In 2009, my America – the one that I grew up with, knew and loved so well – is not as visible around the world. Born from a storied revolution that launched an ongoing pursuit of freedom, democracy and equality, my America offered hope and inspiration everywhere.
Now, though, the United States faces unacceptably diminished credibility and respect. This nation’s reputation has been tarnished in particular by the experience of recent years, when combative, unilateral behavior prompted irritation, confusion and alienation in far too many places. In the end, superpower though it may be, America is more feared than admired. That situation must change.
As President-elect Barack Obama prepares to take office, the United States has an opportunity to right the wrongs of the recent past, to retrieve the practices that made this nation great, to restore the balance. The undertaking requires a deft, tactful hand. For guidance, I turned to a much-admired figure in U.S. diplomatic history, Harriet Elam-Thomas, a former ambassador to Senegal. She cemented her credentials just over a year ago, when she received the U.S. Department of State Director General’s Cup, an honor reserved for those who have made major contributions to the advancement of U.S. foreign policy.
Elam-Thomas starts by stressing that “we do not hold a monopoly on history, culture or tradition. There are numerous communities and countries that display legacies more vast and varied than our own. We have as much to learn from them as we have to share with them.”
Our crucial task, she says, is to heighten America’s respect and credibility with current and potential allies abroad. In reaching for that goal, she explains, we cannot profess that we are a tolerant nation so long as we, for example, profile certain ethnic and religious groups. Rather, we must listen with empathy, speak with sensitivity and act with humility. To bolster America’s respect and credibility in the global community, Elam-Thomas advises the incoming Obama administration to:
1. Engage in genuine dialogue, for mutual understanding cannot emerge if the approach is one-sided. That means avoiding the temptation to impose U.S. views and traditions on others.
2. Push U.S. diplomats to study more extensively and absorb the political and cultural climates of their host countries. A better, deeper understanding of others’ experiences will improve American diplomats’ ability to offer clear insights about the United States in a constructive manner.
3. Provide the necessary resources for diplomatic leadership. Well-trained, serious and sincere professionals, along with a significant number of citizen diplomats, will heighten our chances to improve the United States’ standing abroad.
4. Demonstrate trust, respect, reasoned reflection and humility.
5. Support exchange programs to ensure that we will secure the benefits of Americans studying abroad and foreign students coming here, as well as the long-term, positive relationships that such experiences tend to encourage.
6. Expand public/private partnerships to make global connections, whether one is talking about techniques for welcoming visitors to America or training people to be more effective internationally. Such partnerships will help as the United States strives to mend its global image.
The mere mention of those ideas tempts me to think optimistically about the revival of my America, the one that I grew up with, knew and loved so well. By taking such steps, the new administration would add a welcome chapter to the continuing U.S. story, and – once again – offer hope and inspiration everywhere.