Americans, this is who you are

Jul 20, 2018 by

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My American friends have been apologizing for how their president is behaving on the international stage — castigating Canada, undermining NATO, praising dictators, starting trade wars.

“This is not who we really are!” they exclaim.

To a certain extent, they are right. The U.S. has shown itself to be, time and time again, a generous and giving nation. It is the largest provider of food aid, for example, and is among the first to respond after humanitarian disasters.

On the other hand, they are wrong. Those of us who are not Americans know, only too well, the ugly and mean side of the U.S., too.

Don’t get me wrong; we appreciate and respect America, and are grateful for its help. But we also fear it, knowing it can turn on us at a moment’s notice.

The latest outcry by my American friends is over Russian meddling in the U.S. election. They fill my social media feeds with articles condemning the way Russia interfered in the 2016 vote.

I sympathize with them. It is wrong, and their anger is justified.

But we non-Americans know only too well that when it comes to meddling in the elections and affairs of other countries, the U.S. is truly No. 1.

This has been pointed out by Dov Levin, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University.

Through his research of election interventions between 1946 and 2000 by both the U.S. and Russia, he found there were 117 of them in 60 countries. The majority, 69 percent, were done by the U.S.

According to Levin’s research, countries where secret tactics were used by the U.S. included Guatemala, Brazil, El Salvador, Haiti, Panama, Israel, Lebanon, Iran, Greece, Italy, Malta, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, South Vietnam and Japan.

In writing this, I’m not passing judgment on the U.S. When it comes to international relations, all countries look out for their own best interests. And I’m not justifying Russian interference in U.S. elections.

And, of course, not all Americans support the actions of their government.

I’m just saying that American anger rings hollow when you consider how many times the U.S. has done the same thing.

And so do protestations about whether this truly represents who and what America is.

Just over 30 years ago, as a Mennonite Voluntary Service volunteer, I directed a peace center in Dallas. Working with Americans who supported the center was an illuminating experience — especially in Texas, where defense put the big “D” in Dallas and where, it was joked, “the Republicans are really Republicans, and most of the Dem­ocrats are, too.”

When I asked them how they had changed their minds — how they had come to believe that peace was better than war — they almost all told me the same thing.

They had discovered their country had lied to them.

By that they meant that all the things they learned in school and heard in church, the media and from their government about how great and wonderful and only and always beneficent America was weren’t necessarily true.

Through reading, attending events or talking with others, they came to see that their country had done bad things around the world. It wasn’t an unvarnished “beacon on a hill.”

This didn’t mean they didn’t love their country or hope for its best. They simply saw that things were not as they had been led to believe. And they wanted to do something about it.

Perhaps this experience with President Trump, and with Russian election interference, will do something similar for many others.

Then maybe more Americans will say, “Yes, this is who we are, and we want to be better.”

John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank and chair of the Mennonite World Review Inc. board of directors.


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