Volume 15 Number 5
The Us Needs to Listen More
01 October 2002

It's not often Americans awaken to the kind of jolt the Washington Post gave them on 7 July in a Sunday blockbuster column with the top headline, 'America the arrogant', and under it, in large type, 'Why don't we listen anymore?'
The author was not some foreign critic but Clyde Prestowitz, a US trade negotiator in the Reagan administration. Prestowitz, Founder and President of the Washington-based Economic Strategy Institute, developed his thesis from a 'recent swing through 14 Asian, European and Latin American capitals'.

'Of course, anti-Americanism is not new, but what I found disturbing after 35 years of visiting these cities was that foreign leaders who have been longtime friends of the United States are the ones voicing dismay,' he wrote. 'While most foreign observers express affinity for Americans as people, they show increasing resentment of the United States as a nation...' The sentiment in many quarters, apparently, is that 'America has gotten too big for its breeches'.

Prestowitz quoted an unnamed official in Paris as saying that, in view of France's large Muslim minority, 'US policy in the Middle East could be seen as a security risk by my government'. That policy is regarded as heavily weighted in Israel's favour.

America is widely perceived - rightly or wrongly - to be an increasing loner, using its military and economic supremacy to behave as though the opinions of others don't matter. They do matter, of course, and President Bush frequently tries to emphasize that. Nevertheless, the perception remains - and is perhaps growing.

During a recent visit to Europe, I tried to get a better feel for the mood of France, a country whose history is so intertwined with America's.

Fundamentally, US-French ties remain strong, according to Olivier Giscard d'Estaing, founder of the leading business school in France and Chairman of the Committee for a World Parliament. 'History shows the United States saved us twice. But sometimes we worry that our young like the US too much. What we don't like is [America's] diplomatic domination on some vital issues. Americans don't like [Yasser] Arafat, but the United Nations and the rest of the world accepts him much more.'

A Paris-based French woman with an international newspaper put it this way: 'It feels like it's a common understanding that the French will try to distance themselves from US foreign policy concerning issues such as Iraq or the Middle East, but that if the US faces a real threat and needs the French, France will stand by the United States.' She adds, 'I have always felt like there was a kind of love-hate relationship between France and the United States.'

Another Parisian, Elizabeth Hopkins, whose late husband, an American, was deputy counsel to Henry Kissinger when he was US Secretary of State, says that French left-wing intellectuals recoil at what they term the 'linguistic imperialism' of Americans. For instance, US corporations have impelled much of the global community to accept English as the language of business.

For all that, I found the French unfailingly kind and helpful even when, as an American with regrettably scant knowledge of their language, we often found it hard to communicate. In one instance, language didn't matter: I was racing for a subway train to keep a lunch date when I found myself running with four musicians carrying their instruments. We boarded just in time, and I stood with them as they broke into Hello Dolly and other mostly American songs to entertain passengers. By their facial expressions and body language, they surely sensed I felt like one of them.

Prestowitz clearly grasped the difficulties of an America that seems at times out of control even to her friends. He demonstrated courage in bringing them to light. The natural tendency in any country in time of war - in this instance the war on terrorism - is to defend what your leaders do even when you privately question some of their actions. With our awesome power, we Americans need more than ever to reach out to the rest of the world, to invite dialogue, to consider all opinions, to demonstrate genuine care for what others think. Most of all, we need to realize we are not always right. We not only need our existing friends but we must develop friendships where today we have none.

Robert Webb is a former columnist and editorial writer for the 'Cincinnati Enquirer'. He lives in Alexandria, Va, USA.

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