Saturday, April 2, 2016

Presidential rhetoric is damaging the U.S. abroad

Philip Breeden,

Breeden image from article

Two days after al-Qaida terrorist attacks in Cote d’Ivoire killed 19 people, I sat down with a group of Ivorian religious, government, and civil society leaders for a previously scheduled videoconference organized by the U.S. embassy about how to promote religious tolerance and dialogue.

Given what had just happened there, I expected to be asked about confronting Islamic extremism. Instead, a Christian minister dressed in white from head-to-toe stood up and asked, “The wind blows from the United States. What is to become of us and our Muslim brothers? How are we to build tolerance if this powerful nation elects someone who calls for banning Muslims?” Here was an Ivorian Christian leader, two days after an attack by Islamist terrorists in his country, expressing fear — of Donald Trump.

It was a powerful reminder of something often forgotten in the United States, but which I saw time and again during three decades as an American diplomat: What U.S. political leaders say is heard around the world, and it has an impact.

Words count, even in the heat of an electoral campaign. No matter who wins, watching a major American political party place its faith in a strident bigot and women-hater who doesn’t hesitate to insult an entire religion has already harmed the United States abroad.

Although we often do not meet our aspirations, the American experience has always inspired advocates for freedom and tolerance around the world. It is a powerful source of soft power — that coveted coin of international influence. Republican candidate Donald Trump is rapidly depleting our soft power bank account. I’m not surprised that Secretary of State John Kerry says this electoral campaign is an “embarrassment” for the United States.

As a cultural diplomat, I used to look forward to the presidential election cycle as a wonderful opportunity to showcase American democracy. I organized election night parties, academic conferences and gamely tried to explain the electoral college. No matter where I was posted, everyone was interested in the process, personalities and pageantry.

In 1988, as Glasnost blossomed, I remember the Soviet ambassador to Madagascar surprised everyone by voting in the mock election I organized in a downtown hotel. I recall Tunisian students who slept on a hotel ballroom floor as they waited for the crucial Ohio results during the George W. Bush-Kerry battle in 2004. Sleepy-eyed, they would berate me about the Iraq War and then pull me close to whisper, “But Bush is right about one thing — we need real democracy.” In 2008 earnest 15-year old Comorian immigrants in gritty Marseille neighborhoods would ask me, “Does Obama really have a chance?” and I realized they were as personally invested in that historic election as any American.

This time around, our election is again the center of global attention, but for all the wrong reasons. I don’t envy my former colleagues. My guess is that they are spending a lot of time talking about our system of checks and balances, trying to reassure foreign audiences that even if we elect a Know-Nothing candidate, our system will prevent him from doing too much damage. This is cold comfort for those who look to the U.S. for inspiration, and music to the ears of our enemies.

Philip Breeden spent three decades in the U.S. Foreign Service focused on public diplomacy, directing communication, cultural and educational exchange programs in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. His final assignment was as the minister-counselor for public affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Paris. He now lives in Aix-en-Provence, France, where he teaches international relations at the Institute for American Universities and consults on public diplomacy issues. He is from Tulsa, where he spent his early childhood, and returns regularly to visit family.

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