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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Welcoming the Ugly Americans Abroad: Why Don’t Americans Understand Why They are Resented in Other Nations?

Welcoming the Ugly Americans Abroad: Why Don’t Americans Understand Why They are Resented in Other Nations?
Image © Austin Cline
Original Poster: National Archives
Click for full-sized Image

Americans were told by the Bush administration that they would be welcomed as liberators by the Iraqis. To some extent that may have been true, at least initially, but as time has passed fewer and fewer people in Iraq have such a positive image of Americans generally or the American military in particular. This is not surprising; in fact, it probably should have been recognized early on. This pattern has been repeated often enough that people should expect it by now.

A principal problem is the attitude of Americans, but I don’t mean an attitude of arrogance, racism, superiority, or that sort of thing (though it can often play an important role). The principal issue is probably much more tragic: Americans tend to operate from a naive premise of ethical purity, assuming that since their intentions are always good, they will always be welcomed.

This leads to shock when Americans or American actions are resented or opposed in any fashion, and consequently produces significant arrogance towards those they wanted to help: they are ungrateful, unworthy of help, and perhaps unworthy of the gifts of democracy and liberty which we want to bestow upon them. The problem can’t be us, after all, since we are good and what we bring is good. If there is resistance, then there must be something wrong with the recipients.


What we have here is an inability to appreciate or understand the perspectives of others — people living in different cultures and different circumstances that create views of the world which are very different from ours. It can’t be assumed that everyone in the world has an American inside just waiting to come out if given the chance. It can’t be assumed that the American perspective or way of doing things is the “default” way, against which everything else is a pale imitation at best if not an outright error.

This relates back, I think, to some of the things I wrote last week regarding the use of force, military or otherwise, for altruistic reasons. If Americans assume that the military should be used for altruistic rather than selfish reasons, then there will be a tendency to cover up selfish reasons for an action and manufacture altruistic ones. I don’t just mean people acting cynically and lying; people will do this subconsciously in an effort to believe that their actions conform to their ideals. They will sincerely believe that they are acting altruistically, even when allegedly altruistic reasons play little role in what’s happening.

This, in turn, will lead to the resentment above when those being “helped” resist and refuse to accept our gift (perhaps because they recognize that we aren’t really being all that altruistic in the first place). Maybe if we are a bit more honest about the appropriateness of using military force in selfish situations, and thus are more aware of the selfishness of our motives in some cases, then we won’t be shocked when others resist and oppose what we’re doing. This may even cause us to step back and reconsider our actions; but at the very least we won’t try to claim that those who disagree are being ungrateful.

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