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Opinion: The fading shine of the city on the hill
10 June 2020

For years, Armenians perceived the United States as "the land of milk and honey". In this op-ed for commonspace.eu Benyamin Poghosyan argues that throughout the post-Soviet space and beyond the image of the US is now increasingly tarnished, reducing America's capacity to use soft power to influence events abroad.

Since at least the end of the WWII "soft power" was one of the key components of United States foreign policy. America was admired by many in the world as a beacon of democracy and rule of law, where every hard working person could realize the American dream. This was especially true for the people living behind the iron Curtain. Millions dreamt about living in the United States, and were eagerly listening to broadcasts from "Radio Liberty" and "Voice of America" to better understand the basics of the Western life. Americans themselves were often thinking of America as "a shining city on a hill", which should support all people around the world to defeat tyranny, and to live in freedom and prosperity. Definitely, these idyllic perceptions were based on reality, but often amplified by ideological propaganda about the superiority of western way of life, which was an inextricable part of the Cold war reality. The end of the Cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in a much closer interaction between the United States and the post-soviet republics, including Armenia.

The US had a quite positive image among Armenians even prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was partly due to the existence of an active Armenian-American Community and Armenian lobbying organisations in the US. In 1989, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution highlighting America's support for the fundamental rights and the aspirations of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh generally, and for a peaceful and fair settlement to the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh specifically. In 1992, Congress restricted U.S. assistance to Azerbaijan (known as the Section 907 of the FREEDOM Support Act), over Azerbaijan's military campaign against Nagorno Karabakh. After allowing for a national security waiver of this provision in 2001, Congress insisted that any security-related assistance to Azerbaijan must not be used against Armenians.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union Americans were almost everywhere: experts were deployed in many governmental structures to steer the difficult transition to the market economy; USAID provided billions of dollars in programs supporting the development of civil society and implementing various programs in different sectors of economy. The United States was an indirect active participant in the domestic politics of post-soviet states, both through its official bodies such as embassies and various agencies, as well as through American non governmental organizations such as Freedom House and National Endowment for Democracy. The reports of the State Department, Freedom House, and various other US institutions became the benchmarks against which opposition leaders held their own governments to account often using them as proof of alleged lack of accountability, good governance, and of rampant corruption.

Throughout the 1990s and at the beginnings of 2000s few among the post-soviet states political establishment dared criticize the US government nor blame Washington for hypocrisy. The starting point in the image erosion of the American brand was probably the 2003 Iraq invasion, which was done without a proper UN Security Council mandate, and, as was clarified later,  justified on the false pretext of fighting against the Iraqi program to develop weapons of mass destruction. In mid 2000s several weak voices could be heard arguing that the key motivation behind the US foreign policy was not democracy promotion and the concerns about the fate of other people, but mere pursuit of its objective to control Middle East oil reserves. The 2011 NATO operation in Libya supported by the US, which resulted in the Libyan debacle that is still ongoing, has only contributed to giving credence to these views. Since the 2014 Ukraine crisis, and the subsequent tensions in US-Russia relations, Russian propaganda has fueled anti-American feelings in post-soviet states including Armenia. The US was depicted as the main source of chaos which organized coup d'etats in former Soviet republics to put them under its direct control and transform them into the launch pads for anti-Russia activities without any concerns of these policies' effects on the local population.

The election of President Donald Trump - billionaire and reality TV star tuned into politician - was however the watershed moment in tarnishing the perceptions of the US in Post - Soviet states, tumbling it from its moral high ground. Whilst  US  officials dealing with the post-Soviet countries were actively fighting against the direct involvement of big businesses into the politics, arguing that it will undermine the rule of law and will create favorable conditions for the establishment of oligarchic rule, permanent scandals with President Trump, including his refusal to publish his tax returns, the investigation into possible Russian involvement in his election victory, and the impeachment process on Ukraine related issues, have created a perception that something is seriously  broken in the US political system.

President Trump's non-stop fight with the mainstream media and his accusations that media was spreading fake news, were in sharp contrast to everything which American officials and representatives of US non governmental organizations were for decades preaching in the post-soviet countries about the significance of free media. President Trump's allegations that a so called American "deep state" was undermining his presidency steered by the former President Obama (Trump calls this Obamagate) have sent contradicting messages about the US governing system. If US law enforcement bodies had been under partisan political control, and were used to fight and discredit political opponents, than America was neither "a beacon of democracy" nor "a shining city on the hill". Many in post-soviet countries ask a simple question - "why were Americans criticizing and sometimes even sanctioning us, for alleged misuse of law enforcement bodies in political battles, if that practice is widespread there too".

In this post-truth world of emotions, facts and counter facts about the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent large scale protests, violence and looting have done little to improve the already damaged US image. Many in the post-soviet states actively compare the actions of the US riot police against protestors with activities of local riot police in similar situations, and some argue that Americans act more violently and brutally. Meanwhile, everyone remembers quite well the tough US criticism of any police crackdowns against the protestors in post-soviet states.  This situation provides fertile ground for active anti-American propaganda, and fuels accusations of US hypocrisy. Not surpassingly, spontaneous demonstrations against racism and police brutality have sprung up around American embassies also in some post-soviet countries including Armenia.

The current political crisis has hindered the ability of the United States to promote and protect democracies abroad. If domestic turmoil in the US continues, America's capacity to use soft power to influence events abroad will diminish further.              

source: Benyamin Poghosyan is the Founder and Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan

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