Is Foreign Policy an Extension of Who We Are, or an Exception to Who We Are?
I’ve had close relationships with immigrants most of my life, first with my family, then with my college friends, and most recently with my wife and her family.
What I’ve observed is that most immigrants have a complicated relationship with the US. I’ve heard immigrants talk about how much they hate America, and the very next minute how much they love America.
For some, this sounds crazy. I have to admit, it’s taken me a long time to understand and explain this apparent paradox. Rest assured, these people are being completely honest, and they aren’t crazy. So, how can we make sense of this contradiction?
Coming To America
When an immigrant sees the US, they see the opportunity to become a part of this nation and all that it promises. A nation built on values, full of opportunities, and always welcoming people from around the world to join its ranks.
For my father and his friends growing up in Syria, becoming American was a dream they all aspired to achieve.
For my father, this dream has been realized, and his life in America stands in stark contrast to his upbringing in Syria. He loves being able to practice his faith and question his government without fear of getting arrested, tortured or even killed. He loves how he can get a driver’s license or a passport without bribing government officials. He loves that his children and grandchildren have access to a quality public education, even college and medical school.
Mostly, my father loves how he and his children are now also Americans. I still remember the excitement he felt as a new citizen, when he heard that President Ronald Reagan would be visiting upstate New York. He rushed to an event to see him. When he returned home, he shared with pride that he was able to shake the President’s hand.
However, his relationship with the US hasn’t always been a positive one.
After my father’s side of the family fled their homeland in the Caucasus, in the late 1800s, they ended up finding safety and a new home in the Golan Heights. There, they and their fellow Circassian refugees built a new life where their language, stories, and traditional dances were kept alive and passed on to the next generation. My father was the second generation born in the Middle East, in the newly founded state of Syria. However, their quiet pastoral lives were about to be turned upside down.
In a twist of fate, it was another oppressed people’s quest for a return home that would displace my family. The State of Israel was founded by a 1947 UN resolution. The United States supported that resolution and was also the first nation to recognize Israel. As a result, multiple wars broke out between them and the neighboring Arab states. In the 6-Day War of 1967, the Golan Heights got caught in the crossfire. The Israeli army gave the Circassians villagers an ultimatum, leave or be killed. Most left and were never able to return, including my father and his family. The dozen or so Circassian villages that existed prior to the 1967 war were reduced to two, and the vast majority of Circassians in the Golan Heights became refugees, yet again.
It’s Not Them, It’s Us
The truth is that the United States, and in all fairness most countries, suffer from the national equivalent of Multiple Personality Disorder. We have a gentle and caring domestic personality and a cold, calculating and sometimes ruthless international personality.
Domestically we believe in and practice equality and justice, and guarantee individual freedoms. Most powerful of all, we invite immigrants and their children to become Americans themselves.
However, internationally our commitment to human rights, equality, and justice aren’t so consistent. We support dictators when they serve our interests and assassinate others when they don’t. We allow one oppressive dictatorship to develop nuclear weapons and we attack another one under the false pretense that they’re developing these same nuclear weapons.
For people like my father who dreamed of being an American, who struggled to come here, and who made it, experiencing all the blessings this nation has to offer, they’re filled with this feeling of extreme gratitude.
However, for him to see how these values aren’t extended to others around the world, including his family members that still lives abroad, he feels a sense of betrayal. A betrayal of the values the nation he loves claims to champion.
The Thin Line Between Love and Hate
But isn’t that the complexity every American experiences? At times we love what our government is doing, at other times we hate what it’s doing. Maybe that’s the lesson here. None of us absolutely loves or hates our country. Our minds are full of conflicting feelings, which change from administration to administration, from policy to policy, and sometimes from day to day. Our unity and love for this country is fed by those universal values etched into our Constitution.
We feel this acute sense of pain and betrayal when our country doesn’t live up to these spoken and unspoken promises. Isn’t it only natural that immigrants would also feel this pain? The only difference I see is that immigrants see our foreign policy as an extension of who we are, rather than an exception to who we are.
Which leaves us with some important questions. Is our foreign policy a representation of who we are as a nation? Should we care? Are there ways for our foreign policy to be more consistent with our national values? Do we put ourselves in danger by having a truly values-based foreign policy? How do we balance national interests and national values? Is the empathy that immigrants have for humanity, as a whole, a model for the future of our foreign policy? Do these people endanger our safety? Or do they guarantee our long-term safety and survival?