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Through a global lens

Former British Prime Minister David Cameron prompts an Elon discussion about the role of the United States in a turbulent world.

Former British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Elon on Oct. 5.

Current events paint a bleak picture of life in the United States. The “Unite the Right” white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia; close to 60 people killed and hundreds more injured in Las Vegas in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history; the country’s plan to withdraw from the Paris climate accord; and the threat of nuclear war with North Korea are just a few of the recent pressure points in a divisive national landscape. 

But alongside that dismal narrative, the values that have always guided American democracy still thrive. People continue to fight for the freedom and equality of marginalized groups. Hard work and creativity drive new discoveries and innovations. Good Samaritans routinely spring to action to help strangers during times of crisis such as natural disasters.

At Elon’s Fall Convocation in October, former British Prime Minister David Cameron urged the United States and the United Kingdom to hold fast to the values that have made them great as they confront a wide range of conflicts and challenges worldwide and at home. “We need to be more like us, the real us,” said Cameron, who stepped down from his post a little more than a year ago. “Yes, hard-working, pioneering, independent, creative, optimistic and can-do. But also the guardians of freedom, of tolerance, of equality of opportunity and justice. These are the things that made our two countries great. In all the change and uncertainty around us, hold fast to those things. They are what made America, and for that matter, Britain, great, and if we believe in them, work for them, fight for them, then we really will be great again.”

Cameron drew upon his time serving as political leader of the United Kingdom from 2010 through 2016, a period that saw him shepherd economic and cultural changes in his country after becoming the youngest prime minister in nearly two centuries. He served as leader of the Conservative Party for 11 years, and took office as prime minister during a time of economic crisis in his country. He’s credited with reducing the country’s deficit substantially during his time in office while leading it during a period of record-breaking job creation and economic advancement for the U.K.

Cameron acknowledged the world is experiencing a time of political and cultural turmoil, but said he does not share the pessimism of many. “When you take the temperature of the times we’re in, I don’t deny that the symptoms are very grave,” Cameron said. “But what I do dispute is the diagnosis that many seem to offer.” It’s important to stand back and look at the achievements of modern society in recent years, including advances in public health worldwide and efforts to address global poverty, Cameron said, adding that technological changes have improved our lives in countless ways. “All these good things didn’t happen in spite of our values,” Cameron said. “They happened because of them.”

Cameron detailed three things to do in the face of modern challenges—to understand what lies behind the current unease about globalization, to win the argument, again, for the right values in our politics, and to establish clear thinking about the most important challenges that lie ahead.

Turning to globalization, Cameron acknowledged the role immigration played in the “Brexit” vote that saw British voters supporting his country’s exit from the European Union. That was a step Cameron campaigned against, with the results of the vote prompting his departure from office last year. Voicing his continued support for globalization, Cameron said as prime minister he traveled the world promoting British business, and encouraged other countries to invest in the U.K. That said, he supports “responsible capitalism” that includes pushing for paying taxes, encouraging trade and promoting transparency on a global scale, all priorities he pushed for during his time in office.

However, the pace of change globally has been too fast for many to keep up from a cultural standpoint, he said. An increasingly diverse society in many countries has bred division and given rise to identity politics, Cameron said. “We want countries that are strong and cohesive, where we integrate and build something together,” he said. “Frankly we all need to give up forever divisive and ultimately destructive identity politics. We’ll never build strong societies by emphasizing our differences and exploiting them for political gain.”

Shifting to the core values in today’s politics, Cameron said it is essential to focus on freedom under the rule of law, a priority he said was passed along to him by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He argued against increasing polarization in today’s politics, in the U.K., in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world. “We must not fall for the extremes,” Cameron said. “The center is often the toughest place to be. It’s where you have to balance interests, where you make tough decisions, where you weigh out what is right, and it’s where you get things done.”

Looking at what lies ahead, Cameron identified two great challenges—renewing support for aid and development on a global scale and fighting Islamist extremism. It’s easy to have “giving fatigue” and solely focus on domestic problems while ignoring the impact a country can have on those around the world. “There’s a powerful moral argument that we should love our neighbor, whether at home or on the other side of the world,” Cameron said. With Islamist extremism, it’s important to separate out the religion from the extremism, to “revere Islam but attack Islamist extremism,” he added.

Cameron called on American leadership to help overcome the struggles that the world faces, and said the U.S. will have “no more resolute partner than the United Kingdom.” Though the strong partnership between the two countries was never a given, Cameron said, they have shown what can be accomplished when they work together. Recounting that relationship, Cameron described it as “one giant global exchange of ideas, talent, trade, compassion, and underpinning all of that, values, the values that formed our Magna Carta and your Declaration of Independence, the values that we need as we survey the state of the world today.”

In their own words: What lies ahead

As the United States redefines its role in the global stage in the 21st century, we asked members of the Elon community to share their views on how international perceptions of the U.S. are evolving. 

Worldly perceptions

By Laura Roselle | Professor of political science and policy studies

Perceptions of the United States have changed significantly in the past year according to diplomats and surveys done by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan American think tank based in Washington, D.C., that provides information on social issues, public opinion and demographic trends shaping the United States and the world. Particularly among allies, U.S. foreign policy goals are unclear and there are questions about the ability of President Donald Trump to manage international conflicts.

The Pew Research Center has studied global attitudes and trends for a number of years. The 2017 data show that favorability of the United States and the U.S. president have “shifted dramatically downward” and “concerns about American power and influence have risen in countries around the world.” The often argumentative rhetoric by President Trump in his pronouncements about global affairs have likely contributed to this, as has his perceived lack of diplomatic experience and temperament. Increasingly, members of both U.S. political parties are focusing on the need to attend to important international issues with diplomacy rather than bluster, a healthier strategy since diplomacy helps establish a shared understanding of issues and the range of potential solutions.

My research on strategic narratives—the ability of a leader to articulate a clear and compelling vision and strategy for the future of a group—suggests that all of this is important because international relations is affected by narratives about state identity and perceived prestige and credibility of states in the international system. The credibility and prestige of the United States are suffering. That said, many around the world respect the values often associated with the United States. The 2017 Pew Global survey shows that positive views of the American people and American culture have not deteriorated. This ties into former British Prime Minister David Cameron’s call to the values of a robust democracy, a free press and the rule of law, during his visit to Elon. His appeal to bolster support for freedom, tolerance, equality, opportunity and justice suggest that U.S. prestige and credibility are tied inextricably to these values. It can be argued that by upholding these values, the American citizenry can therefore strengthen the role the United States can have in the world.

Laura Roselle is the author of “Media and the Politics of Failure” and the recently published article “Strategic narratives and alliances: The cases of intervention in Libya (2011) and economic sanctions against Russia (2014),” published in the journal Politics and Governance. She is the co-author of “Strategic Narratives: Communication Power and the New World Order” and co-editor of “Forging the World: Strategic Narratives and International Relations.”

From dream to reality

Marina Agaltsova ’10 | Public policy 
Human rights attorney in Russia

As a Russian national, my personal perception of the United States has been shaped by my experiences in and outside of Russia. But for most ordinary Russians, that perception depends a lot on the information they get from various sources, mainly mass media. As such, this mainstream perception is not only a reflection of the U.S. but also of Russian society.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, which happened during my early childhood, the U.S. was perceived as the “dream country.” People believed that basically everything—wages, food, housing, economic, political and human rights conditions—were ideal in the U.S. This positive outlook remained for more than 20 years, so when I was admitted to Elon University in 2006, it was a big deal. Attending an American university was considered very prestigious and my parents were very happy and proud of me. It wasn’t until I was living in the U.S. that I realized it was far from being an ideal country. Racial segregation, poverty and immigration issues were common problems. However, these issues were not shown by the Russian media, and therefore did not affect the mainstream opinion.

The change in people’s perception started in 2010 when the U.S. adopted the so-called Sergei Magnitsky Act, which banned several dozen Russian officials from entering the U.S. Russian mass media started to harshly criticize the U.S. government. After the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the U.S. adopted sanctions against Russia, and the Russian state-owned media launched a successful campaign against the U.S. It seems that nowadays, the perception of ordinary people resembles that of the Cold War era, when the U.S. was seen as an enemy. Not surprisingly, when I was invited to come to the U.S. for several weeks this past summer, my parents, who hold the mainstream opinion, asked me whether I would plot against Russian interests during the visit. My parents’ question reflects the fear nourished by the Russian media that the main U.S. objective is to destroy Russia.

As someone who studied public policy at Elon and now works as a human rights lawyer in Russia, I deal with international law and politics daily. My views—shaped by critical thinking skills and an understanding of global perspectives, which I learned at Elon—are quite different from the mainstream. The U.S., together with a number of European countries, supported Russian non-governmental organizations that dealt with the most severe cases of human rights violations. Neither the Russian state nor Russian businesses are willing to support this work. President Barack Obama was constantly pushing Russia to observe human rights, with the Magnitsky Act and Crimean sanctions becoming the climax of the criticism.

When Donald Trump became president, I thought he would work to improve Russian-U.S. relations at the cost of advancing human rights efforts. If the past year has been an indication of what’s to come, I can certainly say I was half right. I was right in supposing human rights are not President Trump’s priority, either at home or abroad. And despite my hopes that the relationship between Russia and the U.S. would improve, it has significantly worsened.

An evolving perspective

Ian Henderson ’02 | Business administration
European corporate real estate and facilities manager at Enterprise Holdings based in London

The 20th century saw the United States rise to the position of power and standing in the world that most reading this magazine have enjoyed during their lifetime. We were the world power but it seems failed wars and poor attempts to stabilize the Middle East, gun control, racial unrest and recent political antics, not to mention the inability of Congress to act, have brought about a degeneration of the perception of our country. Living in a place where there is frustration and discord over the “Brexit” vote, United Kingdom nationals still want to converse with Americans to better understand what it is that our country is doing at times, and why. They’ve just voted to leave the European Union after being a member for nearly 40 years, but would rather talk to me about how a political outsider like Donald Trump could be elected president.

My family and I have only lived in the U.K. for two years and I felt I had a good sense of world affairs before moving here because of family trips, spending my summers as a teenager in Scotland and a study abroad course my senior year at Elon. But even in this short time as a resident, I realize how much my perspective has evolved. I’ve learned just how American-centric my knowledge and thoughts were. Two months after moving to the U.K., the Paris attacks happened and nearly every American was aware of it. But how many Americans knew about the Ankara bombings in Turkey that happened just one month before and left 100-plus dead and 500-plus injured? Gradually, I began seeing the world through a different lens, a world the U.S. is a part of, not the main actor. 

Don’t get me wrong. While the United States is not the global power, we are still a global power; being the largest economy in the world as it relates to nominal gross domestic product helps guarantee that. I still feel strongly that the United States is important, but not nearly as much as I used to. We still have a large part to play in the future of the world and will continue to be given a seat at the front of the table. However, we need to recognize that there are others at the front of the table alongside us.

A values-based outlook

Amy Jo Jenkins ’05 | Journalism andinternational studies
Business activities director for U.S. Navy Morale, Welfare and Recreation at the Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy

In today’s world, it’s quite easy to create a list of negative perspectives about the U.S., especially from a non-American point of view. But considering I’ve spent the past nine years working and living in Japan, Bahrain, Djibouti and now Italy, I want to focus on the positive aspects of the U.S. in the world. A quick informal poll of my international friends and colleagues showed me that my perspective was similar to theirs. Their thoughts on positive global contributions ranged from music, cinema and television to human rights and military, including disaster relief, rescue efforts and aid. Most could not believe how massive and diverse our country is, and applauded our acceptance of all types of diversity (cultural, racial, geographical, socioeconomical). Even today countless individuals still flock to the U.S. seeking asylum or in hopes of creating a better future for their family. Many even join our military and eventually obtain their U.S. citizenship. About 35,000 non-citizens are serving in the U.S. military. What a remarkable opportunity for them, their families and our military.

One aspect I find interesting, though not surprising, is that literally everyone I have met in my travels says how nice Americans are as individuals. We’re honest, trustworthy, hard-working, positive and always seem to be smiling. Although our country tends to get an unfavorable reputation on the world stage (usually thanks to politics), we are respected as individuals, especially those in the military providing aid to other countries, such as was the case after the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Our armed forces protect our “unalienable rights” to include “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I have witnessed this firsthand as I am fortunate to not only support our military and their families abroad by providing quality of life services, but also to serve as a positive American role model in the world.

During my time at Elon, I was part of the 2001 pilot program for an international dorm and had a Japanese roommate, Rieko. We quickly became close friends as we explored the differences between the two cultures. I was intrigued by how she learned English; she explained that the Japanese are fascinated with all aspects of American culture, and therefore music and television series were very popular. She watched the TV series “Ally McBeal” and listened to music in order to gain a better understanding of the English language. Looking back on my travels, I cannot think of one country that didn’t have American music or TV programs playing in bars, restaurants or stores. Most globally engaged citizens may not be able to agree on positive U.S. contributions regarding our government and politics, but I have yet to find one that doesn’t appreciate our altruistic military response to disasters nor one who doesn’t indulge in some form of the arts from the U.S. American music, TV and cinema bring people together, inspire people and, yes, also help people improve their English.

Fading leadership

Jasmine Whaley ’13 | Political science and international studies
Social media coordinator for the Do School and a Masters of Public Policy candidate at the Hertie School of Governance in Germany

There is very little doubt in Europe that American leadership is fading. Those who still believe in the European project believe the European Union must step up and redefine global leadership without America at the forefront. It is difficult to say if the world would be nominally “better or worse” without American leadership. For all of our mistakes, American leadership has been a stabilizing and reliable force in international decision-making. Should the U.S. government recede from international cooperation efforts, as the current political rhetoric suggests, the global community runs a very real risk of creating a power vacuum where populism and extremism can flourish.

The risk to peace and security is compounded when we consider the current state of Europe. From the U.S., we often think of the continent as a monolith. Living in Germany has given me an appreciation for the incredibly real tensions that exist between domestic policies and EU-level governing. There are real divisions within Europe that make this a particularly volatile moment for America to depart from its traditional role. To be clear, the U.S. has gone through periods of isolationism and the world has continued to spin without our wisdom and authority. The issue here is the perceived fundamental and blatant disregard for the international norms that we helped to create.

For many on this side of the Atlantic, it is shocking that the most powerful country in the world would prefer to completely ignore the dangerous trends toward instability around Europe in the middle of the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II (the Syrian refugee crisis), on the heels of a global recession and at the beginning of a dangerous uptick in populist sentiment. Just look at the rise of the Alternative for Germany party, which recently earned parliamentary representation after taking 12.6 percent of the vote in September’s election. If the U.S. is so willing to walk away from the values of freedom, justice, peace and security that are at the core of the American identity, one has to wonder if we really deserve to lead at all.

A shared community

Bo Hardegree ’10 | Strategic communications and religious studies
Director of Marketing & Communications at Concordia International School Shanghai

Before moving abroad, I was very fortunate to experience many different countries and cultures from around the world. Between my Elon Winter Term study abroad courses in London and Australia and a number of family vacations over the years, I thought of myself as a worldly and experienced global citizen. But the truth is, I never experienced the world outside of the lens of a tourist. Moving abroad and living in Shanghai, China, has completely reshaped my perspective on the world and what it means to be part of a global community. I work in marketing and communications for an international school and am involved with an international church that brings people from all countries and Christian faith backgrounds together. It has become my job and my life to communicate with individuals from various cultures and meet them in a shared global community.

Living in Shanghai has also allowed me to better understand the role of the United States on the global stage. The U.S. holds a special, and sometimes controversial, place in the minds of people from all over the world. We are lauded and appreciated for our accomplishments and humanitarian works and recognized as a business hub that helps drive the world economy. We are also seen as a global power that sometimes inserts itself without warrant where it is not needed or appreciated. Love it or hate it, everyone has an opinion about and has been influenced by the United States.

Never before has the world seemed so large and so small to me at the same time. My eyes have been opened to the joys and struggles of individuals from Asian, African and European countries that were just words in news articles before, bringing life and weight to the experiences of other cultures. At the same time, I have been able to see my country through their eyes, a country that influences the world and inspires emotions and actions, both positive and negative. There is so much more in this world to learn and experience and so many amazing people to meet. I’m just now starting to understand and embrace what it truly means to be a citizen of the world.

Keren Rivas,
11/17/2017 10:50 AM