Can America, a nation that claims to be leading the world and dominating the global economy, really function while mocking the notion of relationship?
CNN has been following the White House’s accounts of conversations between President Donald Trump and European leaders unhappy about the trade war he has initiated. In an article on June 4, CNN quotes the White House’s slightly disingenuous readout of Trump’s telephone call with French President Emmanuel Macron: “Both leaders discussed the migration problem in Libya, and timelines to solve it. President Trump underscored the need to rebalance trade with Europe.”
The readout for his call to British Prime Minister Theresa May states that Trump “further underscored the need to rebalance trade with Europe.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Use one’s position of power to change the rules at will after unilaterally affirming that the current distribution of relative advantages is unfair
Demonstrating a more realistic reading of geopolitical trade, Macron offered a different analysis of the question of balance: “This decision is not only illegal, it is a mistake for many reasons. It is a mistake because it responds to instances of imbalance across the globe that exist in the worst way through fragmentation and economic nationalism.” In other words, Macron agreed that there is a problem of imbalance, but not the one Trump thinks he has identified. In fact, he claims it is just the opposite. When developed countries with flexible economies engage in trade wars, they exacerbate the protectionist trends that are excusable in weaker economies.
Signaling the communication failure between the American and French presidents, CNN comments, “Macron thought he would be able to speak his mind, based on the relationship. But Trump can’t handle being criticized like that.”
Just when we started thinking that Trump might be beginning to realize how important relationship building and management is — at least in Asia — this incident demonstrates a fact well known to students of intercultural science: Asian and Latin cultures have at their core the notion of relationship, accompanied by a sense of mutual and collective responsibility. US culture, in contrast, is task-based. To the extent that they exist, relationships are defined by the respective interests of the individuals or parties. An individual first defines personal interest without respect to relationships, then addresses the tasks to be executed. Americans tend to consider the idea of playing on relationships as favoritism and, therefore, as cheating or corruption.
As the world’s first republic founded on the principle of democratic representation, Americans put the ideal of impartial justice at the center of their political ideology. Directly challenging the European class system, the drafters of the US Constitution produced a document in the name of “we the people,” which made no distinction between classes, clans, interest groups or even political parties, which the founders consistently warned against. (The Constitution itself, however, did maintain a strongly affirmed distinction between citizens and slaves, establishing the notion of white supremacy.) This focus on blind justice and equal status before the law instilled in the culture a defiance of the very notion of relationship.
As the nation grew, the challenge of managing a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities combined with the commitment to equality before the law, thus weakening even further the status of relationship in US culture. The pragmatic sense that other cultures notice as an attribute of “the American way of life” comes from the sometimes obsessive focus on tasks, on achieving a stated goal, rather than cultivating relationships. It’s a culture of “getting” rather than “relating.” “Get down to business,” “get the job done,” “get the show on the road,” “get your act together,” “get ahead” — all these expressions tell us that building relationships might be fun or flattering, but we mustn’t forget it can be a waste of time. And of course, “time is money.”
Worse, a sense of relationship can lead to one of the gravest of all sins: compromise. Every individual feels defined by the duty — even the task — of maintaining one’s principles come hell or high water, which often translates as “standing one’s ground,” not giving in, “sticking to your guns,” “fighting the good fight.”
This doesn’t mean relationships don’t exist or that compromise isn’t a part of everyone’s social and professional life. It means the principle of focusing on the task and defending one’s interest comes ahead of loyalty in the framework of any relationship. I once asked the manager of a gas station in the California desert about the stated policy of refusing checks. He replied, “I wouldn’t accept a check from my mother.”
In short, Macron’s rather servile — or more likely devious — attempt to cultivate a relationship with Trump backfired because Macron believed that relationship counts, only to learn, to his expense, that Trump is the archetypal American, the incarnation (even to an excess) of US cultural values.
There is, of course, one area of American activity where the importance of relationships has traditionally been understood: diplomacy. But even there Americans in the past have tended to be superficial in their efforts of relationship building, emphasizing coercive power rather than empathy. But Trump eschews the very idea of diplomacy, as former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson discovered to his own chagrin.
The final question is this: Can a nation that claims to be leading the world and dominating the global economy really function while mocking the notion of relationship and actively undermining those that exist?
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.