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To restore our national reputation, we must return to our core values

American flag
REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

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).

Dick Virden
Dick Virden
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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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/27/2020 - 09:48 am.

    Agreed…

  2. Submitted by LK WOODRUFF on 05/27/2020 - 11:24 am.

    What an excellent article. Please, everyone, keep it in mind when voting in November. We have the collective power to change things, to swing them around to a pwat that works for the general public. Please use it thoughtfully and with great care. The USA has been much better and greatly admired. We can be again.

  3. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 05/27/2020 - 11:48 am.

    If one would poll:

    Question 1: Truth is good:

    Question 2: Lies are bad::

    I believe we would exceed 90% on the side of truthfulness.

    It’s finding it and agreeing to it that seems to do us in.

    Whether Trump, Obama, Pelosi or McConnell the ability to distort the truth without consequences is the heart of the problem.

    I do think truth will make a comeback post-Trump, both in volume and merit: part simply because of no more official DJT tweets etc… And part because of a recognition on all sides that truth has gone off the rails of late and we need to do better.

    This needs to be reinforced by no longer allowing the liar to lie and then run and hide without bearing the consequences of the lie: Trump is physically and psychologically incapable of the act of RETRACTION: “I misspoke, the true fact is…”.

    Trump has not benefited from the COVID press conferences: facing questions he can not offer a coherent, non-snarky answer to is a good thing to shine the light on truth.

    Post-Trump, allowing the President to go weeks / months between open questioning (as Obama and Bush both did) needs to end. Regularly answering to the press and answering to the legislative branch (see the Prime Minister’s Question hour in the UK) is critical.

    The single biggest fear of any politician is to be made to appear a fool: if you lie we will show you to be a fool….

  4. Submitted by Constance Sullivan on 05/27/2020 - 02:59 pm.

    None of us should let stand Mr. Blaise’s gross misstatement implying that any former or current politician in this country is as devoid of the capability of truth-telling as Donald J. Trump. There is no comparison in our nation’s history.

    While all politicians sometimes hedge the real facts, the good ones go beyond themselves and their personal political careers to stand up for our values. Not Trump. Not in any way, or for any occasion.

    The erosion of our nation under Trump is breathtaking. Not even Richard Nixon comes close, in his destruction of our national integrity. And our image abroad.

    We are now pitied by the world.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 05/28/2020 - 10:14 am.

      “None of us should let stand Mr. Blaise’s gross misstatement implying that any former or current politician in this country is as devoid of the capability of truth-telling as Donald J. Trump. There is no comparison in our nation’s history.”

      Don’t think I said that. I do believe our fact checking resources are somewhat reliable. And they tell us that Trump lies (distorts) at a 65% or so clip. Obama, Bush and previous Presidents at a more modest 30% or so rate.

      And while I would welcome a return to that rate, The theme of my comment was that I would hope that we could do even better in a system that puts a greater emphasis on truth and greater consequences for lying.

      Trump is the all time statistical outlier for lies and distortions. To pretend that only our political opposites engage in the practice to some extent while politicians we agree with are all truth and light is a stretch.

      Can we agree that we reduce the 65% to the historical 30% with our November election and then work to improve from there?

  5. Submitted by Scott Barnard on 05/27/2020 - 07:38 pm.

    I agree with your perspective. Unfortunately, it appears that around 43% of Americans are not committed to “democracy, human rights, the rule of law and telling the truth”. Their values apparently center around increasing their own personal wealth, power, and belief in their superiority over everyone else in the world. Their undying support of Trump suggests that to achieve these goals they are fine with cheating, lying, bullying, and oppressing anyone that seems to get in their way.

    These are the hardcore values of a huge minority of Americans. This is what America is really like. The rest of the world has know this for quite some time.

    Get use to it, because these folks will not eventually hear enough reasonable arguments, reflect on their misplaced values, and change their ways of thinking. They are going to do whatever they can to keep what they have and to get as much more as possible.

    Trump has never been a leading indicator. He has always been a mere reflection of the values, aspirations, and fears of 43% of Americans. Get use to it. They won’t be changing their values, they won’t be going away, and they will not back down without a fight.

  6. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 05/27/2020 - 10:43 pm.

    This is a country that says it values freedom, but put its native inhabitants in internment camps (reservations), brought in slaves to create a southern aristocracy and denied women the vote for more than half of our history.
    I agree with all the sentiments except the part to returning to American values – there has been a lot of saying one thing and doing another.

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