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In Search of Foreign Monsters. . . .

Remind Us
Our  Own 

by J. R. Bullington

In the spring and summer of 1997, all of Italy somehow became outraged by the death sentence imposed on Joseph O’Dell, a career criminal convicted of the rape, sodomy and murder of a woman in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in 1985. Public opinion, fueled by massive press attention, prompted the Italian government to make official appeals on O’Dell’s behalf, including enlisting the European Union in the affair. Prime Minister Prodi raised the case when he met with President Clinton. Even the Pope was moved to intervene.

All to no avail. After the execution was carried out, amid prayer vigils and minute-by-minute reports by Italian television, an Italian delegation claimed O’Dell’s body and flew it to Italy on a chartered plane. He was buried in Palermo, which had made him an honorary citizen, with full honors as a victim of the “merciless and brutal” U.S. judicial system and the cruel Commonwealth of Virginia.

Most Americans would probably have been more outraged by this foreign interference in our domestic affairs if we hadn’t been so bemused by its hypocrisy, arrogance, and sheer silliness.

As Norfolk Virginian-Pilot Commentary Editor Dave Addis pointed out on March 23, 1997,

It is passing strange that Italy, a nation that cannot master the art of enforcing its traffic laws, is convinced that it is better positioned than the people of Virginia Beach, or the Commonwealth of Virginia, or the United States Supreme Court, to adjudicate a local murder case.

Even fervent opponents of the death penalty can surely recognize that Italy’s outspoken, strident support in this case did their cause no more good that it did Mr. O’Dell. Americans, like all people, tend not to appreciate foreigners telling them how to order their society or enforce their laws.

Comparable American meddling . . . .

Yet at the same time, we Americans, acting through our elected politicians, have little compunction in publicly, self-righteously, and repeatedly telling foreign countries that they must conform to our norms and values and political preferences. As former Secretary of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency Director James Schlesinger put it, there is a widespread American illusion that

. . . other nations are eager to have pointed out to them what the U.S. Government regards as their defects. (Washington Times, August 26, 1997)

Nowhere is this more evident than in our self-proclaimed “War on Drugs.” Every year, on March 1, the President is required by law to “certify” a list of twenty-seven countries as cooperating allies in that war. If they are not so designated, they face various American sanctions. In 1997, the principal controversy was over whether or not to certify Mexico. Among other shortcomings, Mexico was charged with refusing to let American narcotics cops carry arms inside Mexico.

To paraphrase the Virginian-Pilot’s editorialist, shouldn’t Mexicans find it “passing strange” that the United States, by far the world’s largest consumer of illicit drugs and therefore a nation that manifestly cannot enforce its own narcotics laws, presumes to sit in annual judgment on the anti-narcotics performance of other countries?

And what would be our reaction to a Mexican demand that gun-toting Mexican cops be allowed to operate inside the United States?

Helms-Burton hubris . . . .

Another example of this American tendency toward hubris in foreign affairs is the Helms-Burton Act, which imposes penalties on foreign companies for making investments in Cuba. This unilateral imposition of a politically driven American policy on non-American companies has drawn universal international condemnation, even from our closest friends, including Canada and Britain.

And to make matters worse, the Clinton Administration has proclaimed U.S. unwillingness to be bound by decisions on Helms-Burton cases brought to the World Trade Organization. Ironically, it was the United States that worked the hardest of any country to establish the rule of law which the WTO represents in global trade. In fact, the United States benefits most from it.

The noisy “free Tibet” campaign of Hollywood filmmakers and actors, supported by human rights activists and New Age romantics, represents a less successful (at least thus far) effort to engage official U.S. diplomacy in a way that is harmful to American interests. It is hard to imagine a foreign policy issue of less consequence to America than the system of governance in Tibet, or one of more consequence than our long-term relationship with China.

Advice of John Quincy Adams . . . .

Efforts to enlist the U.S. Government in holy (and not so holy) causes abroad are, of course, an abiding phenomenon in American history. As Spain’s colonial empire was disintegrating in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, South American freedom fighters and their American supporters, including then-Speaker of the House Henry Clay, were pressing the administration of James Monroe to take an active role in their struggle.

It was in this context that Secretary of State John Quincy Adams articulated what George Kennan cited in an eloquent Foreign Affairs article (March/April 1995) as one of the abiding, fundamental (though not always honored) principles of American foreign policy: In an address on July 4, 1823, Adams stated that

America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

This counsel of restraint remains valid today. Certainly, we have fundamental values that must be, and are, reflected in our foreign relations. International arrogance and self-righteousness, however, are both ineffectual and unworthy of a great nation. If we are not the world’s policeman, neither are we its lawgiver or its nanny.

Consider this:

  • Insofar as it had any effect at all beyond mere annoyance, did Italy’s 1997 campaign on behalf of Mr. O’Dell make it more or less likely that we will heed Italy’s advice on other matters?
  • Was this the most productive use of Italy’s international affairs resources and influence?
  • Is similar American foreign policy arrogance likely to have different results?

Amb. J. R. BullingtonJ. R. Bullington, currently Director of the Center for Global Business and Executive Education at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, is a former U.S. Ambassador and career Foreign Service Officer with extensive service in Asia and Africa. His article on ethnic violence in Burundi appeared in Vol. II, No. 2 of American Diplomacy

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