“They look at me, and they see George Bush. It’s not right. I hate George Bush.” My student was clearly perplexed, angry, and very frustrated. This conversation took place early in March, when I traveled with a group of students to the 2004 Geneva international model United Nations conference. The weather was quite cold. The wind coming off of Lake Geneva cut through us as we made our way to the Geneva Model UN (GIMUN) committee sessions.
This late winter chill was alleviated, somewhat, by the stunning view of the Alps. Snow topped and craggy, they provided a majestic backdrop for our meetings. The conference took place at the Geneva UN Headquarters. We were well versed in Geneva’s importance in international politics. After World War I, The League of Nations convened here. After World War II, Geneva became the largest UN location outside of New York.
We were the only delegation from America and our number was in the minority. Like it or not, we stood out at the meetings with a presence that belied our number. Still, for the most part, we were treated in a friendly fashion. So, what was the problem? Although we got along well with our European hosts, we were always considered the “American Group”. We had to face the repercussions of a long-standing European wariness towards Americans; and we had to face the fact that the Bush Administration’s policies have turned that wariness into open resentment. Americans have always been uneasy with, and often downright hostile to the idea of the United Nations and multilateral diplomacy. Europeans suffered the horrors of two world wars that devastated their continent. During the Cold War, their homelands became potential nuclear battlefields. Europeans were quicker than Americans to appreciate the benefits of diplomacy and détente with the Soviet Union.
Currently, the Bush Administration exemplifies the worst of American traits: it is arrogant, dismissive of international opinion, and aggressively unilateral. Furthermore, they reject international accords such as the International Land Mines Treaty, the Kyoto Environmental Accords, and the International Criminal Court. This Bush unilateralism, or perhaps we should call it “Bushilateralism,” plays poorly in Europe.
Denying Bush’s re-election bid will go a long way towards cleaning up America’s negative image in Europe. Bush’s defeat will pave the way towards building, or re-building, the European-American relationship. Only when crisis strikes abroad, or at home as on 9/11, do Americans recognize their woeful lack of understanding about other countries. Consequently, Europeans view Americans as arrogant, oblivious to world events, and willfully ignorant of others’ traditions, beliefs, and ideas about the world. In the past, as American journalist Thomas Friedman noted in his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree (Anchor Books, 2000), members of the US Congress bragged about their lack of international experience. The international community can only deplore a nation, however powerful, whose elected representatives boast, to paraphrase Friedman, “I’m-an-idiot-and-proud-of-it congressmen/senator and don’t own a passport and have never been outside of this country,” and then go on to willfully ignore the wants and needs of the rest of the world.
Further trumpeting such ignorance, last year you may recall the furor to call French fries into “Freedom Fries”. This year, since the Democratic candidate John Kerry speaks fluent French, the Bush campaign has attempted to disparage his bi-lingualism. Doesn’t Kerry seem, they have asked, a bit, too French? And Kerry’s advisors have warned him not to demonstrate this ability. (New Republic, 12 April 2004) What a terrible thing, to have a president able to converse in another language!
Americans need to cultivate the study of other cultures, traditions, and languages into their lives. During the Geneva Conference my students were amazed by the fact that their peers in the committees spoke two or three languages, in addition to their native tongue. Many people that I have met and spoken with during other European trips have often apologized for their “poor English”. When they apologized, I met their apology with an embarrassed smile, painfully aware of my own lack of linguistic ability.
If President Bush had attended our Geneva conference, he might have noted that most participants spoke English. In English he would have heard angry European denunciations of his Administration. Dr. D. Warner, Deputy Director of the Graduate Institute of International Studies noted that, in today’s world “No country can establish hegemony. Many of us will continue to support mutlilateralsim, despite the American attempt to marginalize us. . . (and that) Terrorism is not just physical violence, it is refusing to negotiate with others.” Professor P. Allan, Dean of the Economic and Social Faculty of the University of Geneva, compared the American administration to the Prussian military leader Frederick the Great, “playing in a sandbox with toy soldiers”. And Mr. Cornelio Sommaruga , President of the Karl Popper Foundation, argued that the Bush administration should not “abuse the term humanitarianism”, and that their “actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and in holding the Guantanamo detainees are no less serious violations of human rights than those that took place under communism”.
These remarks demonstrated that Bush’s policies have deeply drained the European pro-American, post-9/11 reservoir of support. After the terrorist attacks of 2001, people around the globe said, “We are all Americans, now”. Not only Americans were killed that day, but people from over 80 other countries, as well. There was broad international support for going after Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The world united against the violent, destructive politics a group that clearly held no respect for the cultures, religions, and lives of others.
Thanks in large part to Richard A. Clarke’s Against All Enemies Inside America’s War on Terror (The Free Press, 2004), and Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack (Simon and Schuster, 2004), we learn that the US President, Vice President Richard Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others in the Administration were determined, before 9/11, to go into Iraq. No one regrets Saddam Hussein’s ouster. But the Administration’s use of 9/11 to cover its Iraq adventure demeans the memory of those who died that day. I completely disagree with Professor Warner’s view, expressed at the conference, that refusing to negotiate with others is “terrorism”. This view of Bush’s unilateralism is extreme. Yet the US President doesn’t see that only via multilateralism can we build a world where people may finally reject violent politics.