After eight years of "bring it on" foreign policy, forgiveness for the U.S. around the world is perilously low. Data published in the spring showed that roughly one-half of people from the 17 foreign countries surveyed view our global influence as "mainly negative," and a 2005 survey of 16 nations (the most recent data we have) found that most people perceive us as "greedy" and "violent." Clearly, U.S. demand for forgiveness has outstripped supply.
These depressing survey statistics aren't just about our place in a global popularity contest -- they're a real problem with real consequences for American influence in the world. Our next president, whoever that turns out to be, should put some effort into rebuilding our strategic forgiveness reserve. So as we enter the heat of the campaign season, I'd like to offer a little tutorial about forgiveness and its relevance to public life and foreign affairs -- call it "Forgiveness 101" -- to the two men who'd like to be our next president.
We Need to Clean Up Our Messes. Fair compensation and reparations are vital for repairing relationships after we make innocent people suffer. Such reparations can be politically and financially costly, but they extinguish the desire for revenge and they promote reconciliation and forgiveness, which can prevent more expensive problems later. To see how patriotic this idea really is, read up on the Foreign Claims Act that Congress established on the eve of our entry into World War II for compensating the inevitable innocent victims of our wartime actions.
Mind the "Magnitude Gap." Humans are naturally inclined to experience the harm they suffer as more painful and more egregious than their perpetrators do. Likewise, perpetrators are motivated to down-play how badly their victims have suffered (look at how hard it is to discuss, or for that matter, even agree upon a label for, the Armenian genocide). Understanding and anticipating this "magnitude gap" will lead to more productive conversations after other nations take actions (violent or otherwise) that harm our interests, and vice versa.
Strong Governments Control Revenge Like No Other Institutions Can. From Rwanda to Iraq to Darfur to Kenya's post-election violence earlier this year, revenge thrives where governments are weak, mistrusted, and ineffective at enforcing the rule of law. We should try hard to support stable governments that are relatively corruption-free and effective at protecting individual rights -- even if we don't agree with everything they stand for. When good governments collapse, people turn to revenge to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their political interests.
Freer Trade, For All of Its Drawbacks, Will Make the World a More Forgiving, Less Vengeful Place. Free trade is a political hot potato because it means short-term pain for American workers and the prices that American goods can fetch. However, one beneficial side effect of freer trade is that our interdependence with other nations will increase as we increasingly rely on their workers and their markets, and they on ours. Nations typically try to avoid escalating conflicts with their valued trading partners, so freer trade will likely make the world not only wealthier in the long run, but safer too.
Don't Be So Paranoid About Apologizing. Finally, here's some advice that will help American foreign policy and your own political hide. American public life is littered with the ruined careers of people who refused to apologize properly after their misdeeds and public gaffes. Although it's normal to want to hide your mistakes, you need to apologize quickly and forthrightly after the truth comes out. Politicians who know how to eat a little crow can usually win back our respect.
In the modern geopolitical environment, the concepts of revenge, forgiveness, and reconciliation are moving out of the pulpit and the pages of literature and into the realms of public policy and foreign affairs. Forgiveness is, as Archbishop Desmund Tutu said, "realpolitik." The ability to control revenge and broker forgiveness among groups in conflict is a crucial, though underappreciated, element of statecraft.
Electing a president who can rebuild our domestic reserves of this precious resource is a matter of national interest and global security. As we come to grips with worldwide shortages in food and energy, we need to realize that forgiveness is another vital resource that's currently in short supply. Fortunately, it's a renewable one. And the sooner we resume our status as a net exporter, the better.
Michael E. McCullough is a professor of psychology at the University of Miami, where he directs the Laboratory for Social and Clinical psychology. His new book is Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Visit him at www.beyondrevengebook.com.
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