Recently, the media reported extensively about President Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba and the expected agreement with Iran about nuclear weapons. These two developments were hailed as signs that, in spite of opposition in Congress on the part of warmongering Republicans and supporters of Israel, and from Israel itself, Obama had imposed diplomacy as a substitute for war.
It gave the world the impression that, belatedly, Obama was living up to his promise and had started implementing a foreign policy different from the one of his much-hated predecessor, George W. Bush, and more focused on peace and realistic means of achieving it. This view is based on the simplistic notion that the president of the United States is free to decide what he wants as a person and not as part of a huge apparatus shaping foreign policy. It airbrushes contradictions among many aspects of foreign policy and distinguishes it from domestic policy.
The perception of the US as a hypocritical power is reinforced by the gap between deed and creed.
While the United States has decided to put an end to the 50-year-old “Tropical Cold War” with Cuba, it is now putting additional pressure on Venezuela, a country whose regime is close to that of Cuba. The US worries about democracy in that country and puts some leaders on a black list for their violation of basic democratic rights. The US further argues that Venezuela is a threat to US national security. In Latin America, as the latest Summit of the Americas in Panama in April 2015 showed, this US attitude is met with ridicule, even among countries such as Brazil that do not approve of the human rights violations of the Maduro regime. The Argentine president even said it made her laugh.
There is clearly a disconnect between the perception that the US has of itself and the perception of foreign countries that have a long history of involvement with the self-described leader of the free world.
The Rhetoric of Freedom and Democracy vs. Torture
The rhetoric of freedom and democracy is the preferred one in US foreign policy. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was code-named “Iraqi Freedom.” It is, of course, almost too easy to deride such a statement today, for we know that the war was based on a web of lies about weapons of mass destruction, and that the US promoted torture more than democracy in Iraq. The perception of the US as a hypocritical power is reinforced by the gap between deed and creed.
The world is not culturally globalized, but information is, and since Western (mostly US) media dominate the world, information about the US spreads instantaneously. The world knows more about the US than the US knows about the world.
Racism and Its Global Impact
The violations of the rights of Black people by White police officers who are subsequently not prosecuted are not a purely domestic matter, but a global one. In the 1950s, racial segregation in the South was a major factor tarnishing the image of the US in the rest of the world. The fight against segregation was prompted, in part, by international condemnations.
How can a racialized “democracy” teach the world lessons about respect for the law when it violates the law?
During the Cold War, the Soviets could easily debunk the proclamations of freedom and democracy made by the US, which did not respect equality at home. How could the US teach the world lessons when it did not grant all its citizens equality? How can a racialized “democracy” teach the world lessons about respect for the law when it violates the law not only outside its borders, but within them as well?
Institutional racism is reported globally and undermines propaganda efforts in the realm of foreign policy. So even when yet another police killing leads to a prosecution, faith in the US legal system is not restored. Although racism, bigotry and inequality are not specific American characteristics, in the case of the US, they undermine the official story the US tells the world about itself.
The racism that leads to police murders cancels out the efforts to promote the image of the US as a prosperous democracy, where diversity is a core value.
Democracy cannot be reduced to elections; it includes respect for human rights, so the US record on this score matters enormously. As a major violator of human rights on the global scale, with drones and illegal wars fought by itself or its allies, the US is in a difficult position to paint itself as the “greatest democracy” in the world. Yet the US also has a major problem with the domestic aspects of its democratic system.
Democratic Deficits in the US
Two researchers, Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin I. Page (Northwestern), recently demonstrated in a very complex study that the people, the demos, had hardly any input in the political process and that political decisions were the sign of what they call “Economic-Elite Domination.” Their conclusion states the problem of democracy in the US in cautious, but very significant terms:
Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a wide-spread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.
US democracy also suffers from voter apathy or refusal to vote in elections where there are only two candidates. If elections are mostly a matter of consumer choice between two products chosen by the same “economic elites,” which do not address popular concerns, then abstention makes sense. This withering away of the electorate also affects other democracies when the choice of different leaders does not lead to the implementation of different policies. Yet for the US, its democratic difficulties make its public diplomacy or international propaganda less effective, which is not the case for Russia or China, which do not praise “democracy” to achieve their international objectives.
A broken democracy in the US is therefore an obstacle to propaganda based on the rhetoric of “freedom and democracy.” US lies or hypocrisy in foreign policy discredit the concepts and values supposedly cherished by the US.
It is actually Americans themselves who are the target of this international propaganda.
If propaganda does not work, and if the rhetoric of “freedom and democracy” does not win “the hearts and minds” of people, the question then remains: Why does the US stick to it? In advertising, a bad campaign is usually scrapped. The answer to this apparent conundrum lies in the real target audience of this rhetoric: It is actually Americans themselves who are the target of this international propaganda. They are encouraged to believe that they are a force for good; they want “freedom and democracy” for others and themselves, as US presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Richard Nixon and Barack Obama have constantly claimed, even while using a big stick in the Caribbean, Vietnam, Iraq or the whole Middle East.
People in nations on the receiving end of “freedom and democracy” usually know better, from Greece to Chile, to Iraq to Panama. There is nothing really new under this Orwellian sun. Attributing noble motives to oneself and demonizing the other is as old as the history of domination. The colonized did not really believe in France’s “civilizing mission” – a fairy tale that imperialist French people told themselves, and sometimes even believed. The countries under the Stalinist yoke did not believe that the USSR stood for anti-imperialist proletarian solidarity.
The US, with its global reach, domination of the media and global cultural presence, can disseminate its propaganda more effectively than most other powers. Its domestic propaganda, known as public relations, has proved very effective in shaping people’s “hearts and minds.” Democracy itself has become an advertising phenomenon.
Democracy itself has become an advertising phenomenon.
Racism, democratic deficits and torture defeat the propaganda efforts of the US and are exploited by powers that are far from blameless on these scores. The US can sell itself as a “land of the free” and home of democracy only domestically; outside its borders, this propaganda is either ridiculed or accepted as necessary hypocrisy to achieve a higher goal.
In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr., in his famous “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” speech, said: “They must see Americans as strange liberators.” Things have not changed that much almost 50 years later.
A plutocratic United States promoting “democracy” may be a form of global chutzpah, but domestically, it serves to change the conversation from touchy topics and reinforce national beliefs about American exceptionalism. The US is not really trying to export “democracy” or “freedom,” as its track record shows; it wants to maintain its hegemony, or at least contain its decline. The US is not so different from past imperial powers or from China today; only its rhetoric based upon its history differs. American exceptionalism amounts then to a rhetorical exception only.