American conservatives only react so furiously when President Obama shows a little diplomatic humility and self-deprecation while abroad because it touches a raw nerve – they are consumed by worry about American decline, and project their anger onto minor, intangible issues like bowing protocol, Air Force One tarmac snubs and presidential behaviour which falls short of obnoxious boorishness on the world stage
Many American conservatives have reacted with outrage to this video of President Obama addressing an audience during a recent trip to Laos, holding it up as yet more evidence that the president they so love to hate actually hates America himself.
Addressing a townhall-style meeting while in Laos, Obama is heard to say:
I believe that the United States is and can be a great force for good in the world. But because we are such a big country, we haven’t always had to know about other parts of the world. If you are in Laos, you need to know about Thailand and China and Cambodia because you’re a small country and they’re right next door, and you need to know who they are.
If you’re the United States sometimes you can feel lazy and think, you know, we’re so big we don’t have to really know anything about other people, and that’s part of what I’m trying to change, because this is actually the region that’s going to grow faster than any place else in the world. It has the youngest population and the economy is growing faster any place, and if we aren’t here interacting and learning from you and understanding the culture of the region, then we’ll be left behind, we’ll miss an opportunity, and I don’t want that to happen.
Cue lots of conservatives running around in a tizzy as though Obama had been propping up the bar at some Laotian tavern, regaling the regulars with an endless reel of hilarious anecdotes about how backward and stupid Americans are, while TV cameras recorded every shameful moment.
Here’s Ace of Spades, getting unnecessarily worked up:
It’s almost as if this pampered, do-nothing, unqualified malcontent actively hates America or something.
Someone out there there’s a Yourself in desperate need of a f*cking.
You gotta listen to this. It’s the International Version of his famous Bitter Clingers Song.
Look, this is silly. I know it is inexplicably popular in American conservative circles to rant and rage about how the Evil Muslim Marxist in the White House secretly – or not so secretly – hates America. And to be fair, President Obama hasn’t always done himself many favours in this regard, particularly with that unbearably condescending “bitter clingers” speech which genuinely made it seem that he holds a significant proportion of the country in something between pity and contempt.
But do these pro salt-of-the-earth conservatives think that the likes of Donald Trump or the Republican Party establishment “love America” so much that they are ever going to sit down and break bread with ordinary folk on a regular basis (apart from when seeking their vote)? Do they really think the man who eats his pizza with a knife and fork has any great love for the Common Man? Or that Newt Gingrich or Paul Ryan or Ben Carson spend their time away from Washington D.C. slumming it, eating at Waffle House and watching Nascar?
Besides, what point is Ace trying to make here – that when on foreign soil, the American president must always be belligerently boastful about the United States, even (or especially) to the point where it enrages his hosts? This is like that American exceptionalism argument all over again. It’s perfectly fine to consider America a truly exceptional nation – heck, I certainly do, and I’m not even a citizen yet – but in what possible way does it make good diplomatic sense to stomp around the world lecturing other nations about how inferior they are?
What do conservatives think that Obama should have said in Laos? That the United States of America, to the very last trailer park dweller, is full of the wisest and most sagacious citizens on the face of the earth? That every American, from the richest penthouse-dweller in New York to the poorest cabin owner in Appalachia, is a natural foreign policy expert? That the people of a nation where 54 per cent of citizens do not own a valid passport are nonetheless deeply knowledgeable about the world beyond their own borders?
Is there not some truth to the perfectly benign and logical statement that as a large and powerful country, there is much less incentive for average American citizens to concern themselves with world affairs until they threaten an imminent impact on the homeland? Might it not possibly be the case that the country whose top-rated cable news channel (Fox News) has a segment entitled “Around The World in 80 Seconds” – that’s seconds, not minutes, and typically seconds filled with lightweight fluff about bull-running festivals or cheese-rolling competitions – is more domestically focused than other, smaller and more interconnected countries?
Worrying that the president of the United States is not swaggering around boorishly enough on the world stage is actually evidence of a deeper malaise, a suggestion that those who criticise Obama so hysterically actually realise that America is in some ways a troubled country, and desperately want their leader to kick ass at every diplomatic summit as a way of papering over the cracks.
And that’s what this hissy fit from the American Right is really all about: the gnawing fear of American decline. In some ways this is a legitimate fear – no, America is not going anywhere just yet, despite the best efforts of enemies without and “reformers” within to undo all that is good about the United States. But we are certainly entering an indisputable period of relative American decline, as other countries develop and become wealthier, and new regional powers assert themselves. This is understandably concerning to many people, particularly those of the baby boomer who came of age at a time of unparalleled American power and prosperity, as well as those younger Americans who came of age (as I did) between the shadow of the Cold War receding and the incredible national shock that was 9/11.
It will be harder now for America to pursue her global interests unchallenged. American influence will be questioned and undermined by assertive regional powers and two-bit mischief-makers alike. America will have to become accustomed to harmless but superficially humiliating slights from jumped-up, distasteful regimes looking to impress their domestic audience by standing up to the United States, much as Britain had to endure a reduced standing on the world stage after the Second World War and loss of empire.
But America is not Britain, and her decline will be neither as swift nor as steep. America’s fundamentals remain broadly sound. The economy remains large and dynamic, while America’s military power and reach eclipses that of all other nations several times over. Financial and social problems, though pressing, are surmountable – or at least the damage can be contained for now. America will remain the sole superpower for the foreseeable future, and all those countries who American conservatives see posing a threat in their fevered dreams face internal and external challenges of their own.
And yet the gnawing fear persists, and leads otherwise sensible conservatives to say and demand very silly things in a desperate and unnecessary attempt to prove continued American national virility. But now is the time for smarter American diplomacy, not for the unsubtle sledgehammer approach. Of course America should take pride in the exceptionalism of her founding and history, but this should not translate into a boorish tendency to lecture other countries when leading by example can be far more effective.
That doesn’t mean the United States should stop calling out human rights abuses or democratic infringements in other countries – far from it. But conservatives should stop demanding that the US president, while standing at a lectern at a joint press conference next to a foreign head of state, opens his remarks by detailing all the many ways in which the United States is a far superior country. Is that really too much to ask?
After all, it is less than eight years since we last enjoyed the service of an American president brimming with natural swagger, and the foreign policy consequences were…mixed.
Do we really want to go down that road again?
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