What the rest of the world knows (but we don’t)

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President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky holds an American flag gifted to him by U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-California, as he addresses a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 21, 2022 in Washington, D.C. In his first known trip outside of Ukraine since Russia invaded, Zelenskyy met with U.S. President Joe Biden and outlined Ukraine's request for continued military aid. (Photo by Win McNamee | Getty Images)

Americans took the bait.

That’s the bad news. The good news is just as simple (more on that in a moment).

Sadly, our online addiction has helped fuel a crisis of confidence in democracy, and that’s literally by design. It’s as obvious as a sunrise to those who sit beyond the shores of America, and it’s a fact that was emphasized time and time again when U.S. Ambassador to Slovakia Gautam Rana visited Billings last week.

Playing on America’s penchant for conspiracy, nations like Russia and China have used troll farms, or a network full of people posing as Americans online, to spread disinformation and conspiracy theories to cause unrest and division. Certainly, this is not a new concept, but it’s one we haven’t fully wrapped our minds around.

The goal is simple and effective: Distract and distort to make it easier for these world bullies to traipse around the globe with less interference from America. And, if authoritarian governments like Russia, led by President Vladimir Putin, or China, led by Xi Jinping, can make democracy or America appear dysfunctional and ineffective, that makes their efficient but brutal tyranny look not-so-bad by comparison. It’s a fancy of way of saying the old Western phrase: I may be going to hell, but I am taking you with me.

It’s not that America is some giant kum-ba-yah exercise. We’ve historically had division, tumult, and racial problems. We are, after all, a nation founded by non-conformists, dedicated to doing things their own way, which leads to plenty of disagreement.

Yet, Rana seemed to bring back an overseas message that rang clear: We don’t see — or even more dangerously, we don’t believe — what other nations see clearly about America. Many of the divisions that seem endemic to our politics have been exacerbated by enemies who want to see the United States devolve into chaos and in-fighting. It’s in their economic and political interest.

“Russians are very, very effective at this,” Rana told me in a one-on-one conversation. “That’s Putin’s background with the KGB.”

United States Ambassador to Slovakia Gautam Rana speaks at a presentation on the campus of Montana State University-Billings on April 10, 2024 (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

The problem: A bunch of misinformation and disinformation is easy, but the answer may be equally straightforward (and that’s the good news). Rana said that while candidates like Donald Trump may try to convince us that America’s standing in the world has cratered, I’ll take my cues from Rana, who has lived in more foreign countries than most of us have visited. America is still seen as a generous ally, and people still want to emulate the type of country we have here.

I am not sure we can hear that often enough.

If we know that the divisions that are being created by political parties and online are, in part, magnified and exacerbated by those who want to create division for the sake of division, then the answer is to look beyond the differences, and instead, focus on the things on which we can agree, even if those topics seem fleeting.

What Rana hinted at is that there is still common ground in America. For example, even though we may disagree about all the solutions at the United States’ southern border, Congress proved there were programs and solutions that could garner bipartisan support. And racial inequality and unrest is something that is routinely exploited by Xi and Putin, and yet those challenges are well-known in America because there is no other country that has such diverse cultural backgrounds.

The answer isn’t to regress into a sort of tribalism that wallows in a pit of grievances, rather it is to recognize our diversity as an inherent strength. The answer, in other words, isn’t to become less diverse, it’s to become more, proving that a more perfect union can be achieved by more than just the brutal force of a dictatorship.

What Rana sees from his vantage point in Bratislava, not so far away from the horrible war in Ukraine, is that America hasn’t had this kind of opportunity for world leadership since World War II.

“NATO is stronger than it’s ever been, and I don’t think Putin counted on Sweden and Finland joining and I don’t think he counted on that,” Rana said. “I think he’s been surprised by the heroism of the Ukrainians. I don’t think he counted on that.”

And all we have to do is look to why Ukraine is fighting so hard against a nation that country has been historically aligned with for centuries.

“It’s because of democracy. They have great aspirations,” Rana said. “People are watching us and asking, ‘What’s going on?’ And my reply is that we’ve always had these fluctuations. We fought a horrible Civil War. We get stuck in the now like everyone.

“But take a look at the institutions of America — they’re very, very strong.”

Even if we doubt ourselves, the rest of the world doesn’t.

The post What the rest of the world knows (but we don’t) appeared first on Daily Montanan.