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The US Lacks Credibility, but All Is Not Lost

The US still retains a reputation as an influential and potentially positive partner, according to a poll that surveyed youth from across the Arab world, but its tendency to harshly criticize other nations on human rights, while violating those rights itself, has damaged the country’s standing. If it is to stand up to its rivals’ accusations of hypocrisy, the US must take steps to live up to its own values.

Statue of Liberty, head detail © Jody. /

June 29, 2023 00:53 EDT

A recent poll of Arab public opinion suggests US credibility has taken a hit, but all is not lost—that is, if the United States realizes that Middle Easterners judge the US on glaring inconsistencies in its domestic and foreign policies rather than on its cultural, technological and economic attributes.

Hypocrisy weighs on the US’s global reputation

The discrepancy between US policies and professed values has always existed. However, it’s become more evident and relevant, and more of a liability, in the past 22 years as a result of the War on Terror, rising Islamophobia, the war in Iraq, US reluctance to confront Israel head-on and, most recently, the war in Ukraine.

In addition, China did not loom so large in the past in the competition for influence in the Middle East. Arab nations were on the defensive in the years after the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington.

The United States’ credibility problem is compounded by what Dino Patti Djalal, former Indonesian ambassador to Washington, and Michael Sheldrick, co-founder of Global Witness, see as more broad resentment in the Global South against the West. In an op-ed, Mr. Djalal and Mr. Sheldrick noted that

The West is perceived to perpetuate double standards on issues ranging from climate action and responsibility to trade and accountability for human rights violations … They called for global solidarity during the pandemic while instead often pursuing vaccine nationalism. Western nations preach free trade but increasingly engage in protectionism.
… While Westerners may see public criticism as a regular diplomatic practice, it is seen by many (in the Global South) as false righteousness, devoid of genuine partnership.

Against that backdrop, the latest Arab Youth Survey conducted by public relations agency Asda’a BCW indicates the credibility problem the Biden administration needs to address to narrow the gap.

A healthy 72% of the survey’s respondents identified the United States as an ally. Even so, the US ranked seventh as an ally behind Turkey, China, Britain, Germany, France and India.

That does not mean that the US is perceived to have lost influence in the region. 33% named the US as the most influential power in the Arab world, followed in second place by 11% pointing to the United Arab Emirates.

It does not mean that most youths want the US to retain its influence, either. 61% of respondents said they would support US disengagement, even if more than 60% believe the US will be a more important ally than Russia or China in the next five years.

Likewise, the US at 19% ranks second, behind the UAE’s 24%, as the country Arab youth prefer to live in. The same is true for which country youth would like their country to emulate.

In other words, its often unexplained contradictions in policy are catching up with the United States, but it retains sufficient ground to bridge the gap if officials recognize that credibility has become far more critical in a world of competing powers.

“Perceptions of Western hypocrisy in the Global South, compounded by bitter memories of past interventions, have made our divided world even more polarized and have pushed old friends and partners to turn to new sources of development finance that come with less baggage and fewer strings attached, at least in theory,” Djalal and Sheldrick said.

Moreover, the lack of credibility turns public criticism of human rights abuse and other illiberal and autocratic policies and actions into a liability rather than an effective policy tool.

The US must begin to practice what it preaches

Ideally, the United States and other Western nations would align their policies with their professed values. Of course, that would require an ideal world. The demands of realpolitik and increasingly polarised domestic politics ensure it is, at best, wishful thinking. But there are things the United States and others can do, at home and abroad, some of which are low-hanging fruit.

The Biden administration could take heed of this week’s United Nations recommendations to end in Guantanamo Bay prison “cruel, inhuman, and degrading” violations of detainees’ fundamental rights and freedoms, including constant surveillance, grueling isolation, and limited family access.

Guantanamo, home to the last 30 men detained as military combatants in the War on Terror since the 2001 al-Qaeda attacks, long symbolized to many the perceived hypocrisy of US advocacy for adherence to human rights. Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the UN’s special rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism, made her recommendations following the first visit to the prison by UN experts in more than two decades.

In addition, the United States, together with its Western allies, could enhance its credibility by living up to promises like the pledge to provide $100 billion in climate financing to developing nations and to ensure that countries from the Global South have a seat at the table.

Western leaders have begun to acknowledge that the ball is in their court. In February, French President Emmanuel Macron told the Munich Security Conference that he was “shocked by how much credibility we are losing in the Global South.”

Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, echoed Mr. Macron at the same event. “We cannot think about European security without looking at the global scene and engaging with other partners. I see how powerful the Russian narrative is, its accusations of double standards. We have to dismantle that narrative, cooperate with other countries, accept that the UN structure must be adapted,” Mr. Borrel said, referring to demands that the Global South has a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

The United States’ key allies, the EU and Japan, appear to have taken the lead in attempting to regain credibility and trust. So far, they have taken small steps, but, by and large, they have yet to put their money where their mouth is. For the effort to gain momentum and for the United States to benefit, it needs not only to get on board with what Djalal and Sheldrick describe as “a thousand-mile journey,” but to get in the driver’s seat.

It takes only a glance at the Arab Youth Survey to conclude that the stakes are high in the Middle East and across the globe. Credibility matters, perhaps more than ever since World War Two.

[The Turbulent World first published this piece.]

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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