Tag Archives: diplomacy

No Courtesy Farts: Obama Effect Gives US Diplomatic Face-lift

Barack Obama silhouette isolated on a white Had enough of the Tea Party tirades against Barack Obama?  For some perspective, take a look at what the rest of the world thinks about the United States since Obama took office:

“People around the world today view the United States more positively than at any time since the second Iraq war,” says international polling firm GlobeScan’s chair Doug Miller, after a study conducted in partnership with the Program on International Policy Attitudes (Pipa) at the University of Maryland.  The BBC notes that there can be little confusion as to the cause for this surge in popularity as the uptick in approval ratings coincided (roughly) with Barack Obama becoming president.  The improvement has been drastic and unquestionable: “America’s influence in the world is now seen as more positive than negative,” (Click here for a look at the graph) says the BBC of the results of the survey of 30,000 people in 28 countries.

There are of course going to be the isolationist, deadbeat, know-nothing boobs who shrug at this and claim that world opinion and active diplomacy do not matter.  To a chump of this breed, “us and them” thinking dominates and the outside world is willed away.  Whether they are attention whores waving their home-made signs of xenophobic desperation at anti-immigration rallies or whether they indulge in Rush/Beck/Hannity bulimia – force feeding themselves with ultra-right propaganda and then projectile vomiting, booty grazing style, across their sturdy white picket fences – the viability of their shortsighted thinking is quickly fading.

“They’ll just say that this is further proof that Obama is selling America to his wicked, socialist brethren in the empire of Europe,” said a commenter on the Rachel Maddow Blog.  These antediluvian, paranoid wrecks are as quick to fire off the “s” word as a high school sophomore is to boyfriend drop in every hallway conversation.  Newsflash: Working for better quality of life at home and reaching out diplomatically abroad is not socialism.  It is common sense.

“The idea that a better reputation abroad is meaningless uplift is foolish. It helps the US leverage its power to greater ends. The more popular the US is, the likelier it is to have a positive impact on other countries’ leaders. ” (Andrews Sullivan, The Atlantic)

Sullivan makes the point that the American face-lift began in 2007 , “when Cheneyism was in retreat, when Rice and Gates were beginning to reorient the US away from militarist adventurism, when the surge was beginning to tamp down violence in Iraq, and when the Supreme Court had begun to push back on the presidential power to torture at will. But it’s also worth noting that the gain in respect endures and strengthens as Obama holds office, at a time when every other country’s reputation is declining.”

No courtesy fart was needed after the last administration’s train wreck of a foreign policy.  We needed change.  The massive work of diplomatic reparation was before us.  And in place of cowboyish black and white rhetoric came a more nuanced approach to international collaboration:

“We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.  The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history. … Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America. … As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. … America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more. … To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”   – President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address.



Bjorn Karlman

Offend Anyone Anywhere With These Five Simple Screwups

loose gears

I really enjoy it when people get what’s coming to them. Rarely have I found this more satisfying than in cross-cultural situations when some oaf has clearly made no effort to be culturally sensitive and then suffers the inevitable backlash. Case in point: during Nato’s airstrikes against Belgrade in 1999, a Serbian friend of mine was talking about how beautiful the city was when a visiting citizen of one of the Nato member countries helpfully offered, “Well it won’t be when we are done bombing it.” The offender was shunned from that point on.

If you are reading this you probably have as little pity for this clown as I did. But what happens when YOU are the offender? There is a good chance that if you do any kind of mingling with people from other countries, something you say will upset someone. There is obviously no fool-proof way to avoid causing this kind of offense and it is possible to be too paranoid about potential insensitivity. However, there are a few avoidable moves that will frame you as a dimwitted, nationalistic philistine without a cosmopolitan bone in your body. Here they are:

Talking too much about your own country
Yes, if you are an American traveler, you will take an international beating for the reputation Americans have as loud-mouthed, nationalistic brutes whether or not you yourself have done anything to encourage this stereotype. Luckily, Barack Obama’s reversing of George W. Bush’s moronic unilateralism has made today the easiest time for Americans to travel in at least a decade. Talking too much about one’s own country is something that anyone from anywhere can be accused of. When I first moved to the US I was a little too eager to tell people about Sweden. I look back now and I am embarrassed… luckily my American friends where gracious and gave me some time to adjust to the fact that as interesting as Sweden may be, I was now living in the US and could afford to wave my own flag a little less.

Unnecessary Comparisons
This is a screw-up that is very closely linked to excessive commentary on your own country. Sometimes it is soooo tempting on overseas trips or in discussions of international flavor, to compare foreign lands to your own. Steer clear of it. If you have a local guide, they are hoping to show off their country, they don’t need to hear about yours and they certainly don’t want to hear about how your country’s architecture/health care/communication style somehow is better.

Lazy Assumptions
I got a lecture from an Argentine friend when I suggested that refined conversation was, by definition, calm and collected. She completely disagreed. Refinement, she said, did not at all come from the kind of monotone, subdued interaction that I was describing. Animation, energy, passion and dramatic fluctuations in tone and volume were not just OK, they were just as refined as anything I was talking about. I backed right down from my Northern European assumption.

Wimpy Eating Habits
Whenever my family and I visited friends’ homes growing up in Asia, food would appear. Our hosts were often intensely interested in what we thought about their food. I learned very quickly that it was NOT OK to ignore the curry and make comments about the food tasting “interesting.” If you are traveling, embrace the opportunity to try something different. Stick your neck out, puff up your chest and ask for another pupusa…

Being an Island Unto Yourself and Your Own
It’s tricky. You are a long way from home. You are homesick. And the confusing blend of new language, food, customs and beliefs has you wanting to either stay indoors or join a club that exclusively admits your own nationals. Resist this urge to hibernate. Some culture clash is to be expected. If people sense that you have no interest in reaching out and learning about your host country, they are less likely to make an effort with you.

One final word: don’t freak out if you are guilty of any of the above. International interaction and cross-cultural communication of any kind is going to involve a lot of trial and error. If you upset someone, a sincere apology is often all that is needed to move forward and enjoy the process of learning about new ways to be human.


Bjorn Karlman