We Americans routinely speak about American values and the American dream, but what about the American message to the world? If America is still to be the “shining city on a hill,” and the “beacon…for all who must have freedom,” its people, its leadership, and its presidential candidates must take steps to ensure its continued respect and admiration throughout the world.
Given the intense political rhetoric in the United States today, particular throughout the campaign trail, it is worth collectively pausing to reconsider how America appears to foreign publics. Though some may argue this doesn’t matter, it is absolutely critical that the US incorporates these perceptions into policy planning, so that policies reflect the reality of the environment they are meant to affect.
We can probably all agree that when people make choices, businesses decide where to invest, or countries choose sides, America should be the preferable choice to Russia, China, or ISIS. So what does it take to maintain the effectiveness of the American message, and the sharpness of its soft power edge? Credibility, leadership, and attractiveness.
Credibility is the sanctity of America’s word. It is the worthiness of America’s commitments. It is the trustworthiness of the American promise and the sincerity of its threats. Credibility is the principle that when the United States Government says something, it is believed.
When it comes to credibility, America faces a variety of challenges. It is challenged by the scourge of extremist and Russian propaganda, and audiences which are doubtful of its message and intent. Understanding why this is the case is key to counteracting these negative forces.
The credibility America has should not be taken for granted. Building international credibility takes resources, time and dedication.
In order to preserve its credibility, the United States must undertake actions which neither sew doubt in the minds of its allies nor its enemies. It must stay true to its word, by enforcing its red lines and upholding its end of the international agreements to which it has committed. This includes the Iran Deal, imperfect as it may be. Any responsibility for the possible failure of this agreement must be placed squarely Iran, not the United States. Tearing up a multi-party agreement, fought for by both the US and its allies, threatens to destroy the credibility of US negotiators in the future. It will demonstrate to the world that the US is not a trustworthy negotiating partner, and does not uphold its commitments.
As the world’s sole superpower, the US also has a responsibility to lead. The world looks to America to follow its example and its lead, and when the US abdicates that responsibility, the consequences can be dire. In today’s world, the US must lead on climate change, it must lead in governance, it must lead militarily and diplomatically, and it must lead on protecting the rights of the individual—because no one else will. America is in a position to set an example for the world, and it should set the example it wants the world to follow.
The US role in the Libyan conflict has raised a great deal of criticism over its leadership in recent years. If the US strategy is to encourage burden sharing, and to ensure its NATO allies and other partners in the world accept their fair share of responsibility for security, it must work with those partners every step of the way on continuous and coordinated strategies. The US does not have to be at the forefront of these security operations, but it can be at the forefront of planning, strategy, and coordination. That can be leadership.
All of these things lend to America’s attractiveness, or soft power. The draw of America must neither rely solely on its military prowess nor its economy. The United States of America stands for more than that. It stands for the rights and freedom of the individual, regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. This is the draw of America—that anyone can pursue happiness and prosperity, and achieve the American dream. It should not torture its enemies. This inherent goodness is what inspires people around the world to follow America’s lead, and that should not be forsaken.
The United States benefits from immigrants, including Muslims. It should want the best and brightest, and those that work hard, whether intellectually or physically. But this cannot be a free-for-all, and laws must be obeyed. A sovereign state must have sovereign territory, and that means the legal authority to decide who to let in, and who to keep out. And because not everyone can be let in, it’s worth considering how to peacefully expand the American dream to those beyond its borders.
When it comes to the American message, the things we say at home are heard abroad. This matters. This is a nation founded on principles—principles it should uphold not just when it is convenient, but when it is hard. That is what makes America great, not playing on the enemy’s terms. If America is going to continue to be great, and it is great, its people must adhere to the nation’s founding principles, and lead with dignity, respect, strength, and care for the planet on which they live.