In the late 1800’s, Mark Twain wrote what was a common type of literature during that guilded age, a travelogue. One of his several volumes of travelogues was called Innocents Abroad, and it was meant (like many sayings of Twain) in a rather ironic way. Of course, as someone who has traveled to many foreign countries (and who has a family trait of international travels at “interesting” times), I hardly count as an innocent.
But in another way I am somewhat of an innocent traveler. I have always traveled as a private citizen, without any kind of secret or dangerous agenda. One of the hazards of being a well-traveled American who likes to talk a lot with others from local countries is having to answer embarrassing questions about your nation. For example, when I went to Ghana in 2000, I had to answer a lot of questions from ordinary Ghanaians about American culture, particularly our television shows and films, and the trash that Americans export abroad. Not being a particularly trashy American, I had to explain that not all (or even most) Americans live the sorts of lives that are shown on television. We are thought to be a far more nasty place than many of us are, and that bothers me.
Answering questions about American politics is also upsetting. After all, a vast majority of Americans have slight to no interest in other countries or what is going on there. Even those of us who desire to know about the rest of the world have a hard time finding such information reliably. When we go to foreign countries, it is assumed that all Americans endorse the militaristic and hegemonic geopolitics of the United States regardless of which party is in office at the time. This understanding is false–but it is hard to communicate to others who are not likely to give the benefit of the doubt.
Every once in a while I read stories that greatly upset me, because they make my life is an American abroad more difficult. For example, it is very difficult to read of American Marines training Thai soldiers to kill unarmed and peaceful pro-democracy protesters as snipers . This sort of information is unacceptable because I do not believe it is the place of nations to murder their own civilians, I support, at least in general, democracy throughout the world (and not only in my own country), and because it is hard to explain that most Americans neither know or approve of such behavior. Even if I happen to dislike those people who are in office, it is the right of the people of a nation to select their leaders in the absence of direct divine rule, and people deserve to be ruled by leaders of their own choice. At least that way no one may be blamed for their failures except those that put them in office.
There are a lot of problems that result when one tries to manage the affairs of other countries to keep them as satellites and keep their elites in power no matter what. For one, it tends to make the people who desire a voice and a choice ever more hostile to one’s point of view and one’s goals, simply because one tried to enforce them by guns and military coups, rather than seeking to persuade. It is my belief that if a nation is to be ruled by another, it’s citizens should at least be granted citizenship in that larger nation so that they have some say in the matter. I do not believe that human beings have the right to rule others by coercion, whether I agree with their positions or not.
It is difficult to explain this to other people though. So many leaders pay lip service to ideals such as transparency and the rule of law when they truly desire power at any cost to serve their needs and those of their cronies. When one’s own nation seeks to prop up dictators or support overly active militaries, and then proclaims itself as the voice of democracy, it is hard for others not to see the democratic rhetoric as hypocritical and self-serving, and then to condemn all Americans for supporting and endorsing such regimes, no matter how sincere their own commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Ultimately, when we weaken the rule of law around the world, we endanger ourselves, by bringing our own standards and principles into disrepute.