An image problem
by Chris Zappone
Here is a big difference between the situation now and the situation during the Cold War:
During the Atlantic-facing Cold War, part of America’s challenge was not only to defend democracy but to defend the culture of the US from the charge that America was fundamentally uncultured. This mattered with the Soviets who, no strangers to Western culture themselves, could criticize the US for being a powerful nation without culture, and so, without merit that justifies its place in the world.
Fast forward to today: America has to defend itself against countries, on the cusp – possibly, the permanent cusp – of rising above their centuries of entrenched poverty to achieve modernity and with it, significant power. This includes nations like China where many people have known hardships that would be alien to Americans. So, in the eyes of the world, the US is the cultural hegemon and oppressor that has strayed from the path of righteous development (vide: Vietnam, Iraq, subprime crisis, etc). In the eyes of the Europeans, the US, lacking culture, is simply unduly lucky. How does America sell its image in that world? This is going to be a long-term issue for the US. State Department people will gather and confer – or at least, I assume they do.
How does the US respond to this macro change?
One answer can be seen in the optics of Obama shaking hands with the recently defeated Mitt Romney in the White House, and then touting that this is the how power transitions are handled in the US. The implication being the contrast with places like China where the recent transition was fraught with intrigue and at least one murder.