IF I WERE AMERICAN

If I were American, I’d be wondering why my country has gone down in the world’s estimation. I’d seek an explanation from the Bush administration, which appears to be less than entirely extraneous to this development. But I’m not American; I’m just a friend of America, so I’ll restrict myself to being sorry.

Many people do not want even to listen to this kind of talk. Among them are Americans, and to an even greater extent America’s adulators. I see this myself, from my own small observatory. Every time someone criticizes the policies of George W. in my column, "Italians," that person receives a barrage of insults. From Italy, the offender is called a "communist" (wonder who they got that from?), and from America, if the individual is resident over there, they write, "If you don’t like it here, go home."

Question: can the rise and possible election of the follically endowed John Kerry change this state of affairs? The question is important, because it has been some time since a presidential election has had this kind of profile. Ronald Reagan’s America was far distant from Jimmy Carter’s, and Bill Clinton’s was very different than Bush Senior’s. America’s friends had their political sympathies and their economic opinions. They disagreed with various initiatives. One day, they were applauding the freedom of the US press, and the next they were attacking the healthcare system. But their underlying respect was beyond question. America was still the pride of the free world.

This time, it’s different. America seems incapable of securing the appreciation it deserves for its history, its political culture and its successes. The capital of sympathy accumulated after September 11 2001 has evaporated. Many people have written to that effect. One of the first was Mark Hertsgaard, whose 2002 book was entitled "The Eagle’s Shadow. Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World". Similar concern has been expressed recently by Michael Ignatieff and Timothy Garton-Ash in the New York Times, and by Thomas Fuller and Brian Knowlton in the Herald Tribune ("US Is Seen Losing Its Moral Authority," July 5). Note that all these people are moderates, and poles apart from, say, Michael Moore.

Of course, the world may have gone crazy. It may simply not see that the current administration is right all along the line, on preventive wars, public order laws, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, international courts, the Red Cross, distrust of the United Nations, attempts to split Europe, general diffidence, and specific reticences. In Italy, to take a case in point, why doesn’t the US reassure the residents of La Maddalena about the risks related to the naval base? Why hide behind treaties or a "no comment"? After all, the cold war’s over.

I repeat, the current administration may have understood everything. Perhaps, as George W. claims, it will be given top marks by history. But history is tomorrow, whereas unpopularity is today, and has repercussions. If I were an American, I would be disappointed – to say the very least – that I was so misunderstood. It would irk that assorted autocrats around the world, from Thailand to Malaysia, Kenya and Nigeria, point to recent US legislation to legitimize repressive practices. If I were an American, I’d send a brief letter to my government to say, "Hey, guys! How is it possible to have suffered terrorism, fought for a century against dictatorships, welcomed migrants from all over the world, given the world a dozen Nobel Laureates and Julia Roberts, yet still be so unpopular? Put me through to marketing!"

A brief letter might actually arrive, perhaps in the shape of a vote for John Kerry next November. You may say that US foreign policy isn’t going to change overnight, the Patriot Act isn’t going to be quietly forgotten, and that arrogance toward Europe can’t suddenly be transformed into an entente cordiale. True. But marketing can accomplish miracles. Sometimes, a product is forced to conform to the public’s expectations, and actually improves.

Beppe Severgnini
English translation by Giles Watson
www.watson.it

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