SU Strasbourg Director’s Parting Speech, Spring 2016

Spiller2Dr. Raymond Bach, the director of the SU Strasbourg Center, always gives a speech at his center’s farewell dinner. The students are set to depart from France today, bringing their semester abroad to an end. Here in New York, we wrapped up our presidential primary voting yesterday, one small part in the overwhelming tsunami that is the U.S. Presidential election circus. So it makes sense to share the words of Dr. Bach (an American who lives in France), as he reflects on how study abroad may influence the way one looks at the U.S. election:

Final Banquet Spring 2016

Friends,

As you probably know, I returned not long ago from a week on the main campus. Aside from experiencing a severe case of what the French call « un choc thermique » (a thermal shock) – when I arrived in Syracuse the snow was falling, the wind was blowing, and the temperature hovered around 11 degrees Fahrenheit – I had a second shock when I turned on the TV and all the news programs were centered on one and only one story: the American presidential primaries. There was no escaping Donald Trump (the Donald), Ted Cruz, Bernie and Madame Secretary. Wow, I thought to myself, we’re only in April with almost 6 months to go until the election, and it’s already non-stop coverage…how will the country not O.D. on this at some point? Of course, we’ve all noticed that the entertainment value of the primaries has been higher than usual, and that truly dull moments are fewer than is generally the case in these kinds of races; but even so, 6 months is a long period of time!

But where was the rest of the world in the TV news? It seemed to have disappeared. This is generally the case when it’s election time in the U.S. Most of the rest of the world also tends to be absent from the election debates. How often does one hear France mentioned in a primary debate – or even a presidential debate for that matter – unless, of course, it’s to engage in a bit of French bashing?

Jeb Bush – remember him? In case you don’t, he was once a candidate for the Republican ticket in 20….16. Well, a few months ago, Jeb, in an effort to put down his erstwhile disciple, Marco Rubio (remember him?), tried to call Rubio out on his Senate attendance record. I quote: “You should be showing up to work. I mean, literally, the Senate, what is it, like a French work week? You get like three days where you have to show up? You can campaign. Or just resign. Let someone else take the job.”

I’m afraid that this did not turn out to be a very effective strategy (and no doubt the aide who had come with this line of attack was fired the next day); for not only did Rubio execute a rapid and effective counter punch, but the French got all fired up, with their ambassador to the US tweeting: “A French work week of 3 days? No, but a pregnancy paid leave of 16 weeks yes! And proud of it.” Poor Jeb had to apologize a couple of days later for his mischaracterization of French labor law, and we all know what happened to his campaign shortly after that.

Of course, this was not the first case in American presidential politics of French bashing – some of you may remember that a member of President George W. Bush’s cabinet said that John Kerry (our current Secretary of State, but at time Bush’s Democratic opponent) was “of a different political stripe, and looks French.” (Now come on, do you guys really think that Kerry looks French? How many John-Kerry-look-alikes have you seen walking through the streets of Strasbourg?)

And more recently, Mitt Romney – again, just in case you forgot, he was the Republican nominee four years ago – put his candidacy in serious jeopardy when he said: “I have a lot of memories of France, and I look forward to occasional vacations again in such a beautiful place.” I think you’ll agree with me that that was an absolutely outrageous statement to make, right? Upon hearing it, a reporter from the Washington Post immediately tweeted: “Note to politicians: Don’t talk about France. Ever. Unless you are condemning it somehow.”

Wow! How did we get to a situation like this? (Well, I don’t really have time to go into the question now, but if you’re really interested, you’ll have to come back to Strasbourg next year for we’ll be having a new course taught by a young French history professor and called, “Hostile Friends: France and the United States, from 1916 to 2016.”)

But although Americans are generally not interested in foreign elections, the entire world, as you have no doubt been discovering during your time abroad, is interested in ours. And, as I’m sure you’ve also discovered, foreigners tend to have very strong opinions about our candidates, and sometimes even feel that they should have a say in who is elected.

Indeed, back in 2004, some of our well-intentioned friends at the Guardian newspaper in England decided that it was their duty to convince American voters in the swing state of Ohio that Kerry was a much better candidate than Bush. And thus began “Operation Clark County,” a letter-writing campaign in which the newspaper’s enlightened readers were given the addresses of less-enlightened American “pen pals” and encouraged to explain to the latter the international implications of voting for one or the other candidate.

Ok, let’s take a vote: how many of you think that this was a good idea? You’re right, for as you might expect, the American voters did not take kindly to this show of friendly concern on the part of their British allies. Here are a few of the (printable) reactions these letters elicited:

“Each email someone gets from some arrogant Brit telling us why to not vote for George Bush is going to backfire, you stupid, yellow-toothed pansies.”

“If you want to have a meaningful election in your crappy little island full [of] yellow teeth, then maybe you should try not to sell your sovereignty out to Brussels.”

“Real Americans aren’t interested in your pansy-ass, tea-sipping opinions.”

Now these were responses to Brits, our absolutely favorite foreigners. I don’t even want to think about what might have happened had it been the French who had come up with this idea. (Oh, and for the record, Clark County, after having gone for Al Gore in 2000 voted for Bush in 2004. Thank you Britain!)

But even though this particular British initiative was misguided, and clearly backfired, it does tell us something extremely important that we as American citizens should never forget: American presidential elections are in fact of direct concern to the rest of the world. The British and the French are interested in our elections because what happens in the United States has a real impact on their own countries; and the same is true for millions, even billions, of individuals beyond our borders.

Whatever one thinks of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, there’s little doubt that the current refugee crisis that’s threatening the EU can be traced to this event and to its destabilizing effect on the Middle East. And it’s likely that things would have turned out quite differently if another person had been in the White House at that time. The impact of our presidential choices on the rest of the world can be seen in nearly every policy area – climate change, global trade, finance, nuclear proliferation, drugs…you name it.

This is a fact of life in the 21st century. It’s a fact, however, that puts non-Americans in a difficult position; for if you’re being affected by the United States, and even believe strongly that the fate of the world depends on whom the Americans elect as president, but you don’t have a voice in the election, then what can you do? Are you condemned to watch helplessly from the sidelines?

There is no easy response to this question; but it’s important for all of us who do have the right to vote in November to recognize that it is a real concern.

I would, however, like to think that in some very small, though not insignificant, way study-abroad programs such as ours play a role in mitigating it; for when you spend time abroad you start to see the world from a different perspective; you start to question your assumptions; you start to understand issues that others are facing. I’m not suggesting that in your case you’ve suddenly lost your American identity and turned into spokesmen for France; but you have become more aware of the interconnectedness of the world and of the need to take this interconnectedness into account when making decisions—both personal decisions, and those that involve your political representatives.

And I am convinced that all of you are now better armed against those politicians and journalists who would try to impose reductionist stereotypes on other nations and their populations. Luckily, you have all now received the official study-abroad vaccine against bashing, whether it be French bashing, German bashing, or even American bashing.

But as even the best inoculations last only so long, I hope that you’ll come back to see us for a booster in the not too distant future. All the best !

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