During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when asked whether he needed proof that Soviet missiles were in Cuba, French President Charles de Gaulle famously replied: “No, no, no, no. The word of the president of the United States is good enough for me.”
The country that commanded such respect was the one I proudly represented for nearly four decades as a foreign service officer. Sadly, the era when people around the globe trusted and admired America is of another day. We no longer inspire others or convince them of our commitment to democracy, human rights, the rule of law and telling the truth.
Our exceptionalism always rested more on adherence to principles laid out in our Declaration and Constitution than on our military might or economic power. When Lech Walesa —the shipyard worker who helped bring down the communist regime in Poland — spoke to a joint session of our Congress, he began with the stirring opening lines of our Constitution: “We the people.”
They wanted to be like us
Later, when the Berlin Wall fell and Eastern Europe was freed from Soviet domination, people there wanted to be like us. They sought democracy, a market economy, and individual freedoms. We had promised to help them achieve those aspirations, and we did so; we kept our word. With material support and encouragement from us and other Western democracies, the former members of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact made the reforms that enabled them to join the two premier democratic clubs, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union.
Another example of the value we have placed on credibility is the U.S. radio network, the Voice of America. When it went on the air during World War II, it broadcast this pledge: “The news may be good or bad for us – we will always tell you the truth.” Reliable, objective journalism remains VOA’s watchword to this day (though critics maintain – against all evidence and logic – that a one-sided propaganda tool would be more persuasive).
Our nation’s credibility suffered a huge blow during the Vietnam War as the rosy outlook pushed by senior military and civilians officials clashed with on-the-ground reporting by journalists. We eventually saw that the downbeat picture offered by reporters was far closer to the mark than the official view.
The war we launched against Iraq in 2003 was another searing example of words failing to match deeds. We said the war — which cost hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars in squandered treasure —was justified because Saddam Hussein’s had weapons of mass destruction. None was ever found.
The importance of credibility
Nations, like people, stand tallest when actions are faithful to words, when we consistently mean what we say and say what we mean. Regrettably, that’s just not the case today. One day our president suggests the leader of North Korea is a mad man; the next morning the two men are exchanging love letters and North Korea’s nuclear threat is said to be over (it isn’t).
The Kurds are valued, steadfast brothers-in-arms – until we abruptly abandon them to a doubtful fate. Yesterday we were fully committed to NATO; today we say we may quit the security alliance or cherry pick which countries to defend. Collective security is undermined because the integrity of the American commitment is put in doubt.
We embrace anti-democratic tyrants while sidelining or ignoring the interests and contributions of long-time friends. If policy is what leaders and governments say and do, the world is rightfully confused and uncertain about America’s direction. What and who are we for today? And tomorrow? How can friends and allies count on a country whose president offers threats, tantrums and unsubstantiated boasts but no clear purpose or consistent message?
Incoherent COVID-19 response
The same incoherence bedevils the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic. Bombast, dishonesty, dubious cures and disdain for scientific facts have characterized the White House effort. Instead of admitting our errors, we blame others. Once the United States led the international response to such crises; now we sulk on the sidelines and look for scapegoats. Few are impressed.
Restoring our national reputation requires returning to our core values, including credibility. That task must start at home, by leveling with the American people about the work to be done to put our own house in order. The coronavirus has revealed pervasive social injustice that must be acknowledged and seriously addressed. As Shakespeare put it, “To thine own self be true; And it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not be false to any man.”
The next American president should speak the truth, to Americans and to the rest of the world. He should not exaggerate our accomplishments or sugarcoat our imperfections. We can aspire to greatness without claiming to be Utopia. When we strive to live up to our ideals — and are honest when we fall short — the world will notice and applaud. There will be no need to blow our own horn.
Dick Virden is a retired senior foreign service officer and a graduate of the National War College. He lives in Plymouth.
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