Foreign Influence Dispatch Ep030

Protests Continue • Contact Tracing In Singapore • Restoring the US Reputation

Thanks for reading the Foreign Influence Dispatch, the newsletter of the Foreign Influence Podcast! Here’s our follow-up to episode 30 with links and additional commentary. A bit USA focused again this time, but lots of action there. A bit too much. Let’s go…


George Floyd was laid to rest yesterday. Floyd, of course, was the man killed by a police officer during an arrest which has sparked off two weeks of protests against police brutality, particularly against blacks.

Like many Americans, I’ve really struggled these past two weeks. F*ck, I’m angry. Sad. Disappointed.

Although I’m not on the frontlines of any protest or having to put a stop to looting (and I certainly don’t have to contend with racism in policing directed at me), it’s still horrible to be abroad and watch your country get torn apart from the inside, struggling with racial fissures and injustices that - no matter how many years and words we throw at them - we seem incapable of resolving.

As I’ve mentioned on the podcast a couple times, we’re moving back this month to the US, and many friends here have asked why we wouldn’t look for ways to stay abroad? Why not wait until these tensions and the violence have calmed down? Especially given the erratic, insufficient, and highly politicized response in the US to the coronavirus? (For whatever reason, Americans seem to be okay with the level of death we’re seeing and ready to move on. 🤷🏻‍♂️) Are you crazy?, they ask. It’s a hot mess of violence, disease, economic calamity, and broken politics!

It’s hard not to say that’s a fair question. After all, think if you were reading news reports about a country that was in the state the US is right now. Would you consider moving there?

My guess is no. You’d wonder, “Who in the hell would ever choose to live there?!” (Some might even call it a hellhole or a shithole.)

Well, if you’re American, now you know the answer.

Because, no matter the flaws, it’s where you came from. It’s family. It’s friends. It’s roots.

It’s home.


The Reputation of the US on the Global Stage

The US is not unique in struggling with racism, racism in policing, or with police brutality. But we sure do like to present ourselves as uniquely special. Good old-fashioned American exceptionalism - the “shining city on the hill” and all that.

The thing is, many people abroad do still view the US as a model. I’ve had more than one person express disillusionment and disappointment with the US to me. And of course, you can only feel those emotions if you thought highly of it before.

Some polling backs these anecdotes up. According to the Pew Research Center’s latest Global Attitudes Survey, a majority (54%) of people worldwide still have a favorable view of the US:

Publics around world express little confidence in Trump but maintain relatively favorable views of the U.S.

Of course, at the same time, I’m sure you’ve already spotted that they don’t think much of Pres. Trump. He can claim, as he always does, that the US is getting more respect around the world. But it’s not true, and he’s a big part of the reason. I can think of a fellow American saying something like, “Hey, he didn’t run as president for the world!” Okay. But don’t delude yourself into thinking he’s improving our image abroad.

Now, of course, police violence, rioting, and looting don’t help with our international reputation, either. But as we discuss in this week’s episode, I don’t think that will be decisive on the world stage. After all, America has been through this before. Some argue that we’re entering a new Cold War with China. (I sure as hell hope not.) During the prior Cold War with the Soviet Union, we went through the tumultuous 1960s - with war protests, protests and uprisings over racial oppression (making today’s events even more depressing), and political assassinations. (At least we haven’t gone that far yet.) Through all of that, the US kept some of its global standing. We can do it again.

In case you’re interested, here are the results of Pew’s global survey on China. It’s more mixed and basically breakeven.


In here, I see a lot of history and current geopolitics. For example, Japan and China are not always on the best terms - see: World War II. And China has made special efforts to cultivate relations in Africa, which seem to be paying off.


Solutions to Police Violence

Since the protests against police brutality began, I’ve had a handful of arguments with people about what is justifiable and unjustifiable in these situations. I cannot condone looting and rioting, and I refuse to choose sides that require you to compromise morally. That said, in a conversation with a friend on Twitter, I was persuaded to accept this:

As a society we pour all kinds of resources into, and generally heap all kinds of respect on, these people. In return, we can reasonably expect them to be better.

Brutality by authorities is no way to create lasting trust and peace in our communities. There’s an old joke about workplaces that can easily be repurposed here:

Our police must be seen as serving the community, not as an occupying force (like militaries are seen in war zones). If any given set of cops are not up to the job, then they should get the hell out.

To accomplish this goal, “defund the police” has become the rallying cry of many protestors. I think that’s unfortunate. It’s an unrealistic policy goal to me. But certainly police departments can be dissolved if they’re too far gone with violence and/or bigotry. In fact, we have a successful example from Camden, New Jersey. I urge everyone to give this story from NPR a listen.


Comparing Cop Killings

One way the US is indeed exceptional is the level of gun violence committed by police and, seemingly, Americans’ tolerance of it. As discussed in the episode, this story from Vox lays it out and includes this chart from the Economist magazine:

The Economist police shootings

This is not a record to be proud of. It certainly begs the question of what’s wrong with Americans. Are we an exceptionally violent people that requires this sort of counter-response? That strikes me as unlikely. As the Vox article lays out, the far more likely reason is the prevalence of guns in the US:

Another way of looking at that: Americans make up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet they own roughly 45 percent of all the world’s privately held firearms.

We are practically swimming in weaponry. And as with every social crisis, we’re stocking up on even more.

Gun advocates tell us more guns make us safer. It doesn’t seem to be working.


The Ugly Truth

To wrap up, we featured audio of a man being pushed by police in Buffalo, New York. He tripped after being shoved, and his head violently hit the concrete. It’s sickening. I’m not encouraging you to watch it, but it helps to understand what’s happening.

Just to be clear, there are many, many examples of peaceful black protestors being injured, as well, including in New York City. This particular incident in Buffalo has caught the public imagination because it was caught so clearly and graphically on video - as was the seeming indifference of the police to the man’s injuries.

Cellphone video has truly been the game-changer in the recent movement for racial justice in police treatment. Of course, video/film made all the difference in the protests of the 1960s, as well.

Seeing is believing. And horrifying. And activating. Let’s hope it’s reforming.

Singapore and Wearable Contact Tracing

Also in this week’s episode, we discussed contact tracing and how it’s being implemented in the fight against SARS-Cov-2. Singapore tried to get people to install an app - TraceTogether - that would help track coronavirus cases by showing who had been near one another.

But not enough people installed it, in part because Apple’s security features wouldn’t let it work in the background on an iPhone. So now the country is turning to wearable devices. It’s unclear exactly what they will look like, but as we talk about, hopefully it’s some sort of cool helmet with antennae.

The Great Gazoo™ from the Flintstones™. Yeah, I’m a Gen Xer.

Links to other stories we discussed

France has had its own struggles with protest and police violence, especially during the “yellow vest” protests. That includes the incident Nikolaj mentioned in which Pres. Macron faced criticism for seeming to blame an elderly protestor for her own injuries at a demonstration.

It turns out Nikolaj was right about the British colonies in North America being a destination for many convicts. Apparently up to 10% of people coming to the future United States from Britain during much the 1700s were convicts. In fact, Australia only started its history as a penal colony because of the American Revolution. You learn something new every day!

If you wanted to find out more about the Dutch prime minister changing his mind about “Zwarte Pete” in the era of Black Lives Matter, look here. White people dressing up in black face is also an issue in Belgium.

Finally, in our good news, we noted that South Korea has given ten thousand masks and other personal protective equipment to US Native American veterans as a thanks for their service during the Korean War. These soldiers were known as “code talkers”. Native American languages were largely unknown outside the US, so they were perfect for communicating sensitive military information. I knew they served in the two World Wars, but didn’t know they served in Korea and Vietnam.


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