citizens – has come to light.

I noticed something strange when I was in France this summer – people didn’t pick on me for being an American. I used to get an earful every time I was there about everything the French disagreed with, but this summer, when it came up that I was American, there was just this awkward silence. Before, it was always heated debates between friends, but now, it’s as though people don’t know what to think of the U.S. It was as if we’d grown too far apart to even argue anymore. It almost made me nostalgic for all the teasing I used to get about McDonald’s and Rambo and Microsoft.

With both North Korea and Iran playing games of nuclear chicken these days, we need our friends more than ever. It’s clear to me that we can’t “go it alone” forever, that the UN is indeed relevant and that we need to make some serious repairs to our “good guy” image. In his farewell address, Senator Jim Jeffords said that the U.S. needs a foreign policy that is “less haughty and more humble”. I hope we take that message to heart, and start acting like we’re the guys with the white hats again.

Mike Martin writes about issues of culture and education and teaches French at Champlain Valley Union High School.

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